Cracking the illusion of Canadian progressiveness

Canada as a nation of liberal politics is an empty idea in the face of recent political turns toward conservatism

The election of Donald Trump as US president was notable for revealing common ideas about Canada, especially in relation to the US. Americans frequently joked about emigrating to Canada, while Canadians pridefully boasted about our country’s alleged progressiveness in relation to a politically regressive America. 

This is the image of Canada perpetuated from both within and without: a nation of unrivalled tolerance and liberalism. It is, however, an image without substance, mostly grounded in a mythology written and spoken by those on both sides of the political spectrum.

Justin Trudeau’s political career is an important contemporary piece of this mythology.  His person has been heralded and denigrated as an icon of tolerant, liberal, Canadian values. The fervor surrounding his figure somehow instituted a nationwide amnesia about his famously conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, who won three consecutive elections.

Trudeau was transformed from just another centrist politician following a plethora of centrist and conservative politicians to a figure agreeable with and representative of the stereotype of Canadian progressiveness. This effectively silenced discussions of Trudeau’s failures to actually embody a progressive politics, such as his retraction of promises related to Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

Much of this illusion might have had to do with his relatively young age and — according to some — attractive appearance. A part of it might have also been wish fulfillment on the part of Canadians, who seemed to desire a leader who could remain staunchly centrist in his politics while appearing progressive.

This somewhat farcical image of Trudeau as a vision of liberality is adopted and mobilized by those on the right of the political spectrum. Propaganda that positions Trudeau as a communist or as attempting to institute sharia law abounds in right-wing media, rendering Canadians more sympathetic to right-wing ideologies. This propaganda is found in fringe conspiratorial media like Toronto’s Your Ward News, but also makes its way into more widely consumed media like The Toronto Sun.

Perhaps these images do render Canadians more susceptible to right-wing ideologies. On the other hand, perhaps the images work to obscure the reality that these ideologies have always been present, that conservatism historically and presently plays a major role in shaping Canada’s political field. Either way, the presence of conservatism is at this point undeniable: provincial elections this year in Québec and Ontario both resulted in the appointment of controversial right-wing politicians to office.

Much has already been said about our new premier, Doug Ford, and his eccentric notions of democracy. But earlier this month, our neighbours a bit further east elected François Legault and his right-wing party, Coalition Avenir Québec, to a majority government. Legault and his party are known for their desires to restrict immigration and for their disdain for public symbols of Islamic and Jewish faith.

Legault reaffirmed his politics immediately before being elected by proclaiming his desire to use the notwithstanding clause to bar public officials from wearing religious garments such as the hijab or the kippah.

The election of both Ford and Legault is made possible by the same mechanism that garnered large amounts of support for contrarian celebrities like U of T’s Jordan Peterson or Faith Goldy. When working within this mythological framework of Canada as a radically progressive nation-state, a state that will bend backward to sustain its trans, Muslim, and minority citizens, rhetoric that targets minorities is reframed as anti-government dissent.

Challenging the presence of immigrants or denigrating minority religious communities becomes a form of subversive rebellion in which those who perpetuate these discourses are heralded as underdogs who ‘stand up for’ the disenfranchised against what is reconstructed as abusive hegemony. This is an ideological consequence of our excited sponsorship of the illusion of Canada’s progressiveness. The illusion is adopted, exaggerated, and weaponized, and it actively works to undo any sort of social liberality we have obtained.

This is not to say that these conservative figures and trends are aberrations in a tradition of political progressiveness. There have been some victories for social progress that were made by the Liberal Party in past years, but framing the party as an icon for progressiveness plays into the mythology even more. The truth is that any major party is going to be constantly negotiating between conservative and progressive policies, and oversimplifying this process renders resistance to elements of conservatism impossible.

Especially with the current sweep of conservative victories, we need to ensure that we do not romanticize the period when the Ontario Liberal Party had control of the province. We should criticize Ford’s government while remaining aware that it was Wynne’s government that privatized Hydro One and consistently sided with the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party to disparage the New Democratic Party  (NDP) during elections.

While the current sweep of conservative victories isn’t necessarily a stark deviation from Canadian political trends, it is still jarring and needs to be resisted. As university students, we should be particularly concerned with these political trends, if for no other reason than because they are detrimental to the width of our wallets. Though Ontario’s Liberals have been economically conservative on other issues, their education policies have granted students a number of concessions, including significant increases in Ontario Student Assistance Program grants in 2017.

During the Ontario provincial election, while the NDP’s Andrea Horwath pledged to replace government loans with non-repayable grants and to cancel interest on current student loans, Ford remained suspiciously silent on the issue of tuition. In fact, Ford’s government has been silent on any issues related to postsecondary education, other than that of free speech. However, having a staunchly conservative government usually means cuts to social programs, and Ford has been resolute in his insistence that his government will cut taxes for Ontarians.

The future that is being shaped by current trends is dangerous and uncertain. Space is being made for people like Goldy, who has clear white nationalist and alt-right ties, to compete in mayoral elections. Space is being made for people like Maxime Bernier, who decries multiculturalism as a central problem in Canada, to have a legitimate shot at being elected prime minister. What is certain in all this is that there is no longer space for us to don our blinders and continue sponsoring the illusion that Canada is a safe haven of progressive politics.

Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.

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