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Justin Trudeau Exposes Failures of ‘Constitutional Patriotism’

His father wanted a "post-nationalist" Canada, but our northern neighbor is less unified than ever.
Justin Trudeau

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has attained both rock star status and, as a major scandal breaks that could threaten his premiership, notoriety. Yet despite this fame, he still pales in comparison to his father.

Pierre Trudeau is in many ways the defining figure of postwar Canada. Simultaneously a celebrity and a philosopher king, he is the architect of Canada’s modern constitutional order. His most lasting legacy remains the entrenchment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the newly patriated Constitution. This charter was the cornerstone of Trudeau’s quest for a unifying basis for a country deeply divided by cultural and linguistic differences. But while Pierre is a hero to many Canadians, he also exacerbated the fissures at the heart of the Canadian confederation and nearly tore the country apart. Justin Trudeau lacks his father’s intellect and strength of will, but he is inadvertently exacerbating many of the same fissures that his father did.

Pierre Trudeau grew up in a conservative and Catholic Québec. As an opponent of the right-leaning regime that dominated the province, he became a prominent intellectual, and by 1960, Québec was in the midst of what is known as the Quiet Revolution, when it rapidly secularized and began to develop an extensive welfare state. The Quiet Revolution also saw the emergence of a new nationalist movement. Nationalism in Québec was nothing new, but the kind that emerged during the Quiet Revolution shifted away from traditional and religious values towards a secular anti-colonialism. The movement was famously emboldened in 1967 when Charles de Gaulle proclaimed “Vive le Québec libre!” in a speech while visiting Montréal.

By the time Trudeau was elected to Parliament in 1965, he had evolved into a clear proponent of individual rights-based liberalism, which he saw as the key to overcoming the divide between English and French Canada. Trudeau’s response to the separatist challenge would permanently change Canada’s constitutional order. Introducing the Canadian Constitution and ending the British Parliament’s amending power over it was the final step towards Canadian sovereignty. In 1982, after two years of contentious and emotionally charged debates, the Canadian Constitution was finally patriated. But this was far from a unifying moment. The draft agreement that eventually became the Constitution Act has never been formally recognized by Québec, and the events that led to it, known as the “night of the long knives” by some nationalists, fueled separatist sentiment.

But it wasn’t simply the process of patriation that fueled division: the Constitution that came out of it was just as controversial. As part of patriation, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms was created and entrenched in the Constitution. Trudeau saw the charter, and the individual rights it guarantees, as a liberal bedrock that could create a unifying identity for a divided country. In his Memoirs, Trudeau claimed that “with the charter in place, we can now say that Canada is a society where all people are equal and where they share some fundamental values based on freedom. The search for this Canadian identity, as much as my philosophical views, had led me to insist on the charter.”

This association of the charter with Canadian identity is a form of “constitutional patriotism,” an idea often associated with German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Constitutional patriotism is an attempt to create a basis for collective attachments in which citizens are united by their common acceptance of democratic, liberal, and rights-based values, as opposed to the particularistic values on which nation states are generally based. Habermas also insists that this must be linked to an emphasis on democratic proceduralism and a reduction of politics to largely procedural debates.

Québec had already adopted a similar charter in 1975. But while the 1982 charter does recognize language rights, its individualistic and universalistic basis prevents it from acknowledging Québec’s collective distinctiveness. That causes it ultimately to exist in tension with the thick pluralism that is at the heart of Canada. Two failed attempts at bringing Québec into the fold in 1987 and 1992 further alienated the province, and in 1995 it rejected separation in a second referendum by less than 0.5 percent of the vote.

It was not just in Québec that Trudeau created tension; his quest also helped alienate Western Canada. Trudeau’s fixation on this challenge, combined with his centralizing tendencies, meant that many in the west felt that his constant attempts to appease Québec came at their expense. From the use of transfer programs and energy policy to move wealth from west to east, official bilingualism in provinces where francophones are a tiny fraction of the population, and constant constitutional discussions that prioritized appeasing Québec separatists, western Canadians had reasons to be suspicious of the unified vision Trudeau was offering. A referendum held on the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, under which Québec would have been recognized as a distinct society, was most strongly rejected by Canada’s four most western provinces.

And yet Canada has survived, and many point to it as a shining example of “post-national” constitutional patriotism. The best example of this is Justin Trudeau himself. While he is not the intellectual that Pierre was, he has undoubtedly absorbed much of his father’s philosophy. In 2015, Trudeau claimed that Canada might be the “first postnational state” and that “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.” This is the essence of constitutional patriotism. It not only offers a universalistic principle for the polity, it seeks to supplant and reduce particularistic norms and replace them with a universal and abstract allegiance.

But this is largely a myth. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan once claimed that “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” This isn’t true. Canada does have a distinct identity, and the ways in which Québec is often quietly excused from the values of the charter show how hollow constitutional patriotism actually is. Since 1982, Canada has certainly seen the adoption of some of the values associated with that constitutional patriotism. The charter led to the judicialization of Canadian politics, which has created a cordon sanitaire around democratic discourse. Contentious moral questions are now primarily decided in the courts, and the charter has become the preferred mechanism for progressive change in Canada.

Canadians may not quite know who they are, but they certainly know who they are not, namely Americans. Nationalism often begins as a negation, and Canadian culture is full of vapid and shallow anti-Americanism. Just browse Canadian media and it won’t take you long to find manifestations of this righteousness, evaluated on the basis of generic progressivism. America has too many guns, it’s racist, homophobic, unfair, too religious, too regressive. Canadian superiority stems from the fact that it looks more like Scandinavia than America does.

While this superiority may be loosely grounded in the values found in the charter, it isn’t an abstract nationalism at all. It rather allows Canada to see itself as distinct and particular in a way that distinguishes it from its neighbor. Pierre Trudeau once likened Canada’s relationship with America to “sleeping with an elephant,” and this often manifests itself as a paranoia about American influence in Canada. The president of CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, recently compared the popularity of American Netflix in Canada to British and French imperialism. This isn’t an allegiance to an abstraction; it’s about having a foil against which Canada can be defined.

But the post-national illusion has been best exposed by Justin Trudeau’s relationship with Québec. Trudeau’s government has been rocked by allegations that he “attempted to press” his attorney-general to intervene in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a Montréal-based engineering company with a long history of corruption. SNC-Lavalin is facing prosecution that could result in its being barred from federal government contracts for a decade, a major source of the SNC-Lavalin’s revenue. While Trudeau talks a tough game on rule of law and judicial independence, the scandal has exposed his double standards. The company has been called the “crown jewel” of Québec, and underneath the largely procedural debate into which the scandal has devolved is the suggestion that were the company located elsewhere, Trudeau would not have been so desperate to protect it.

Québec is undeniably a distinct place, and provincial governments often try to protect such distinctiveness. The current Québec government is attempting to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols, cutting immigration numbers, and imposing a values test on new migrants. Premier François Legault recently said that he wants more immigrants to come from Europe. All of this is completely inimical to the values Trudeau claims to defend, yet his response to these various moves has been muted or non-existent. Were another province to do the same thing, the reaction would almost certainly be completely different. When Doug Ford’s Ontario government, Trudeau’s favorite boogeyman, announced that it was canceling the construction of a proposed French language university in Toronto, Trudeau did not hesitate to offer his thoughts.

The charter patriotism that Pierre Trudeau sought to create was supposed to be universal, equally applicable to all Canadians and all provinces, but its limitations have been exposed by its selective application.

This has not gone unnoticed in the west, rekindling the same alienation that Pierre engendered. The combination of a divisive carbon tax and the stalling of pipeline expansion projects has created a real sense that the west is an afterthought. Talk of the unfairness of Canada’s redistributive equalization program has made a comeback, and comments by Legault that a canceled west-to-east pipeline had no “social acceptability” to transport “dirty energy” through the province sparked substantial backlash.

Pierre Trudeau’s dream of a unified Canadian identity nearly tore the country apart. And while the relative harmony Canada has enjoyed over the last two decades suggests his dream ultimately became a reality, Justin Trudeau is inadvertently reawakening old tensions. Justin’s legacy was always going to be compared and connected to his father’s, and it’s fitting that he may be the one who ultimately ends up exposing Pierre’s failings.

Benjamin L. Woodfinden is a doctoral student in Political Science at McGill University in Montréal. He has been published in The American Conservative, Maclean’s, Real Clear Policy, and the Washington Examiner.