Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s second administration was launched on Nov. 20, with a “mission impossible” to unite a divided Canada.
In the Oct. 21 general election, Trudeau’s Liberal Party failed to win a majority but narrowly retained power as a minority government, winning 157 seats in the 338-seat House of Commons, compared with 184 seats it won in the 2015 election. The Conservative Party led by Andrew Scheer garnered the largest popular vote of 34.5% as against the Liberals’ 32.9%, but won only 121-seat, though 28 seats more than four years ago.
Trudeau has said he will not form a coalition government with any of the opposition parties. He will have to work with different parties on an issue-by-issue basis to pass legislation. He is most likely to seek support from the Liberals’ most natural partner, the left-leaning New Democratic Party, with 25 seats, down 14 seats from 2015, on most liberal issues such as climate-change policies and other progressive issues. But it is still uncertain whether the Trudeau government can on the one hand cooperate with the NDP on the global warming and other social issues, while on the other hand work with the Conservatives on energy issues, such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.
Most remarkable – or shocking to Trudeau – of the election results was that the Liberals were completely shut out of the two western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Conservative Party swept nearly every seat in the two provinces- 33 of the 34 ridings (the Canadian term for electoral districts) in Alberta and all the 14 ridings in Saskatchewan. The Liberals won not a single seat in these provinces, meaning there is no elected members to represent the region’s voice in the government.
“Within hours of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party winning re-election on Monday, a hashtag began trending in Canada that reflects the deep regional divisions that emerged from the poll: #Wexit, as in Western exit, or more specifically, Alberta separatism,” reported the Financial Times (Oct. 25). All Canadian news media also reported that tweets by frustrated voters supporting separation and independence from the federal government and greater autonomy have increased dramatically on social media, pointing to the deepening regional division between their Prairies and the Eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
Residents of Alberta and Saskatchewan, dependent on oil industry, have been frustrated by the Liberals’ global warming policies, such as the carbon tax, and energy policy, especially the delay in the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, a project to twin the existing oil pipeline from Alberta to a terminal near Vancouver, let their anger out in the general election. Their anger to the Liberals had exploded already last April when Albertans elected Conservative Jason Kenney the new premier, who blames the Liberals’ climate-change policies for the province’s worsening economy hard hit by slumping oil prices.
Separatism is rising not only in the western region. In Quebec, the separatist Bloc Quebecois won 32 seats, more than triple the seats it won in 2015, to become the third largest party in the Parliament, only after the Liberals and the Conservatives.
“It seems that Canadians have never been more divided,” says Greg Taylor, portfolio manager at Purpose Investments in Toronto (Reuters, Oct. 22). To address this situation, Trudeau in a significant shake-up of his cabinet, shuffled his former foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, who was born in northern Alberta, into a new and crucial domestic role as intergovernmental affairs minister, where she will work directly with provincial and territorial governments. Freeland, a former deputy editor of the Financial Times, has won Trudeau’s trust as she steered Canada through difficult negotiations with Washington on a new trade deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. She was also named deputy prime minister and is widely regarded as Trudeau’s successor.
Trudeau also tapped former intergovernmental affairs minister Jim Carr to serve as his special representative for the Prairies to ”ensure that the people of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have a strong voice in Ottawa,” the Prime Minister’s Office said. Carr was born and raised in Winnipeg.
Furthermore, Catherine McKenna, who in the first Trudeau government introduced tough environment standards, was replaced as the environment and climate change minister by Jonathan Wilkinson, who grew up in Saskatoon, attended the University of Saskatchewan, and favors the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Freeland quickly began to mend relations with the western provinces, visiting Alberta Premier Kenney in Edmonton on Nov. 25 and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe in Regina on Nov. 26, to listen to what they have to say about these provinces’ frustration, resentments and anger.” Premier Kenney “gave her a warm welcome at the provincial legislature as he pointed out her Alberta roots…. Mr. Kenney said he was confident they could find ‘common ground to be partners in prosperity.’” In Regina, Premier Moe said “he was encouraged by his meeting with Ms. Freeland, whom he applauded for making the trip to hear his concerns.” (Globe and Mail, Nov. 27)
They made a fairly good first step toward mending fences – just the first step. It is premature to be optimistic. Premier Moe said after his meeting with her that “the federal government has a chance to ‘reset’ its relationship with his province and other parts of the country,” but at the same time he reminded “it will take significant policy changes from the federal government to ‘reset’ the relationship with his province.” (Globe and Mail, Nov. 26)
In Parliament set to resume in Ottawa on Dec. 5 for the first time since the election, Governor General Julie Payette will deliver Prime Minister Trudeau’s speech from the throne, outlining the government’s priorities for the next session of parliament. A vote by MPs on the speech is considered a confidence vote and will be the first test of whether Trudeau’s minority government can survive.
By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, senior consultant, TOCS