When Canadians go to the polls, we vote for a single office-holder: a member of Parliament to represent our electoral district, or riding. Canadians do not have the luxury of “ticket splitting,” or dividing their votes between political parties. Thus when we vote for a local candidate, we are in effect voting for the party he or she represents to form a government. More often than not, a single party wins a majority of seats, but with well under a majority of votes.
In last week's election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party won, but the party was reduced from a majority of 177 seats in the 338-member House of Commons to a plurality of 157. Andrew Scheer's Conservatives won 121 seats, up from 95 at dissolution. The separatist Bloc Québécois bounced back from 10 to 32 seats, while Jagmeet Singh's socialist New Democratic Party dropped from 39 to 24. Despite these seat totals, the Conservatives slightly outpolled the Liberals, gaining 34 percent of the popular vote against the latter's 33 percent, a result exacerbated by Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system.
Although our Westminster constitution theoretically allows for multi-party coalitions, our adversarial system, embodied in the seating arrangement of the Commons chamber, has historically ruled out such formal alliances. When a party receives less than a majority, as in last week’s elections, the governor general calls on the leader of the party with the most seats to form a minority government, which must then cooperate with the other parties on an ad hoc basis. Such governments generally do not last for the statutory four-year maximum limit of a parliament. Canadians can thus expect to return to the polls in two to three years.
Trudeau's record as prime minister is mixed, economically speaking. But on cultural issues, particularly those touching on religious freedom, he has marked a clear path in what many see as a progressive direction. His late father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was responsible for Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees “freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; freedom of peaceful assembly; and freedom of association.” But under the younger Trudeau's watch, the Charter has evolved from a constitutional guarantee of personal liberties against government encroachment into a bludgeon used by the government to punish those who disagree with Trudeau’s interpretation of the document.
The Charter is notable for what it does not claim to protect. It does not protect a woman's right to abortion. Unlike Roe v. Wade, Canada’s 1988 Supreme Court decision that invalidated the former section 251 of the Criminal Code restricting abortion never claimed that a right to abortion was to be found in our Constitution Acts. In 2004 the Court refused to rule on whether the Charter obligated the government to allow for same-sex marriage (in this respect, Canada's Supreme Court has had a less activist bent than its American counterpart). In its 2015 decision in Carter v. Canada, the Court did strike down the Criminal Code's absolute prohibition of assisted dying, claiming that its protection of the vulnerable was “overbroad,” but it left actual legislation to address its concerns in the hands of Parliament.
Throughout his first term as prime minister, Trudeau has applied his idiosyncratic understanding of “Charter values” with ruthless efficiency, refusing Liberal Party nominations to pro-life candidates who question a woman's right to choose. In office the Liberal government notoriously required organizations applying for funding for student summer jobs to sign an attestation affirming “Charter values,” including a woman's right to choose abortion.
What of the other parties? Midway through the campaign, the tiny Green Party dropped Marthe Lépine as a candidate for an eastern Ontario riding—because, as a Catholic, she holds pro-life convictions and expresses them publicly. Scheer's Conservatives are the only major party to tolerate pro-life views in candidates, although Scheer himself has declined to reopen either the abortion or marriage issues. And all of the major party leaders have been reluctant to condemn an obvious violation of religious freedom: Québec's Bill 21, which prohibits provincial public sector workers from wearing faith-related garb on duty.
Over the 152 years of Canada's existence, many people, from Russian Doukhobors and Old Believers to Iraq's Assyrian Christians and Indonesia's Chinese Christians, came to Canada to escape persecution. Whether Canada will maintain this reputation in the future remains to be seen. Unlike the United States, Canada has long been characterized by an establishmentarian ethos once dominated by Catholicism in Québec and the Protestant churches in Ontario. As these churches have receded from public life, their position has been occupied by a secular religion of human rights, to which all are expected to give lip service.
Those maintaining standards of life and behavior at odds with this religion are increasingly treated as dissenters and pressured to conform. Though Trudeau is at the forefront of this trend, the other parties are not far behind.
David T. Koyzis is author of Political Visions and Illusions (2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He and his family reside in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.