Andrew Potter: Our leaders are weaponizing our national divisions

Canada is not only more divided and polarized than it was in 2019, it is more divided than it has been at any time in the last half century.

By: Andrew Potter

In the closing days of the 2019 federal campaign, a clearly deflated Justin Trudeau admitted that national unity had suffered under his watch. He told reporters that his early ambition as prime minister had been to bring the country together, yet now, he mused, “we find ourselves more polarized, more divided in this election than in 2015.” 

As he continued: “I wonder how, or if, I could have made sure we were pulling Canadians together?” It marked a rare moment of introspection and acknowledgement of personal responsibility from a man who, throughout most of his time in public office, hasn’t shown much inclination for either. 

This time around Justin Trudeau isn’t feeling remotely thoughtful or conciliatory. At a recent Liberal campaign stop, the CTV reporter Kevin Gallagher noted the extreme levels of anger and even hate that have been on display during the election, and asked him whether he took any responsibility for it, and what he might have done over the past six years to counter or minimize that rise. Visibly annoyed with the question, Trudeau replied, “I will never apologize for standing up for what’s right,” invoking his steadfast defence of abortion rights and his opposition to conversion therapy. 

It’s a bit of a strange idea, that the anger on display over the past few weeks and months can be chalked up to agitated pro-lifers and homophobes, but the exchange was typical of Trudeau’s approach to this whole election. While his formal pretext for paying a visit to Rideau Hall was to earn a mandate for the hard decisions on major issues such as climate change and the ongoing pandemic response, his actual campaign has focused very little on these topics. Instead, Trudeau has chiseled away at tried-and-true wedge issues (gun control, health care) while doing the usual Liberal suck-and-blow of pandering to Quebec nationalists while demonizing Albertans as un-Canadian.  The result is that Canada is not only more divided and polarized than it was in 2019, it is more divided than it has been at any time in the last half century.

But surely this isn’t all Trudeau’s fault, you may say. When it comes to negativity, division, and cynicism in federal politics, surely it takes two (or three, four, or five) to tango? Of course. Canada is a country riddled with fracture lines, and rather than seeing this as a problem to be solved or managed, our divisions and differences are being treated by all of the major political parties as opportunities to be exploited. 

Part of this is just the way federal politics has evolved under our electoral system, which encourages regional concentrations of a party’s voter base at the expense of a more broad national coalition. This, in turn, rewards politicians who are successful at pitting Canadians from one part of the country against those from another, who are able to capitalize on our myriad divisions instead of finding a way to tie together the loose threads of unity that are there. 

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In consequence, federal elections are almost by definition exercises in disunity-mongering, and Canadians usually emerge from federal elections with a somewhat sour taste in their mouths. But this election has felt far worse than normal, a sentiment that is underscored by a Postmedia-Leger poll published this past Saturday. The poll found that seven out of ten Canadians believed this campaign has been more divisive and confrontational than in the past, with the lion’s share of the blame being put on Justin Trudeau. Compared to Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, the survey respondents found Trudeau angrier, more cynical, more divisive, and more dismissive of Canadians who disagreed with him. 

And this is why the “all of the parties are divisive” line won’t wash. Even if there is plenty of blame to go around, the prime minister has a special role to play in all of this, a special set of responsibilities, precisely because he is the prime minister.  

To begin with, keep in mind that this election was entirely Trudeau’s idea. There was no reason for it except that he saw it as an opportunity to regain the majority he lost in 2019. The timing, the framing, the tone — these are all things that were under his control and subject to his whims. He decided to send Canadians to the polls in the middle of the fourth wave of a pandemic, at a time when many provinces were struggling with climbing case counts and/or a growing populist backlash against pandemic-related public-health restrictions. He decided to make capitalizing on that backlash a part of his own re-election strategy. And so on.  

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But more to the point, it cannot be overstated just how much the question of national unity is the ultimate responsibility of the prime minister. It’s not just a big part of his job, it is pretty much his only job. Whether Trudeau grasps any of this is anyone’s guess; it’s not clear that he has any considered views on Confederation, how the country ought to run, and where the federal government fits into it. At any rate, if he has such views he hasn’t bothered sharing them with Canadians. Instead, as prime minister he has actively and quite unapologetically set out to exploit national division during a global pandemic. 

Every party may be guilty of trading in cynicism, negativity, and division in this election. In deliberately risking Confederation itself in the name of satisfying his own ambition and vanity, Justin Trudeau is guilty of something far more serious. 


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