A New Leaf

Considering the Canadian Election

by Kelton Ellis

published October 30, 2015

On October 19, the centrist Liberal Party of Canada won the nation’s federal elections in a decisive victory that will make Justin Trudeau, the party’s 43-year old leader, Prime Minister. The election marks the end of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which has been in power since 2006. Trudeau will be the second youngest Prime Minister in Canada’s history, as well as the first child of a Prime Minister to win office; his father, Pierre Trudeau, was Prime Minister for most of the period between 1968 and 1984. Never before in Canadian history has a party become the majority government without previously having been the incumbent, or the official opposition. This title falls to the second largest party in Parliament, which, prior to elections, was the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) led by Tom Mulcair. The NDP lost 51 seats, now making it the third largest party.

The NDP is traditionally the most left-wing of Canada’s three major parties, but Trudeau won some of the NDP base by running to their left on key issues. Where Mulcair and the NDP did not run on raising taxes, Trudeau proposed raising taxes on Canada’s wealthier citizens. Where Mulcair promised to restrict spending to balance the budget, Trudeau instead called for higher deficit spending to boost the Canadian economy, which has seen a small downturn amid falling oil prices. Like Obama after the 2008 US presidential election, Trudeau is an idealistic new leader for Canada after a period of dominance by an opposing party—his slogan “Real Change Now” closely echoed Obama's own campaign prescription for “Change We Can Believe In.”




Obama has doubtlessly found a better ideological counterpart in Trudeau as he enters his last year in office. Canada and the United States have always maintained a strong political alliance and shared ideals, but the two nations have had a more strained relationship in recent years due to the marked policy differences between Harper and Obama. Part of this tension arises from the Keystone pipeline. The pipeline, proposed by energy corporation TransCanada in 2008, would transport crude oil from fields in Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Sections of the pipeline have been finished since then, but the completion of Keystone XL, the project’s last and vital phase, remains halted by Obama's reluctance to give it his approval. The pipeline requires the Obama’s signature because it would traverse the two countries if completed. 

Both Trudeau and the ousted Harper have been enthusiastic supporters of the pipeline, which they believe will bring economic growth and increased energy independence to both sides of the border. However, in February, Obama vetoed legislation that would have authorized completion of Keystone XL, citing the State Department’s ongoing review of the project. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, the two leading candidates in the Democratic presidential primaries, have come out against the pipeline due to environmental concerns. Obama, Clinton, and Sanders might have been more in agreement with an NDP government: Tom Mulcair is the only leader of Canada’s three major parties who does not support the pipeline’s completion. While Obama and Trudeau disagree on the pipeline’s value, Trudeau, whose platform included action on climate change, has been more open to discussing environmental concerns than Harper. Obama will be more likely to find common ground on Keystone XL with Trudeau. Obama does not currently hold an official position on Keystone, but Trudeau is reportedly confident that he can convince Obama to support the pipeline. 

Conversely, Trudeau has not taken a position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Under the TPP, Canada and the US would form a trading bloc with ten other nations around the Pacific Rim. A deal between the countries was drafted on October 5, but both the US and Canada will likely undergo ratification votes on the TPP in the coming months. The generally pro-trade Trudeau offered some degree of support during a congratulatory phone call with Obama last week. If ratified, it would arguably be the most significant policy accomplishment of the Obama administration in expanding foreign trade.




The Liberal victory will also mean a somewhat different Canadian policy on military intervention in international affairs. Under the Conservatives, Canadian foreign policy was generally aligned with that of the US. The often pro-interventionist Harper maintained a Canadian presence, mostly comprised of peacekeepers, in Afghanistan to support the American-led coalition against the Taliban. The Harper government also sent CF-15 fighter jets to assist the US and other nations’ work against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Trudeau, on the other hand, made a campaign promise to withdraw Canadian military support from the ISIS conflict. Perhaps because more Canadian peacekeepers have died overseas than those from any other country, Canada’s contribution to the efforts were this time small, and it is unlikely Trudeau and Obama will dispute the issue. Trudeau said in a news conference that Obama “understands the commitments I’ve made about ending the combat mission.” 

The other, crucial side to the battle against ISIS has been the massive displacement of Syrians. At the time of writing, the UN Refugee Agency reports that well over 4 million people are now refugees due to ISIS and the Syrian Civil War. This has predictably put pressure on neighboring nations Turkey and Lebanon, as well as Europe, but North America has also been recently implicated. 

Last month, the 3-year-old Kurdish refugee Alan Kurdi was found dead on a Turkish beach. The child’s family have since alleged that their application for asylum had been rejected by Canada, but the Canadian government claims to have not received an application from them. A picture of Kurdi’s lifeless body, face-down in the sand, was widely circulated as people called for swifter responses to the refugee crisis. It became a pointed issue in the Canadian election campaign: Stephen Harper gave his condolences but held his cautious stance on resettling refugees in Canada, while Trudeau made the ambitious proposal to resettle 25,000 Syrians by year’s end and indicted Harper for the government’s slow acceptance of refugees. 25,000 is a bold number compared to the Obama administration’s goal of 10,000, but Washington and Ottawa can be allies, ideologically and logistically, in resettling refugees. 

Commentators have joined Harper and Mulcair in noting Trudeau’s relative lack of political experience as a potential weakness of the new government; Trudeau did not join Parliament until 2008 and had been a schoolteacher before then, showing little initial interest in politics despite being a former Prime Minister’s son. Left-leaning critics in Canada have additionally expressed some cynicism about Trudeau, saying that Liberals run on a progressive platform only to govern more conservatively than they promise. Of course, it is hard to tell how Trudeau’s proposals will turn out—but he has a majority in Parliament, which will facilitate the passage of policy. What is clear is that Trudeau’s election signals a great change from nearly a decade of Conservative rule in Canada, and, by extension, some change for the US, too. 


KELTON ELLIS B’18 would be a New Democrat if he were Canadian.