Home > Current Affairs, History, Politics > Vendettas, Votes and Vindication: The 2015 Canadian Federal Election

Vendettas, Votes and Vindication: The 2015 Canadian Federal Election

Ready or not, here he comes.

After a lengthy, bitterly contested 78-day federal election campaign, 43-year-old Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party of Canada to its first majority government in 15 years, ousting the decade-old government of Conservative Party leader and incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the process. The often-labelled “natural governing party” of Canada had suffered three consecutive electoral defeats against their fiercely determined nemesis Harper, whose ruthless Conservative campaign machine dismantled three tremendously accomplished party leaders (Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff) on its way to a majority which promised to allow Harper to remake Canada along the right-wing ideological lines that he had always dreamed of (or so says the established media narrative, which history may not ultimately support).

Harper and the well-honed Conservative attack apparatus laid the groundwork for the 2015 election years before it happened, characterizing Justin Trudeau as a naive, inexperienced lightweight in ads and mail-outs before he was even chosen as Liberal leader and carpet-bombing pre-election TV and radio with the now-infamous “Just Not Ready” commercials, criticizing his policy justintrudeaurallystatements alongside jibes about his name and (slightly envious) references to the quality of his coiffure. Despite the Official Opposition status of the New Democratic Party and the impressive credentials of its leader Tom Mulcair, it was always clear that Trudeau, despite the Liberals’ 36 House of Commons seats and third-party status, was viewed by Harper and his strategists as the true threat.

As it turned out, their suspicions were well-founded but ultimately futile in salvaging Stephen Harper’s attempt for a fourth term in the PMO. It must be a particularly bitter defeat for Harper, who was driven to get into politics by an incandescent hatred for Justin’s father, the long-serving Liberal PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau (charismatic angel of progressive baby boomers, distrusted demon of Western Canadian conservatives), and had his ambitions for a transformative reign over the nation ended by the son that he attempted to destroy. It was a generational vendetta of political bloodthirstiness worthy of Gangs of New York‘s Bill the Butcher, and it ended only slightly better for Harper (who stepped down as leader but remained on as MP, a force of influence still) than it did for Bill.

But as in Martin Scorsese’s historical epic, victory and defeat in the 2015 election came down not to a superiority in masculine will but to the applied inertia of larger forces, to tides of political history, social change, and cultural proclivities that even the observer with the widest perspective can barely fathom. With polls static in a three-way dead heat for weeks, the Conservatives opened a small lead which was then reduced and eclipsed by a late Liberal push, very much at the expense of the NDP, who fell back to the 40-ish seats level of their low ceiling of support prior to Jack Layton‘s historic breakthrough in 2011 (a legacy which now seems distinctly short-lived).

What motivated this decisive shift? Pundits and operatives on the left and right might point to the controversy over the wearing of the niqab as an important vote-shifting issue. Conservatives might have believed it to be a safe, disavowable dog-whistle to a traditional, xenophobic (and not entirely white) base distrustful of the social, cultural and economic changes that immigration continues to portend. The niqab was only the tip of an Islamophobic iceberg that manifests alike in other Tory promises and policies like the military coalition against ISIS and the creepily McCarthyist “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. Trudeau and the Liberals condemned the niqab issue as a cynical distraction, while Mulcair went even further, denouncing rhetoric and policy of its sort as dangerous and damaging to multicultural Canada’s social stability.

The niqab issue may not have been a direct impetus for the vote shift that gave Justin Trudeau his dad’s old job, but there is an argument to be made that it galvanized a pre-existing progressive plurality of anti-Harper and anti-CPC sentiment to action. Despite a decade of attempted enforcement of a new, distinctly paternal conservatism under Harper, a string of chest-beating military glorification, low-key culture wars, and unregulated market-first capitalism, Canadian identity is still stubbornly entwined with progressive conceptions of tolerance and integration (the reactionary resistance to which partially explains the belligerent, open discriminatory language of Rob and Doug Ford, whom Harper rallied with in their stronghold on the eve of the election).

The specific issue of the ban on niqabs in citizenship ceremonies (which a majority of Canadians supported, contradicting the interpretations of the policy as a fatal blow to Harper’s Conservatives) was less threatening to this identity construction than was the mean-spirited and discriminatory attitude that it reflected. Harper’s Stephen HarperConservative government conducted their crusading remolding of Canada with a spirit of arrogant compulsion, bullying and pushing harder than necessary when a more honeyed approach might have had a more perniciously successful result. Driven by a resentful neoconservative ideology that multiplied its enemies and alienated its potential allies, the Conservatives (and control freak Harper especially) made themselves a target whose electoral defeat was widely desired outside of the die-hard party loyalists in the Ontario suburbs and the rural West.

The 2015 election was more about taking down Stephen Harper than anything else, and the voting public’s long feeling-out process to determine the best weapon to bring down the beast meandered finally to the camp of Trudeau’s Liberals for reasons that I will not even pretend to be able to comprehend, let alone expertly analyze. But support moved decisively red, and one has to recognize and appreciate the concerted migration of the anti-Harper voting block on the left to the Liberals rather than to the NDP (handcuffed by Mulcair’s charisma gap and his greedy and increasingly desperate shift to the centre). Witness the clean Liberal sweep of central Toronto, home to the most media-saturated and media-savvy urban population in the country, which decisively shifted its considerable electoral weight to name a new Prime Minister who stood the best chance of toppling the old one.

And what of that new Prime Minister, who shares a name and fulfills the political dynastic promise of an alternately venerated and villified old one? Perhaps some aging boomers gravitated to the young politician with the familiar name out of a vicarious nostalgia, but the younger urban progressives who pushed turnout rates higher than they have been for 20 years are unlikely to feel much connection to a dead Prime Minister that they do not remember, nor to the lingering historical fissures that his long premiership caused.

Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, as is their fundamental ideological wont, remain in the grip of the past, entangled in its sharp, brambled conflicts. The youthful Justin Trudeau, not wholly unlike a less historically significant, more vaguely nepotistic, scrubbed-clean Canadian version of Barack Obama, looked towards an uncertain future with a sense of generalized hope and optimism (even if, like Obama, his actual policies and legislation are unlikely to be so clear-eyed and big-hearted). That same uncertain future unsettled and terrified Stephen Harper and his Conservatives, or at least they thought it worth their while to convince voters that they should be unsettled and terrified by it. Canadian voters of a different and more progressive stripe rejected this distrust of the unknown, the unproven, the unpredictable. They embraced it instead. The upcoming first term of this second Prime Minister Trudeau may yet tell if their embrace was well-placed.

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