Canada and its handsome young prime minister have benefited from great press since Donald Trump’s election and the ensuing wave of right-wing populism that has consumed Western politics. The New York Times published two glowing articles about the country this week; one that depicted Canada as a multicultural bulwark against the rising tide of right-wing populist politics in the West, the other about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s affinity for novelty socks.
Trudeau has been held up both here and in Canada as a shining example of modern liberalism in a reactionary era; on social media, he presents himself as a down-to-earth son of the country’s former prime minister. But all this hubbub — which does make Canada seem like an appealing, if not fantastical place to live when viewing the world through Trump-tinted glasses — glosses over the country’s many shortcomings, which include Trudeau’s overtures to the Trump administration, continuation of his predecessor’s neoliberal policies, cynical use of ethnic identity, and the ongoing, horrifying mistreatment of the country’s First Nation population. Despite what Canadians and their liberal American admirers might want to believe, Canada is really not that special.
Let’s start by examining the rise of Trudeau who, with his politically correct socks, social media savvy, and healthy coif of hair, has become not only a symbol of advanced wokeness, but of abject desire. The prime minister’s famous response in 2015 to a question regarding the 50/50 gender balance and ethnic diversity in his cabinet — “because it’s 2015” — was his first step on the road to widespread liberal adulation; his reputation in the U.S. only grew as Trump took office. But Trudeau's high-minded rhetoric and pleasing image obscure the fact that his policies are designed to strip the environment, enrich the wealthy, and fail the minority groups he vowed to protect. For instance, his proclamation from last year that “we need to be able to project [to] the world that when Canada agrees to something, it sticks to its word” in regards to maintaining the terms of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia set up by his predecessor, Stephen Harper. Trudeau stuck to this talking point even though it was revealed that the weapons were being used against civilians in Saudi Arabia and, likely, Yemen, as well as propping up the anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ regimes of those countries.
Canadian ideals of liberalism and diversity are not reflected in Trudeau’s policies.
Meanwhile, Trudeau has been quick to assert his support for American missile strikes in Syria, saying in April that his country fully supports the “limited and focused action to degrade the Syrian regime's ability to conduct chemical weapons attacks.” And Trump has extended the olive branch to Trudeau, as well: earlier this month, the president gave the prime minister’s plan to increase Canadian military spending by 70 percent over the next ten years a rave review. Such chumminess could be chalked up to politics as usual, but here it shows that Trudeau’s opposition to Trump’s policies is merely political posturing, meant to shore up domestic support while cultivating a relationship with the superpower to the south and high-fiving a young girl dressed as Wonder Woman.
This two-faced behavior is not new for the Trudeau family. Although the younger Trudeau’s father, Pierre, who served as prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and then 1980 to 1984, publicly opposed the Vietnam War and opened Canada to draft resisters, Canadian industry profited immensely from the destruction wrought by the American war in Southeast Asia. In their 2010 book, Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies, historians John Herd Thompson and Stephen J. Randall report that the U.S. Department of Defense contracted $2.65 billion worth of military equipment in Canada while Trudeau the elder was prime minister. Included in these billions was the sale of napalm, the brutal instrument that the U.S. used to maim and kill the Vietnamese, and which was produced in a factory in Quebec. Canadian paeans to the nation’s liberalism and its distinction from the U.S. seem to conveniently forget that some of the blood of the millions who died in Southeast Asia belongs on Canadian hands. Trudeau's support for Trump’s misadventures threatens to do the same for Canadians in our own time.
But perhaps the most galling thing about Trudeau the younger’s promise of a new Canadian politics, embracing liberalism and diversity, is that such ideals are not reflected in the policies he’s pursued. Last fall, Trudeau approved a new, multibillion-dollar oil pipeline linking the shale fields in Alberta to British Columbia. This is in addition to his rededicated support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Alberta to Nebraska, when Trump reopened the matter in January. These ecologically unsound decisions, which bend to the whims of the powerful Canadian fracking and oil shale industries, are the sort of thing that push environmentalists out of electoral politics and make common cause with certain factions of the American liberal establishment. Trudeau has also shown a propensity for privatization — which he prefers to cloak in euphemisms like “asset recycling” — of schools, banks, and hospitals, redistributing wealth from the poorest Canadians to the richest along the way. This embrace of privatization links him to the Canadian right, which has long championed this shift, and, once again, Trump: Trudeau’s plan to have private interests rebuild Canadian infrastructure echoes Trump’s plans to make American infrastructure great again via private channels.
The reality of discrimination in Canada surely undermines its glowing image.
Multiculturalism is another ideal that the Trudeaus have bastardized for their own gain. The New York Times might tout multiculturalism as something borne out of a love for immigrants and other Canadian minorities, but it was more a savvy political decision made at a time of crisis. Quebecois nationalism bloomed during the 1960s and led to rumblings of a separation between the province and the rest of Canada. Pierre Trudeau, a French-Canadian, found himself struggling to keep Canada unified. To undermine Quebec’s claim that it was an isolated nation surrounded by an English-speaking hegemony, Trudeau announced in 1971 an official policy of Canadian multiculturalism. This policy served the dual purpose of making French Canadians simply another ethnic group in the Canadian mosaic and gaining the admiration of minority voters, who had long been ignored by the Canadian political establishment. While this pragmatism is clearly beyond the grasp of Republicans in the U.S., it points less to an accepting society of equals and more to a cynical use of identity in pursuit of a broadly neoliberal agenda that is not unheard of in America. The Trudeau legacy on multiculturalism will not be one of openness but of political gamesmanship, with ethnic identity serving both of them as something that can be politically expedient but also ignored when confronted with the reality of discrimination in Canada.
And the reality of discrimination in Canada surely undermines its glowing image. The Canadian First Nation population, numbering nearly two million, continues to face immiserating economic conditions. The rate of unemployment and incarceration of First Nation Canadian males has reached shocking levels far higher than that of their white counterparts — a rate equal or greater than between white and black males in the U.S. There is a 50 percent income gap between First Nation Canadian males living on reservations and white Canadian males. A decades-long epidemic of sexual violence and murder against First Nation women has been largely ignored by law enforcement. Terry Glavin, a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, in 2014 decried the inequality found between First Nation communities — particularly among those living on reservations — and white Canadians. Glavin closed his piece by referencing Martin Luther King, Jr.:
African-Americans might be forgiven for every once in a while losing patience with how long it’s taking that arc [of justice] to fully bend towards them. For Canada’s young Aboriginal people, it’s not clear that the arc of the moral universe is even bending in their direction at all.
Trudeau’s failure to support First Nations people, evidenced by his government’s efforts to strip tribal lands of resources to benefit corporate interests, is a clear violation of his own campaign promises. It's another instance that reveals the sharp division between Trudeau's rhetorical flourishes and the harsh reality of his politics.
Canadians ought to consider themselves lucky for the foundations of a social democratic state established by left-wing politicians. But the country is not the oasis of liberalism and joy that many outsiders want to believe it is. Trudeau, though easier on the eyes, shares many distressing commonalities with his counterpart to the south. And the much-celebrated paragon of multiculturalism has in many ways served as a cynical political ploy for both of Canada’s major parties to attract voters and pursue policies that benefit few, if any, of the minorities that voted for them. Those who glorify Canada as a progressive dreamland, as the prime minister struts around in his famous socks, would do well to take a closer look at the people who will be stomped on along the way.