Overt displays of anger and ugly, threat-filled protestation are not part of the Canadian character.
In a country better known for ready apology and a low-key, reasoned existence, the extreme behaviour seen on the streets during the federal election campaign of the last few weeks has come as a shock.
Rated by many as the ugliest federal campaign in recent memory, the contest has seen protesters who oppose Covid-19 vaccinations, masks, lockdowns, and vaccine passports repeatedly disrupting prime minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign. One gathering in Bolton, Ontario had to be abandoned such was the threat to the Liberal Party leader and his supporters.
The prime minister has been met at most locations with posters and flags bearing hostile messages such as “Trudeau Treason” and “F_ck Trudeau”. But it is the pure hate in the eyes of the protesters and their repeated jabbing of the middle figure at the politician that have brought the obscenities to a new and ugly level.
On Monday last, he and his entourage were pelted with gravel at a campaign stop in London, Ontario. Luckily no one was hurt, but the elevation of abuse to physical assault is absolutely unacceptable in political debate, a point made forcefully by the other leaders on the campaign trail.
Less obvious than the Covid-19-related diatribes on the street is a broadly held view that calling a snap election last month – a full two years before his mandate expired and in the midst of an unprecedented global health threat – was an opportunistic power grab by Trudeau. His declared reason for having an election now – “Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against Covid-19” – sounds more hollow as the campaign progresses.
As leader of a minority government, the prime minister was always going to look for an opportunity to transform his administration into a majority Liberal government.
Poll numbers from earlier in the summer indicated this was within reach; however, by the middle of the election campaign, Trudeau’s lead had vanished. The latest polls have the Liberals and Conservatives running neck and neck for the September 20th vote.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, a 48-year-old former corporate lawyer and air force officer turned politician, got his party’s campaign off to a solid start. Aware of an established Liberal campaign tactic to paint Conservative leaders as opaque characters with a hidden agenda, O’Toole chose to address potential concerns from the off. His broad pitch to blue-collar workers and a pro-choice stance on abortion were among the tactics that sparked a rise in his personal popularity and that of his party in the polls.
Although he had the element of surprise in calling the snap election, Trudeau sleep-walked his way through the first two weeks of the campaign. And when he did spark, it is was with anger and uncharacteristic “play the man, not the ball” tactics.
As National Post political columnist John Ivison observed this week, Trudeau’s success is built on authenticity – in successive elections, a plurality of voters has been convinced by his empathy and positivity.
“This time, Trudeau is relying on Project Fear to scare progressives into rallying around the Liberal flag. But this sour campaign isn’t really him, and it’s not clear what he has in reserve if it doesn’t work.”
The latest polls confirm the risky tactic: in a Leger poll published on Thursday, 30 per cent of voters who were asked what has surprised them the most about the current campaign said Trudeau “seems out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Canadians” – the highest recorded result across 11 personal leadership traits and four party leaders.
But the Leger stats heralded good news for the New Democratic Party (NDP) leader, Jagmeet Singh, with 23 per cent saying they had an improved opinion of him. Higher public impressions of the NDP leader have been among the most substantial themes of the election campaign so far, helping to bolster support for Singh at the expense of the Liberals.
“He’s a positive figure, he comes across very energetic, he’s well spoken,” said Andrew Enns, executive director at Leger. “I think what’s happened a bit is there’s progressive voters who have been with the Liberals but have started to drift away due to disappointment or disillusionment.”
The NDP is likely to emerge from the election in third place, albeit with a greater number of MPs. But with an outright majority almost certainly beyond the Liberals or Conservatives, the left-leaning party could yet play the role of kingmaker in the next Canadian parliament.