But in the wake of the past two months of controversy over the SNC-Lavalin affair, a new, edgier tone has emerged. It isn’t all sunshine and light. Trudeau has moved, inside and outside the Commons, to link Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to white supremacism and the alt-right.
The prime minister swung hard at Scheer and his conservative ally, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, for using people’s economic insecurities to sow division. Trudeau characterized their position as, “Why worry about climate change, they say, when immigrants are taking your jobs?”
Scheer says Trudeau used to campaign against “the politics of fear and division” but now the PM is the one “inflaming very real threats of extremism for cheap political points,” according to his spokesman.
In an era of social media, daily trolling and online hatred may make tribalism and polarization seem more prevalent than they are. After all, divisive political debates are nothing new in Canada. We’ve lived through them not long ago: free trade, Quebec separatism, the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional battles, to name just a few.
Yet several observers and politicians themselves worry about a growing divide. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he has noticed a shift toward sharper, more polarizing rhetoric on both sides of the Commons aisle.
Trudeau and Scheer are drawing lines and “pointing fingers, fighting each other” using divisive inflammatory language “instead of saying what’s the root cause of all this,” says Singh.
“The root cause is the (economic) fear and insecurity. Let’s solve those worries and fears that people have. Let’s actually tackle the housing crisis … let’s make life more affordable in a meaningful way by covering medication for everyone in the country,” Singh said in a phone interview from Nanaimo where he was campaigning for the party’s candidate in a federal byelection.
“They’re not talking about the solutions.”
In the U.S., a report called Hidden Tribes last year explored the extent of polarization among Americans, and found in fact there is an “exhausted majority” of Americans who want to move beyond division. There does not appear to be a comparable study on the extent of the political divide in Canada.
Chris Cochrane, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, is author of Left and Right, The Small World of Political Ideas, in which he says the Canada Elections Study’s “feeling thermometer” appears to illustrate a growing animosity within Canadian politics. But it shows the rising animosity occurs among those who are politically engaged and partisan, and not more broadly among voters.
“We all kind of feel it in our bones, we feel it anecdotally, we certainly note the harsher tone and tenor in terms of the political rhetoric that we’re hearing,” says pollster Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute. “But it’s a tough thing to measure.”
Kurl says the sharper political talk appears driven by electoral considerations.
In the wake of the SNC-Lavalin controversy, she said “Justin Trudeau failed the test that he set for himself on politics with integrity, ethical politics, and so now I think as a result you’re going to see more of these wedge issues driven harder and it’s going to be a pointier edge around, ‘We stand for this, they stand for that, what kind of Canada do you want?’ ”
Trudeau last week said hope was a powerful motivator in 2015 but he said Liberals “have to recognize that anger is powerful, too. And that anger is what conservative parties around the world are tapping into.”
The prime minister’s rhetoric in recent days suggests that in the six months before the next federal election, the Liberal leader is not planning to rely solely on his “sunny ways” playbook of 2015.
Yes, he still talks up climate change and the strength of Canada’s diversity. But he is more than willing to take the gloves off and hit his opponents hard.
Cochrane says when politicians link their opponents to extremist views, as when the Conservatives attacked former NDP leader Jack Layton as a Taliban sympathizer, it serves to sharpen differences and align a rival with a distasteful group.
But in suggesting Scheer or Ford are sympathizers of the alt-right, Cochrane suggests Trudeau is playing with fire. “Strategically it’s in the short-term political interest of the Liberals to play up the alt-right, because the stronger the alt-right (connection) … the more it’s going to make life difficult for Conservatives. And the more that’s going to help the Liberals.”
But Cochrane says it’s unlikely to peel away an Andrew Scheer or Doug Ford supporter — and by aligning a fringe group with mainstream conservatives, “it does contribute I think to making these groups more mainstream than they already are.”
Cochrane says the question that Trudeau and “anybody anywhere on the political spectrum should have to answer is ‘what would a good person who disagrees with you look like?’ ”
Pollster Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research, says attitudes in Canada are hardening when it comes to issues like immigration, climate change or carbon taxes. And while race and immigration have never been ballot-booth issues in Canada (unlike in America and Europe), Graves says that is changing.
Graves released results Monday of a poll that showed a significant increase in the number of people thinking there are too many visible minorities entering Canada, although in general opposition to immigration levels hasn’t changed greatly over the past several years.
There was an even wider gap when Liberal and Conservative supporters were surveyed about their views, EKOS found.
In 2019, 69 per cent of Conservative supporters said “too many” visible minorities are arriving among immigrants to Canada, up from 47 per cent in 2013.
Among Liberal supporters, the number that said “too many” dropped from 34 per cent in 2013 to 15 per cent in 2019.
Graves says the level of polarization is dramatically higher now on other questions as well.
“The gaps between Conservatives and Liberals and other centre-left voters are more entrenched, there’s less common ground than certainly I’ve seen in an awful long time,” he said. And the Conservatives “are effectively tapping into these very strong emotions of fear and anger which are linked to these responses,” he said.
Trudeau’s sharper rhetoric may be an attempt to “inject a little bit more emotional intensity” into the Liberals’ position, Graves says.
“We know that emotion is critical to winning elections,” he said. “The rational debate about who’s right and who’s wrong … isn’t particularly influential as to how people make their final ballot-booth decisions.”
Kurl says politicians don’t always get to frame the ballot question, no matter how hard they stir the pot.
She notes Alberta’s NDP Leader Rachel Notley “tried to draw a contrast” with UCP Leader Jason Kenney, painting him as “homophobic, not robust on LGBTQ2 issues, not robust on other issues … they even had the kamikaze-candidate stuff,” Kurl says. “None of it penetrated.”
“It didn’t work because people were more preoccupied by home economics and kitchen-table issues: do I have a job, can my kid find a job, can I sell my house, can I pay my mortgage? … People were so fundamentally driven by the real ballot question, which was the economy and their own personal fortunes.”
Graves adds that politicians who adopt a “moral lecture” approach to their political opponents risk “adding emotional fuel to the fire.” Furthermore, it doesn’t acknowledge deeper economic reasons why people move to those positions.
Graves says in the next election, immigration and climate change “are going to be the two dominant issues which will shape which party is going to be successful.” And on those two issues, the Liberals have lost many of their working-class voters since the last campaign to the Conservatives, he says.
“Ironically maybe, the Liberals have to get back to their message about restoring middle-class progress. The collapse of middle-class progress and shared prosperity is very much at the heart of why all this stuff has been put in motion.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc