The First Post-National Country
American Democrats’ love affair with Justin Trudeau’s Canada is cause for concern.
If the Democratic party of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden gets its way, America may soon look a lot like Justin Trudeau’s Canada. American conservatives, don’t say you weren’t warned.
On September 16, amidst a closely contested Canadian federal election, former president Barack Obama tweeted his endorsement of Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau, calling him “an effective leader and strong voice for democratic values.” The next day, former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton followed with her own tweet, applauding her “friend” Trudeau for his “leadership in the fight for accessible child care, protected reproductive rights, and ambitious climate action.”
On a slightly less effusive note, Secretary of State Antony Blinken later congratulated the Liberal leader on his slim election victory, praising Trudeau’s “ongoing cooperation… on issues including human rights, global health and climate change.” Trudeau’s Liberal Party won more seats than any other party, and though it fell short of the seat total necessary to form a majority government and lost the popular vote to the opposition Conservatives, it will head a minority government with the help of the smaller, left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP).
The Obama-Trudeau “bromance” is nothing new. Back in 2016, Obama borrowed an expression from rock singer Bono and announced that the 2015 election of Trudeau’s government was a sign that “the world needs more Canada.” In 2019, as Trudeau faced a tough reelection fight, Obama hailed him for tackling “big issues like climate change,” adding: “The world needs his progressive leadership now, and I hope our neighbors to the north support him for another term.”
Whether or not Obama’s and Clinton’s endorsements were “foreign meddling” and helped Trudeau’s Liberals on September 20 is something that Canadian pundits appear curiously reluctant to discuss. The bigger point, however, is that the Obama and Clinton tweets tellingly reveal their hopes and expectations for a future America.
In some respects, Trudeau’s image has been like political porn for numerous Democrats. The reasons for their fascination are legion. There are hints of political royalty in his pedigree. Trudeau is the son of the celebrated Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister on and off from 1968 to 1984. In the cringe-worthy terminology of the day, the New York Times in 1974 dubbed Pierre Elliott Trudeau a “swinger bachelor” who dated celebrities including Barbra Streisand and Kim Cattrall. Margaret Trudeau, Pierre’s ex-wife and Justin’s mother, is routinely lionized in the international media as a “mental health advocate” and the star of a one-woman stage show she launched in 2019.
Margaret’s son Justin is telegenic, tall and athletic, with “great hair,” as New York magazine remarked in 2015. He looks younger than his 49 years. He has a way of speaking that the New York Times called “almost theatrical,” befitting his earlier stint teaching drama at a rich kids’ high school between 1999 and 2001.
But, it is Trudeau’s policies and ideals that warrant close attention from Americans who might otherwise dismiss Obama’s comments as typical politician’s rhetoric. Above all, Trudeau is a globalist. After his election victory in 2015, he announced that Canada was the world’s first “post-national” country. In words few other world leaders would dare to utter, Trudeau declared that Canada has “no core identity, no mainstream.” The New York Times breathlessly declared that Trudeau was poised to “redefine what it means to be Canadian.”
Trudeau’s remarks about Canadian identity were highly similar to what Canadian novelist Yann Martel had called his homeland in 2002: “the greatest hotel on earth.” As Canada’s Maclean’s magazine observed, it was hard to know if Martel was saying Canada was a peaceful and accommodating “rooming house” or “a soulless railway terminus, a place that demands little of its citizens and stands for nothing in international affairs.”
Trudeau’s globalist vision of a borderless world predictably informs his full-throated pledges to fight climate change. In 2016, Trudeau signed the Paris Climate Agreement promising to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Although the NDP claims Trudeau’s government will never meet these goals, the New York Times in April this year called him a “global climate hero.”
As for Hillary Clinton’s reference to Trudeau’s defense of “reproductive rights,” what Trudeau means by “pro-choice” may startle millions of Americans. As early as 2014, he told his own political party that no anti-abortion candidates could run as Liberals in federal elections. Canada is the only democratic, industrialized nation in the world without any federal or provincial abortion laws (the country’s Supreme Court struck down the old national law in 1988 as unconstitutional and no federal government since has dared to pass one). Trudeau regularly accuses the Conservative Party of Canada of secretly wanting to end abortion access, although Conservatives tirelessly protest they aren’t interested in any such legislation. Doubling down during the 2021 election, Trudeau announced that a Liberal government would not protect the “conscience rights” of health care providers who object to performing either abortions or medically assisted death under Canada’s medicare system.
But the six years since Trudeau first formed a government in 2015 have not been kind to the prime minister. Back then, the public ignorance surrounding his background and qualifications made him a kind of Rorschach test for people like Obama who were drawn to what Trudeau called his “sunny ways” and “positive politics.” As the center-left Toronto Star asked recently, “Whatever happened to Trudeau’s sunny ways?”
Well, one reason his “sunny ways” have evaporated is due to scandals. Several photos have emerged from Trudeau’s teaching days of him in blackface or brownface, which would have banished any other Canadian elected official to political oblivion. In 2016, he was accused of “manhandling” an opposition Member of Parliament and “elbowing” another on the floor of the House of Commons. Canada’s conflict of interest watchdog has investigated Trudeau four times for violating federal ethics rules. The second time, he was found guilty of pressuring his attorney-general to spare one of Canada’s biggest companies from federal prosecution. The fallout from the scandal saw Trudeau, a self-proclaimed feminist, lose two star female cabinet ministers, including the first Indigenous woman to become Minister of Justice, whom Trudeau expelled from caucus for refusing to bow to his pressure. In 2018, Trudeau was forced to apologize for groping a reporter at a 2000 music festival—though he insists that he did not act “inappropriately.”
The fading of Trudeau’s personal star has coincided with troubling national trends that suggest the last thing the world needs is “more Canada.” Trudeau has dubbed Canada a “genocidal” nation for its shabby treatment of its Indigenous peoples down through history. But not just historically. Trudeau insists that murders and disappearances of Indigenous women today amount to an ongoing genocide— despite data that show that Indigenous family members are responsible for most of these crimes. Naturally, none of this talk has led anyone to suggest that Trudeau personally is complicit in genocide and should hand himself over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples became even more fraught, if that were possible, in late May of 2021, when ground-penetrating radar discovered what were believed to be the remains of more than 200 children at the site of the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia. Trudeau’s government quickly ordered that all Canadian flags at all federal buildings and establishments across the country, including Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, fly at half-mast and remain at half-mast on July 1, Canada’s national holiday. During the election campaign, Trudeau announced that the flags would stay at half-mast until Indigenous leaders agreed to raise them.
Would Joe Biden, in his wildest dreams, ever agree to fly the American flag at half-mast for months because of America’s historical sins—even on the Fourth of July?
The coronavirus pandemic has also dented what’s left of Canada’s national self-esteem. On April 17, 2021, the Toronto Star reported that Canada’s per capita infection rate had surpassed the U.S. rate. This followed a year of Canadian self-congratulation on avoiding the “carnage” of America’s Covid-19 death toll. As the Star itself admitted, the Canadian “declarations of (relative) victory were premature.”
In reality, Trudeau’s Canada can play at “post-national” politics mainly because it shares its only border with the United States, which in effect pays for most of Canada’s national defense. There is an adolescent, fantasy quality to Canadian politics. Canadian journalists, activists, academics, bureaucrats, and elected officials preach to the world—notably the United States—about Canada’s supposed post-national values because, ultimately, despite Obama’s and Trudeau’s insistence that Canada matters on the international stage, no one takes Canada very seriously.
Canada’s peculiar holiday from history could be coming to an end. The country may be heading towards a Trump-like reckoning. Just as the Republican and Democratic establishments watched in dismay as Donald Trump exploded onto the political scene in 2016, the Peoples Party of Canada (PPC), formed in 2018 under the flamboyant leadership of former Conservative cabinet minister Maxime Bernier, increased its vote total from 300,000 in 2019 to 800,000 in 2021, though it failed to win a single riding. The PPC opposes mass immigration and the restrictions placed on Canadians by governments during the coronavirus pandemic. Predictably, this has prompted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to call the PPC “extremist,” “exclusionary,” and the equivalent of Hungary’s and Poland’s “nationalist” parties.
But that is not the viewpoint of many Canadian voters who, disenchanted by the electoral results of the insipid, middle-of-the-road campaign run by the Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, may be more willing to park their votes in the next federal election with a political party that at least pulls no punches about the everyday issues that truly matter to most Canadians.
The indifferent 2021 election results have left Canada “poorer, angrier and more divided,” as Howard Anglin, deputy chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper, remarked after the results came in. Post-election polls revealed that most Canadians thought Trudeau never should have called the election in the first place. Barely 23 percent said the country was more unified under Trudeau, and a full 55 percent said Trudeau should resign. A National Post headline called Canada’s growing divide “worrisome,” which is typically understated Canadian parlance for terrifying.
Whatever the future holds for Canada, the sequence of events since the heady days of 2015 suggests that U.S. Democrats’ ringing endorsements of Trudeau are silly at best and irresponsible at worst. They may also be out of step with America’s demographic trends. For example, the possibility of America becoming more like Canada has to be compared with what Helen Andrews, in an earlier issue of TAC, called the U.S.’s “Latin American Future.” The country’s growing Hispanic population may change everything from “taxes to traffic,” in her words, to say nothing of politics.
Still, there is no denying the symmetry between Trudeau’s Canada and the political tastes of America’s Democratic elites. American conservatives should pay close attention to the misfortunes of the post-national experiment north of the border. Canada is less a global hotel than a slow-motion train wreck. The recent trajectory of Canadian history suggests that, if Democrats get their way, “more Canada” in America’s future will only leave her “angrier and more divided” than ever.
Ian Dowbiggin teaches history at the University of Prince Edward Island.