Trudeau was elected in 2015, replacing whatshisname Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

September 20, 2021   5 mins

We Canadians are inordinately concerned with what the rest of the world thinks about us. Perhaps this is because, as Mordecai Richler said, Canada is “not so much a country as a holding tank filled with the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples”. With so many of our ancestors having had to move away from wherever they came from, we are unusually keen to prove to the folks back in the old country that we’ve made it.

Of course, just as no one outside of Britain actually thinks that the NHS is “the envy of the world”, the truth is that most people don’t care much about Canada at all. It’s big, it’s there, but what happens in Canada tends to stay in Canada, unless it’s some self-parodic video about Canadian niceness. In fact, when it comes to Canadian politics, even Canadians tend to find Canada boring, which is why at one point only 8% of them could correctly name our head of state, which suggests a population not gripped by the country’s affairs (the answer, of course, is a familiar one).

Thus, Justin Trudeau’s accession to the premiership in 2015, and the short but fawning bout of international media coverage that it generated, was taken by many Canadians as welcome evidence that we still mattered to foreigners. As a then-recent expat, I have painful memories of earnest Canadian students explaining to their half-interested British friends how Trudeau would restore Canada’s international reputation which had been tarnished by his predecessor, then having to explain who this wicked predecessor was (go on, reader, can you name him?)

The day after his victory, Mr Trudeau, never one for using an under-statement where a hubristic over-statement would do, told the world that “On behalf of 35 million Canadians, we’re back.” And when Donald Trump was elected to the American presidency the following year, our prime minister was even floated briefly as the “new leader of the free world”, something not even his father managed, no matter how many times he hugged Fidel Castro.

Now, as Canada enters the final days of its third federal election in six years, there is no more of that. It’s hard to say when Mr Trudeau went from international golden boy to punch-line to an unfunny joke: was it the novelty socks? Was it his fancy dress-wearing and terrorist-hosting trip to India? Was it the blackface? Was it his groping of a woman? Was it him dressing down a woman who had said “mankind” instead of “peoplekind”?

And those are only the scandals the rest of the world cared about. For every instance of over-enthusiasm in the makeup and wardrobe department, there was a corresponding ethics scandal, or possible attempt to pervert the course of justice, or political prosecution of a senior military leader, or coverup of sexual assault, or
 you get the idea. Mr Trudeau might come across as a naïf on the international stage, but he is the heir to a Liberal Party whose ruthlessness and ability to distribute the right amount of patronage and pork barrel to the right provinces has made it into one of the Western world’s most successful political organisations.

Still, there were moments during the campaign when one wondered if he had lost his political skills, honed since he was a little boy on his father’s knee. For one thing, he never managed to explain to voters why, after promising again and again that he would not call a snap election in the middle of a pandemic, he did exactly that. Confronted with the question, the best he could do was to say that this was Canada’s most important election since 1945, whatever that meant (students of history will remember that the 1945 election was in fact one of the less important in Canadian history, but there are very few of those people in Canada).

As it became apparent that voters remained unconvinced by this argument (or perhaps could not grasp the significance of 1945 as a date), he changed tack. Canadians had to return a Liberal majority to stop Erin O’Toole, the affable but unexciting leader of the Conservative Party, from banning abortion and enacting other unspecified nefarious plans. Given that the Conservatives did no such thing during their preceding nine years in government despite weekly Liberal predictions to the contrary, one could be forgiven for being somewhat sceptical.

In any case, given that the only thing which could make Mr O’Toole prime minister was wining an election, calling a snap one seemed like a very poor strategy to save Canada from those terrible Tories, who have nothing to recommend to them except the support of millions of Canadians: in the last election, they actually won more votes than the Liberals, who were saved only by the entrenched regional malapportionment which Trudeau Sr had written into the Constitution (Liberal-voting Prince Edward Island returns four MPs when it has fewer people than a single constituency in conservative Edmonton).

The lack of any justification for calling this vote does not mean, however, that it is an uninteresting one. For one thing, it must be one of the very few democratic elections conducted by a country which, by the admission of its own government (that would be Mr Trudeau’s), is committing a genocide at the same time.

One might think that the logical thing to do for such a genocide-committing government is to surrender collectively to face trial at The Hague, or at the very least to resign in disgrace and shame. Not so with Mr Trudeau, who obviously doesn’t think that a mere genocide should stop him from winning a third term in office. In fact, even though almost all of Canada’s media and cultural elites have nominally endorsed the idea of an ongoing, state-led genocide in Canada, the subject has been almost entirely absent from this election campaign.

Ongoing genocide or not, it is true that Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples has often been appalling. When he came to power, in a high-profile gesture of reconciliation, Trudeau appointed the newly elected MP Jody Wilson-Raybould as Minister of Justice, the most senior Cabinet post ever held by an Indigenous person. Three years later she was out, after refusing to bow to pressure from the Prime Minister’s office to drop a criminal case against SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec engineering firm which bankrolled the Gaddafi family and which is so corrupt it single-handedly put Canada at the top of the World Bank’s corruption blacklist ranking. The scandal bruised Trudeau, though he wiggled out of it by sacrificing his right-hand aide, an angry little man and semi-professional Twitter troll by the name of Gerald Butts.

Now Wilson-Raybould has written an unostentatious memoir about her time with Trudeau. Having once thought that he was an “honest and good person”, the scales fell from her eyes when she discovered that “he would so casually lie to the public and then think he could get away with it” — and what’s more, try to force her to take part in his lies, too, and to make a mockery of Canadian justice to boot. At one of her last meetings with Trudeau, she told him out loud “I wish that I had never met you”.

No doubt Trudeau, whose propensity to proclaim his feminist credentials as loudly as he can shout them is matched only by his disdain for women who dare to disobey him, feels the same way about her. But thanks to a craven political culture, a favourable electoral map and vote splitting among Right-wing parties, he still might well snatch a victory when the votes are counted, though Liberal hopes of a majority are mostly gone. Mr Trudeau has so far won the endorsements of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Lined up against them is nothing except basic decency.

Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.