January 11, 2022
  • January 11, 2022

Why Canada’s Elections Do Not Follow America’s Polarized Lead

By on September 17, 2021 0

Since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an early election for September 20, he has been pursued by rabid protesters. Most of the time, they were content to utter threats and insults against the prime minister – mainly about his vaccine mandates. But at an event in London, Ont., Someone identified as a local organizer of the People’s Party of Canada – a right-wing party that didn’t even get 2% in the last election but now votes around 6% – threw gravel, too.

For some Canadians, this is a sign that American-style political polarization is taking hold north of the border.

But political analysts say that prospect misses the forest for some particularly resentful trees.

In debate and platform, they say, this race has been one of the least controversial in recent history. While conservatives in the United States and several European countries have moved further to the right to capture votes, on everything from immigration to responding to the pandemic, in Canada the conservatives have followed the center. And traditional parties have stood united in the face of the country’s biggest challenge: getting ahead of the fourth wave of COVID-19.

“Everyone in politics right now will tell you that the tone has become meaner and cruder,” says Maxwell Cameron, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia. “I think one of the most interesting things about this election is that it’s not really a particularly polarized election on a wide range of issues.”

And so this campaign has, in a way, offered a counter-narrative to the idea that digging in the middle has led parties to move to the margins in order to mobilize a polarized electorate.

Much of this is due to the political strategy of Conservative candidate Erin O’Toole. He took a more central place than his predecessors, former party leader Andrew Scheer and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose vow in 2015 to ban the niqab headscarf worn by some Muslim women has become a point of flash of identity politics.

Against the backdrop of massive government spending to support workers during the pandemic, Mr. O’Toole seems less hawkish on debt. And on social issues, he presented his as a party of inclusion. He is firmly in favor of the right to abortion, unlike Mr. Scheer, whom Mr. Trudeau defeated in 2019. “We are no longer your father’s Conservative Party,” he said this week.

Critics fear this is an electoral ploy and that a Conservative government is lax on public health measures and guns. But the strategy to capture the moderates reflects the electorate, says Christopher Cochrane, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “The Conservative Party had moved to the right of the Canadian public,” he said. Mr. O’Toole today takes the party back to “an old conservative tradition in Canada that I think a lot of people thought, and perhaps rightly so, was indeed dead”.

This move to the center could cost the race for Mr. Trudeau, who has himself become a global face of centrism at a time when far-right movements have mushroomed around the world.

The Liberals and Conservatives are neck and neck – at 31.9% and 30.4% respectively, according to overnight tracking data from Nanos Research for CTV News and The Globe and Mail.

It is a much closer race than the Liberals anticipated when they called it in mid-August, after just two years in power, in the hope of turning a minority government into a majority. The challenges of a fourth pandemic wave became evident almost immediately afterwards.

Now voters like Safiya Ali, who lives in the Greater Toronto Area, are calling for a double standard. The public has been urged to miss weddings and funerals, but are now being called to the polls. Ms. Ali has always voted liberal; now she is not sure whether to vote. “I don’t think the election should have been called,” she said.

Canada, so far, had not been torn apart by the pandemic, which has also kept polarization at bay. The five leaders of the main parties recorded a message together, urging Canadians to get vaccinated, before their only debate in English.

But the race revealed an increasing risk for this unit. For starters, it gave a rebound to the People’s Party of Canada, which has become a vaccine-skeptical party appealing to voters like Jamie Schmelzle. She drives a streetcar in Toronto and says job creation is her number one concern. She has voted liberal all her life, but now she is considering running for the People’s Party because she is against vaccination warrants. “They believe in the freedom of choice that Canada is built on,” she said.

Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for Canadian Studies in Quebec, sees two risks of polarization to come. If Mr. O’Toole loses with a moderate message, the party could tip over again. “And as the Conservative Party moves to the center, there will be people who will be disenfranchised, who will not accept this more centrist approach.” They could switch to the People’s Party.

For now, mainstream parties have condemned protesters harassing Mr. Trudeau – as well as anti-vaccine protests that have targeted hospitals in recent days – instead of chasing their votes.

“One of the differences between Canada and other countries is that there is always a strong centrist anchoring in our political parties,” says Jaskaran Sandhu, political strategist in Brampton, Ont.

But he says the sentiment polarized in the rise of the People’s Party must be faced squarely, not glossed over in order to keep politics cordial. “While it might be bangs, it’s incredibly problematic. You can’t just ignore it or ignore it, and that’s how Canada tends to deal with many of these issues. It is necessary to better understand that these feelings exist.

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