Canada’s federal election campaign highlighted a struggle that caught the world by surprise. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on the ropes throughout the campaign, just four years after his meteoric rise to power and global fandom, even though he ultimately managed to win a minority government.
His struggles did not come as much of a surprise for Canadian progressives, however, who first helped propel him to those heights four years ago.
Trudeau returned his party to power with a majority government by appealing to an electorate that was more than weary of almost a decade of right-wing Conservative rule. Trudeau came to power with incredible fanfare after an election victory in October 2015 that saw Stephen Harper’s Conservatives voted out.
The world sat up and took notice, in part because Trudeau’s famous father, Pierre, had been swept to power in a similar fashion in 1968 amid a wave of what was known as Trudeaumania.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau also had a progressive platform and, for a time, enjoyed a rock star-like popularity among Canadians.
That victory more than 50 years ago laid the foundation for 16 years of nearly uninterrupted Liberal rule under Pierre Trudeau, who was the architect of multiculturalism in Canada and further committed the country to peace-building and a rules-based international system.
It’s a vision many Canadians came to embrace, but one that Harper’s Conservatives, in power from 2006 to 2015, seemed determined to systematically replace. In this way, the election of Justin Trudeau seemed for many to be a repudiation of the Harper agenda and a return to the normalcy of Canada’s past.
Canada is back
At first, Trudeau seemed unable to disappoint. He could not have appeared a starker contrast from Harper, regarded by many Canadians as cold and uncharismatic. Youthful, charming and handsome, Trudeau’s progressive messaging immediately stood apart from Harper’s. His policies appeared to do so, too.
This included immediately opening Canada up to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, which Harper had initially appeared reluctant to do. Trudeau even went to Toronto’s airport to welcome some of the first refugees, saying: “You are home.”
Trudeau’s Liberals emphasised a multicultural Canada that would be open to refugees. This diversity would be represented in their government, too. In contrast to some Conservative leadership candidates’ embrace of Islamophobia and a “barbaric cultural practices tip line”, Trudeau’s government included a record number of Muslim MPs. Trudeau also became the first Canadian prime minister to march in a Pride parade.
His government legalised cannabis sales and reversed Harper’s anti-science restrictions on research. It increased immigration quotas and reasserted Canadian support for multilateral institutions and international law. This seemed like a return to form for Canada on the international stage and Trudeau emphasised this by saying: “Canada is back.”
Trudeau ran in 2015 on a message of environmental protection, support for Indigenous nations in Canada and global feminism. This included instituting a feminist foreign policy agenda and a reorientation of Canada’s development aid programming on a Feminist International Assistance Policy. When asked why he established gender parity for his first cabinet, he famously retorted: “Because it’s 2015.”
For liberals around the world, Trudeau seemed to represent everything the new president was not. Before long, Trudeau became a global symbol in the worldwide struggle against the rise of authoritarianism, populism and white nationalism. Canadians largely seemed happy with his leadership and his government rode high in the polls. His popularity only seemed to skyrocket at home and abroad with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016.
Foreign policy questions
So what happened? Why did Trudeau have to fight for his political life this election against the Conservatives, the New Democratic Party and a resurgent Bloc Québécois, a separatist party that only runs candidates in Québec?
As often happens in Canada, questions about Trudeau’s progressive credentials arose in the Middle East.
Being progressive in Canada often includes support for Palestinian rights. This was in part a result of Harper’s very partisan pro-Israel approach to governance, which included a crackdown on Canadian advocates for Palestinian rights.
Though Trudeau’s Liberals did reinvest funds that Harper’s Conservatives cut from Palestinian refugees, progressives quickly noticed how Trudeau and his government would go out of their way to attack Canadians who advocated for Palestinian rights. This was accompanied by robust diplomatic support for the policies of the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, who was the antithesis of everything Trudeau was supposed to represent.
In region after region, Liberal foreign policy appeared to come out of the Harper playbook. This included Canada’s participation in a campaign to force regime change in oil-rich Venezuela and approving record weapons sales to a notorious human rights violator, Saudi Arabia, as it wages a brutal war in Yemen.
Even Trudeau’s feminist foreign policy seemed hollow.
What good did it do for Yemeni women whose communities are being destroyed with Canadian weapons, Palestinian women shot for protesting the blockade on Gaza or Venezuelan women impoverished by a Canadian-backed economic blockade?
The death of a brand
From his rapid retreat from a campaign pledge for proportional electoral representation to his odd fascination with fancy dress and concerns about the sincerity of his progressive credentials, cumulative questions arose about Trudeau domestically.
Two particular events, though, were critical to undoing his progressive brand.
First was his government’s $4.5 billion purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline from US-based corporation Kinder Morgan. This was highly unpopular with environmentalists and the First Nations communities it would run through. This raised serious questions about Trudeau’s commitment to fighting climate change and helping Indigenous Peoples, too.
Second was his government’s attempt to halt criminal proceedings into Québec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin for overseas corruption. This led to the resignation from the cabinet of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first Indigenous minister of justice.
She complained she was pressured into considering a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin, and was joined in solidarity in her departure from the cabinet by another of Trudeau’s most prominent female ministers, Jane Philpott.
Both were then pushed out of the Liberal caucus, topping off a scandal that raised questions about Trudeau’s commitment to corporate good governance, women’s empowerment and Indigenous leadership.
The campaign trail emergence of images of a younger Trudeau in blackface was also shocking to progressive voters. The photos decidedly tarnished his image, both at home and abroad.
Progressives looking elsewhere
Canada is a diverse country with a diverse electorate. Many Canadian voters, and the core Liberal constituency, still supported Trudeau. This kept him relevant in the 2019 election campaign. A late campaign endorsement by former US president Barack Obama also served as a reminder of what Trudeau still symbolises to many liberals around the world.
Though Trudeau’s struggles may seem surprising, the inability of his government to truly address deep structural inequalities and income insecurity in Canada fits a pattern of the fracturing of the political landscape of nearly every other liberal democracy. This plagued Obama’s administration as well.
Having a family name and background that symbolises privilege, in a world where wealth inequality and nepotism have become such divisive topics, hasn’t helped Trudeau.
Dissatisfied with Trudeau, some of Canada’s large progressive electorate, as well as Québec voters, began to look elsewhere —to the New Democrats and the Greens, and in Québec, to the resurgent Bloc Québécois, which took particular advantage of Trudeau’s missteps on the environment.
Trudeau had problems this election because he lost part of the progressive base that put him over the top in 2015, and because the Bloc turned out to be a bigger force in vote-rich Québec than expected.
Jeremy Wildeman is a research associate in international development, University of Bath.