The media love Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC), who won the federal election in October 2015. He is young and handsome, with the emblem of an Indigenous tribe, the Haida, tattooed on his upper arm, and 3.5 million followers on Facebook. The Economist has described him as an ‘example to the world’, E! Online as a ‘smoking-hot syrupy fox’. He features prominently in targeted online advertising for the New York Times which suddenly wants special coverage of Canada.
He combines movie-star appeal with the charisma of Barack Obama and the folksiness of his father, Pierre Trudeau, prime minister 1968-79 and 1980-4. He has posed for photos with Syrian refugees and told an Ottawa mosque audience that Canada is ‘stronger because of the contributions of its Muslim community’. He claims to be a feminist, and committed to the cause of Indigenous Canadians; he is seen as cool, because he is in favour of legalising the recreational use of marijuana, and his name and face feature on packets of Zig-Zag cigarette rolling papers. As with Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi or French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron, his admirers see him as a 21st-century liberal, the antithesis of his conservative predecessor Stephen Harper, Theresa May or Donald Trump.
As xenophobia sweeps the US and Europe, he declares his love of multiculturalism and diversity. Social media users and regular media have lauded his cabinet, which has gender parity and includes four Sikhs, two Indigenous Canadians, one Muslim and one Jew, though it is also 45% career politicians, 19% private and public sector administrators and 13% lawyers. Trudeau is proud of his team, especially defence minister, Harjkit Sajjan, whom he presented as an example of Canada’s ‘magnificent diversity’.
Sajjan is a Sikh Canadian and a former Vancouver police officer (in 1996 he patented a beard-friendly gas mask) turned intelligence agent. While working with the intelligence services in Afghanistan in the 2000s, he was responsible for handing over Canadian-captured prisoners of war to the Afghan authorities, who tortured them. He also assisted in the US’s extraordinary rendition programme. But the media focuses on his beard and moustache: His Sikh identity is part of Canada’s new ideology of ‘sunny ways’.
Trudeau also got elected by seeming to denounce austerity, economic inequality and lack of concrete action on climate change. He advocates what he calls ‘positive politics’ in contrast to the prevailing gloom, and in his victory speech told supporters: ‘We beat fear with hope. We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together ... Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways. That is what positive politics can do.’ His plans for infrastructure investment and a break with austerity made him appear further left than the New Democratic Party (NDP), the labour movement’s traditional party, which had seemed to move to the right after the death of its beloved leader Jack Layton, which hastened the move of trade unionists to the LPC. (Layton was replaced by a former member of the Liberal Party of Quebec, Tom Mulcair.)
Hassan Yussuf, leader of the Canadian Labour Congress and member of Unifor, said last September, a few days after the (temporary) resolution of the dispute between Canada Post and the powerful and combative Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), that there was a ‘sense of optimism’ in the labour movement. This shows the low expectations of the working class more than Trudeau’s commitment to their cause: The government had merely given its word that it would allow collective bargaining and not use the law to force them back to work — the opposite approach to the Harper government. Yussuf’s stance contrasts with that of the CUPW, which has vowed to continue to fight the restructuring of public services. At the same time, Unifor was making concessionary deals on pay and pensions with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler-Fiat, in exchange for vague promises of investment.
Many private sector union leaders, who have largely bought into ‘progressive competitiveness’, support Trudeau, convinced that he is best qualified to attract investors. He recently declared that ‘Canada, with its economic, fiscal, political, social stability is an extremely attractive place to do business’. Yet many rank-and-file activists oppose his policy. Last October he was invited to a youth forum organised by the Canadian Labour Congress. Members of the audience criticised his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and booed when he suggested that precarious work was ‘a fact of life’. Trudeau is committed to TPP and the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement (CETA). While many political leaders and economists are rethinking free trade dogma, he remains an apologist for free trade, using arguments straight out of the 1990s: that freedom to trade promotes openness and friendship between nations. No wonder he is the darling of liberal publications such as The Economist.
Trudeau separates words and actions, presenting himself as a defender of human rights while his country sells unprecedented quantities of arms to dictatorships. Canada has become the second largest exporter of arms to the Middle East (from sixth in 2014) after massive deals with Saudi Arabia. These improved trade links, which then foreign minister StÃ©phane Dion presented as a lever with which to exercise benevolent influence over the kingdom, were made possible by rewriting Canada’s arms export legislation. This previously made sales conditional on ‘wide-ranging consultations’ to evaluate their implications for international security and human rights; the new wording states that consultations ‘may be’ carried out. As John Bell of the Socialist Worker points out, the law originally stated that Canadian arms exports must not be ‘diverted to ends that could threaten the security of Canada, its allies, or other countries or people’; the Trudeau-approved wording drops the crucial reference to ‘other countries or people’ and replaces it with ‘civilians’.
During the cold war, Pierre Trudeau took an original approach to diplomacy, balancing major powers — Canada had the US as its neighbour but was on good terms with Cuba and China — while building a strong welfare state and not hesitating to intervene in the economy, for example by nationalising oil production, with the support of the social-democratic NDP. Justin Trudeau has also chosen rapprochement with China, ending the tension that prevailed under Harper, who refused to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Trudeau and his brothers admire Chinese society, in particular some of its anti-democratic qualities, such as efficiency. Last August Trudeau was warmly welcomed in China, where Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, the world’s largest e-commerce company, called him the ‘future of Canada’. Three weeks after this visit, which led to $1.2bn in new contracts, Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang visited Ottawa. The heads of government announced that they would be starting negotiations on a free trade agreement, delighting Canada’s mining, agrifood and finance multinationals, as well as the Chinese-Canadian business community, which donates generously to the LPC.
Though this rapprochement goes against Trump’s talk of a trade war with China, there are points on which Canadian and US policies converge. Trudeau approves of the intensive exploitation of oil sands, and the Keystone XL project, opposed by environmental activists and Indigenous communities. He also boasts of his special relationship with Argentina’s conservative president Mauricio Macri, whose father did business with Trump in the 1980s.
Despite implying that he would be even-handed, Trudeau has not discontinued the pro-Israel policy of Harper’s government, and has even strengthened it. Last February he supported a Conservative Party motion condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, on the grounds that ‘demonisation and delegitimatisation’ of the state of Israel promoted antisemitism. In August, a schoolteacher in Mississauga, Ontario, was suspended over her involvement in Palestine solidarity campaigns.
How is Trudeau able to get away with this, when he was elected as the ‘progressive’ candidate? He skilfully separates geopolitics and the economy from governance at home. There is an anti-racist tinge to some in his government, which is well-meaning if paternalistic. Trudeau claims to be concerned about colonialism in Canada. At a meeting with students at New York University last April, he said: ‘We have consistently marginalised [Indigenous peoples], engaged in colonial behaviour ... that has left a legacy of challenges.’ After Harper’s denial of the existence of colonialism, a government that claims to want to help Indigenous peoples seems an improvement.
Yet Trudeau has in fact intensified colonisation of Indigenous territories. His ambiguous formulation reveals this: He talks about ‘people who live in Canada’, negating the colonisation of what Indigenous peoples and many progressive Canadians see as nations that overlap with Canada — a modern version of what Perry Anderson called ‘parcellised sovereignty’. Indigenous peoples are not ‘people who live in Canada’ or ‘minorities’ (like Jews or Koreans). The earliest agreements with European settlers in the 17th century recognise them as ‘nations’, dealing with the Canadian state as such. Last Canada Day, 1 July, Trudeau also upset many QuÃ©bÃ©cois by referring to Canada as ‘one nation’. He was later forced to recognise that ‘QuÃ©bÃ©cois form a nation within a united Canada’, in line with the House of Commons resolution of 2006.
There is much talk of ‘helping the people up north’ among liberal Canadians concerned about Indigenous people who retain their ‘authenticity’. But apart from his terminology — which goes against his promise of establishing a new ‘nation-to-nation relationship’ — Trudeau is no more concerned for the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples than Harper. In October 2015, during a broadcast on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network, Trudeau said that Indigenous peoples should have a right to veto mining developments on their land. This conforms to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007, which requires states to ‘consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples ... to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.’
But Trudeau eventually approved environmentally damaging oil pipeline projects and seismic surveys that the Tsleil-Waututh nation of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, and the Inuit of Clyde River on Baffin Island, in the northern territory of Nunavut, have opposed for years. To justify this, natural resources minister Jim Carr has claimed that the government seeks to develop a ‘Canadian definition’ of the UN declaration, which neither Harper nor Trudeau signed. Long-term Indigenous activist Russ Diablo says this is part of the long history of liberal governments saying ‘nice things in public’, but doing business-as-usual colonialism. As noted by Indigenous affairs specialist Warren Bernauer, Canada’s National Energy Board itself has found that the surveys (now being challenged before the courts) do not satisfy the requirement for free, prior and informed consent.
Trudeau is one of the last national leaders to defend migrants, minority rights and openness. Canadians may look at Trump, May, Vladimir Putin, Viktor OrbÃ¡n or Narendra Modi, at the possibility of Marine Le Pen, and breathe a sigh of relief. Yet this is where the danger lies. Trudeau’s ‘progressivism’ is part of a mutation of political divides. The left/centre/right system is being replaced by opposition between the proponents of economic and identity nationalism, and the defenders of capitalist globalisation. Trump and Trudeau are two sides of the same coin: time to change currencies?