Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

What last week’s federal election tells us about Canada

A U of T student and poll worker reflects on the state of the Canadian political system
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Surprise — it’s election season! 

Okay, it’s no surprise if a minority government doesn’t last for its full term, but having the country’s most expensive election during a pandemic? Now that is an event for the history books. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is back with another minority government after having won more seats in the parliament than any other party. On the outside, it would seem like the $610 million election during a pandemic led nowhere, considering we have the same government as before. However, this election did give us an inside look into Canadians’ attitudes toward all the political parties.

As a political science and sociology student at U of T, as well as an Elections Canada poll worker, I am unsurprisingly keen on Canadian politics. Let’s take a deeper look at how this election went and why it matters to us as students. 

The Conservative party’s dilemma

After the last federal election in 2019, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) had to reflect on where it stood in terms of its popularity among Canadian voters. Despite the SNC-Lavalin, WE Charity, and Jodi Wilson-Raybould scandals, and even cases of misconduct that left-leaning voters are particularly likely to care about — such as multiple instances of politicians wearing blackface — the Liberals were still able to win the election.

This election cycle, the Conservatives returned with a new leader whose ambitions lay in moving the party toward the center right. Erin O’Toole has constantly reiterated his idea of the CPC as being an umbrella for all different kinds of perspectives and all different kinds of Canadians. His idea of a “one size fits all” Conservative party is respectable and, in an ideal world, a great stance to have. 

However, whenever the Conservative party appeals too heavily to one segment of the population, they end up losing popularity with another. When they’ve tried to appeal to Conservatives with political opinions that lean further right, they’ve ended up alienating the socially liberal ones. Likewise, when they go after socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters, they end up alienating social conservatives. 

In the last election, the CPC lost after failing to appeal to a wide enough base, and the leader at the time was noted as not being progressive enough. This time, were they too progressive?

In my view, people who long criticized the Conservative party as not being progressive enough may now be witnessing the danger that arises when it moves toward more progressive and centre-right ideologies.

When they move in that direction, as they have in this election, the risk of alienating the far-right segment of their party grows and pushes those segments toward radicalization and extreme measures, as we’ve seen with the growing amount of support for the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) in this federal election. 

In our multi-party system, party leaders have appeared to focus on strengthening their base rather than widening it. This continued policy of focusing on one narrow base has led to the great divide we see in Canada today.

However, the Conservative party’s movement toward the centre-right should not be seen as the leading cause for the rise in PPC support — rather, the COVID-19 pandemic should.

The rise of the PPC

With the increase of COVID-19 mandates and vaccine passports, we’ve seen more libertarian views find footholds within Canada. The PPC picked up on this trend and has used it to gain momentum, increasing their share of the popular vote from 1.6 per cent to 5.1 per cent. This election, the votes they collected surpassed those collected by the Green party.

Two segments of the population flocked toward the PPC: the far right and the libertarians. Far-left anti-vax voters, who would have never even thought of voting Conservative, have seen Bernier’s stance on vaccines as the deciding factor for their vote. The far-right anti-vax voters would have already been tilting toward the PPC, and the vaccine passport debate may have only helped to confirm their support.

This is one of many reasons I see the PPC’s support during this election as being a sort of COVID-19 bubble. Once the COVID-19 vaccine and vaccine passport are no longer in the political limelight, many of the far-left libertarians may go back to voting for parties that have left-leaning social policies. The PPC may be left only with the far-right voters who do not return to the Conservative party.

It is important to note that the PPC’s success is greatly linked with their leader’s connection to a very specific segment of Canadians — the far right, conspiracy theorists, and libertarians who feel like they have been ignored by the mainstream Canadian media and political parties. 

In my opinion, the solution to stopping the growth of populist movements within Canada is to make the far-right feel less alienated by mainstream politics. As Andrew Coyne suggests, the best way to not let conspiracy theorists and members of the far-right feel like the rest of Canada is conspiring against them is to make space for them within the mainstream political sphere. This will help us avoid pushing them toward dangerous alt-right radicalization.

Canada’s lack of unity

This year’s election results send a clear message to the Canadian party leaders: politically, Canada is very segmented. The Prairies feel ignored, the northern provinces and territories feel alienated, and Québec feels attacked. Clearly, Canada’s biggest problem is a lack of unity, but instead of uniting the country during this election, our politicians have thrown around partisan political tropes. This has made me quite happy about the fact that no party won a majority government. 

Canadian party leaders have immense control over their caucuses. Very often, they seem to rule with an iron fist, making sure whips keep MPs and caucus members in check and within party lines. Therefore, in a majority government, the prevailing party becomes the only one able to exercise its platform without compromise or need for another party’s approval. 

However, when minority governments come into play, leaders cannot control other party leaders and are forced to come to concessions and agreements in order to keep the government running smoothly. In this scenario, most party platforms are exercised, and it becomes the only time every vote really counts in our “first past the post” electoral system.

If our most recent election sends any kind of message to all the political parties, it’s this: if they want a majority government and an end to minority governments, they must bring about electoral change first, whether this be through rank-based voting or coalition governments. As we enter our second consecutive minority government, it is clear that Canadians have no consensus regarding one party’s ability to lead this country for the next four or so years.

Youth voters

With this political stalemate comes an opportunity for young voters all over Canada. As the fastest growing voter base, we may hold the power to break the stalemate and give any one of the political parties a majority. However, this election did not give us much information to go off of if we want to make a proper decision about who to support. 

When it comes to the youth vote, issues about balancing the budget and pandemic spending are not going to move the needle, and quite frankly, I don’t think COVID-19 mandates will, either. 

In my opinion, the younger generation does not seem to be all up in arms about vaccine passports, nor do they seem to be worried about the fiscal policies of the government. They are more preoccupied with accessible housing, the fiscal health of their student loans, climate change, and several other social issues around Canada that many politicians overlook. 

When Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets of Canada, we saw a lot of performative activism by Canadian politicians, including Prime Minister Trudeau, who took a knee to protest systemic racism. When the horrific terrorist attack against a Muslim family in London, Ontario took place, we saw all the major party leaders — Liberals, New Democratic Party (NDP), Greens, and Conservatives — flock to the memorial and give speeches denouncing Islamophobia. All these events took place within the last year. 

However, in this election campaign, politicians’ mentions of systemic racism were marginal. The PPC doesn’t even believe in the existence of systemic racism, the CPC didn’t address it on their platform, and the other three parties included mentions of it but didn’t make it a key issue. 

The closest mention of systemic racism was the discussion of Québec’s Bill 21, a law that bans public employees from wearing religious symbols like head coverings — but out of fear of losing potential Quebec seats, most party leaders framed it as less of a discussion and more of a “not my jurisdiction” statement. I will, however, add that Trudeau was the only leader who eventually said that they would be “willing to intervene” after the courts have their say. All leaders stated that they disagreed with the bill. 

The lack of willingness to do something about this law is disappointing, especially considering the fact that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wears a turban and by that accord, would be barred from serving as a judge in Quebec under Bill 21.

A political disconnect

As I manned the polls during advanced polling days and supervised the polling station on election day, I noticed one dominant segment of voters: Canadians 70 years old and over. A remarkable number of them came to my polling station, waiting hours in line for their chance to cast their ballot. 

If young voters had a quarter of that drive to cast their ballot and have their voices heard by Ottawa, we would have a much different political landscape — one where the voices of younger Canadians would be a deciding factor in elections, and politicians would have to pursue them and create policies specifically for their approval. 

At the end of the day, I believe that politicians don’t care about what all Canadians want. They care about what voting Canadians want. The less you vote, the less they take you into consideration when developing policies. The smaller the youth vote is, the less say we get in government.

I would consider myself an exception when it comes to Canadian youth. I am by nature a very political individual who loves politics — specifically, Canadian politics. However, I’ve found that most young voters in Canada don’t share this interest, and I think that’s by no fault of their own. Political parties have failed to include young Canadians in their platforms and have failed in reaching out to them through meaningful programs. 

When this disconnect grows, and young Canadians feel disregarded on political platforms, voting may seem useless to them, as they won’t be represented either way. There are issues young Canadians care about, like the climate crisis, that political parties seem to downplay. 

As of this recent election, though, that seems to be changing. The NDP has made great strides toward connecting with young voters through the use of TikTok, and its platform includes issues pertaining to young Canadians, such as housing and student loans. The Liberals have also included housing initiatives for Canadians under 40, and the Conservatives promised to release federal land for housing initiatives and ban foreign home ownership for two years, in hopes of addressing Canada’s housing crisis. 

However, the issue of the electoral system remains a great barrier to young Canadians. In my opinion, young voters are keenly opposed to strategic voting, maybe because they have yet to be jaded by years of political disappointment. This is one of many reasons we see a large proportion of the youth vote going toward the NDP and Greens.

A problematic electoral system

Today, I believe only two parties can really count their voters as supporters: the NDP and Green party. This election included a lot of talk regarding “splitting the vote” and the need to vote strategically, which led to many voters choosing a candidate only to keep an undesirable party out of power, instead of voting for the party they want in power. 

Polling showed that neither the Green party nor the NDP had a chance at forming government; therefore, when people voted for those parties, they showed true support for those parties’ platforms. Meanwhile, the Liberals and Conservatives cannot gauge their popularity from the number of votes they received, since it’s unclear how many of those votes were strategic and how many resulted from true support. 

This electoral system has also led to widespread abandonment of voting. As a poll worker, I noticed that last-minute voters would see exit polls and results from other areas around the country and decide to leave the voting line, saying things like, “What is the point? X is going to win.” When this attitude around voting grows, people no longer feel heard, and the government no longer legitimately represents the general population. 

Questions about the future

As a university student, I am still keen to see how the Liberal government will respond to the new mandate and to what extent they are going to keep their campaign promises. 

It will also be interesting to see what effect this election will have on their approval ratings. Liberal supporters might feel let down after voting in another Liberal minority that has the same amount of limited power as before the election, or maybe they won’t — it depends on what they expected when they went to the polls. If Trudeau’s government fails, will it blame the minority parliament setup? 

With the NDP’s youth-friendly platform and recent growth, it’s possible they could have a real effect in this parliament. What issues will they use their influence to address? Will we have free pharmacare? Lower postsecondary tuition? 

Of course, as a political science major, I am intrigued to see how the rise of the PPC will play out. Most notably, I wonder how that will affect the Conservatives’ political platform. Will the Conservative party veer back to the right? 

Will they elect a new right-winged leader next and try to take back the PPC’s new base? Or will they stay in their newly found centre-right position and try to lessen the liberal base? And, of course, how much more time does Erin O’Toole have as CPC leader? 

Only time will tell.

© 2020 Varsity Publications Inc — All rights reserved