Canadians went to the polls this week in a snap election called by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau did not have to call this election. Most Canadians had no desire to go to the polls this early. After all, we had last voted in October 2019—not quite two years ago. The statutory four-year limit for a parliament was nowhere close to expiring. So why now?
The 2019 election had reduced Trudeau’s Liberal government to minority status, meaning that, while it had more seats than any other party in the House of Commons, it was 13 seats short of a majority. In a minority government, a single political party holds all the cabinet positions but relies on the other parties to prop it up in exchange for modifying its agenda in their favor. It is arguably a Canadian phenomenon. The Liberals governed this way despite receiving just under one-third of the total popular vote. They could have continued to do so until 2023 if the other parties were willing.
Earlier this year there was no sign that the other parties, including the Conservatives, New Democrats, Bloc Québécois, and Greens, were ready to bring down the government. Nevertheless, like his predecessors before him, Trudeau decided that parliament had become dysfunctional—because it was not following his every wish and was doing what a parliament ought to do, namely, holding the government accountable for its actions. So last month Trudeau went to the newly appointed governor general, Mary Simon, and requested an early dissolution of parliament—something no governor general has refused since 1926.
Trudeau wanted to try for another majority government so he would have a freer hand. Canadians saw through this immediately, and his standing in the public opinion polls began to slide. At that point he looked set to lose his gamble and possibly even his government. But when Canadians went to the polls this week, they delivered their verdict: more of the same. A few districts are still too close to call, but the Liberals are projected to take 158 seats, narrowly winning the election but once again falling short of their coveted majority status. As in 2019, the Conservatives have outpolled the Liberals in the popular vote. Trudeau spent a record $600 million on this election, but it made little difference in the partisan makeup of the Commons, thereby potentially extending the frustrations of minority rule into 2025.
What lies in store for Canadians under this “new” old government? Trudeau's government has had accomplishments, but a poor record with respect to religious freedom. It notoriously denied Canada Summer Jobs funding to pro-life organizations, implausibly claiming that “the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” imply so-called “reproductive rights.” Trudeau, along with the other party leaders, has also been conspicuously quiet on Québec’s controversial Bill 21, “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.” Given that this act prohibits a range of public officials from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, it would seem to contradict the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ explicit guarantees of “freedom of conscience and religion” and “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.” Yet section 33, the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause,” allows governments to override certain sections of the Charter for renewable five-year periods. Québec makes regular use of this clause.
Despite this country’s historic debt to English Common Law, the notion of laïcité continues to make advances here. Laïcité entails an officially secular state that vigilantly guards against the incursion of religious convictions into the public square. Rather than guaranteeing a wide latitude for religious freedom, it limits such freedom—ostensibly for the public good. Although Trudeau admitted to having recovered his Christian faith after the death of his brother Michel, he insisted that he is “very aware of the separation of church and state in my political thinking.”
Sad to say, the other political parties fail to offer a persuasive alternative to this long-term trend. Conservative leader Erin O’Toole freely advertises his pro-choice credentials and has largely disappointed the social conservatives within his party. Having now lost an election, he seems likely to be replaced sooner rather than later.
Between 1980 and 2004, Canada was ruled by single-party majority governments. Since 2004, we have now had five minority governments, suggesting that Canadians are more divided than ever. One way to address this is to change the institutional structures that allow a party with only minority support to govern as if it were a majority. Our current electoral system handicaps parties based on principle, rewards regional parties to the detriment of national unity, discourages voter turnout, and entrenches two historic parties—the Liberals far more often than the Conservatives—despite their lack of majority support. Adopting some form of proportional representation would cut individual parties down to proper size, encourage co-operation across party lines, and facilitate the formation of new parties less wedded to the project of official secularism.
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