In Kingston, Ontario, last month, beloved Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip played their final concert. Among the audience was none other than Justin Trudeau — resplendent in his Canadian tuxedo (denim jacket, jeans, and a band t-shirt) — with his McGill pal and political advisor Gerry Butts.
Trudeau had earlier tweeted a photo of himself passionately hugging lead singer Gord Downie, who appealed to the prime minister from stage to do more for indigenous people. An icon of Anglo-Canadian left-nationalist culture — up there with Joni Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, and David Cronenberg — Downie seemed convinced that Trudeau would “do the right thing” and “help these people.”
Canadian progressives and some labor movement members share Downie’s sincere hope that the young Trudeau represents a progressive turn for Canada. After all, he campaigned to the left of the New Democratic Party (NDP).
That party’s now-ousted leader Thomas Mulcair, a self-professed Margaret Thatcher fan, ran on a fiscally conservative platform, while Trudeau sold himself as the anti-austerity candidate and promised significant social measures, including the legalization of marijuana.
Though he shares few of his political commitments, in many ways, Trudeau campaigned in the style of Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias. He was in no way a left-wing candidate, but like Obama to his south and like his father before him, he knows how to appeal to the Canadian conscience.
He called himself a feminist and assembled a gender-balanced cabinet. He appointed a significant number of people of color to cabinet positions, including “badass” defense minister Harjit Sajjan.
Sajjan’s record as a Canadian intelligence officer in Afghanistan who turned prisoners of war over to the Afghan forces to be tortured gets left out of most media coverage, which instead focuses on Trudeau’s multicultural administration.
This of course is the insidious danger of Justin Trudeau. He is the embodiment of the “edgy white liberal,” a living Ted Talk, a cosmopolitan George W. Bush with Jeb Bartlett’s politics. But his image has been carefully stage-managed, obscuring policies that track much further right than his shirtless photobombs and parade appearances are designed to suggest.
Until the election of Trudeau’s father Pierre in 1968, the Canadian Liberal Party was seen as stodgy and patrician, the party of Canada’s traditional “Laurentian” elite. Papa Pierre — a one-time admirer of Petain and Franco — became enamored with Marshall McLuhan and welcomed John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their peace tour.
The meeting with Lennon and Ono highlighted the prime minister’s prominent nonparticipation in Vietnam, while ignoring the massive profits earned by the Canadian aerospace industry thanks to the war.
No doubt, progressive gains were made during these years, but Trudeau can’t take credit for them. Thanks in large part to intense pressure from social movements, US citizens avoiding the draft moved to Canada with relative ease. When, in 1975, Trudeau’s minority government founded a national oil company, Petro-Canada, it did so only due to the support of the NDP, which held the balance of power.
But in 1970, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act — suspending habeas corpus and massively enhancing police power — after a Quebecois nationalist group kidnapped the British trade commissioner and Quebec’s labor minister.
Tommy Douglas’s NDP opposed Trudeau’s declaration of martial law, but when the prime minister was asked by journalists how far he would go to stop the separatists, he famously responded “Just watch me.” After all, during his election campaign he’d faced down sovereignty protesters who called for his hanging.
Then there’s his 1969 white paper, which called for indigenous people to lose status and assimilate under the banner of liberal multiculturalism. It also ended the reservation system, putting indigenous land up for sale. The horrors that Gord Downie called on the younger Trudeau to solve were largely put in place by the prime minister’s own father.
A Bit of Compassion
Justin grew up in the spotlight, Canada’s answer to JFK, Jr. Whether it was getting a stuffed Snoopy from Dick and Pat Nixon, taking in The Empire Strikes Back with his father, enjoying canoe trips, or mugging for the camera, the media documented his childhood relentlessly.
After going to McGill and befriending Butts, Trudeau — like many young and wealthy Canadians — headed out to British Columbia and did a lot of skiing. He eventually attended teacher’s college and taught in the province.
In 1998, his brother Michel died in an avalanche, and Justin became reacquainted with the public eye as a safety advocate. The earnest Canuck became ubiquitous, particularly in West Coast media, championing all sorts of liberal causes, such as saving Darfur or mentoring indigenous youth.
Like most well-bred Canadians, Trudeau thought he was on the earth to save it. Canada’s bourgeoisie see no problem in their society’s structure; it just needs some tinkering, a little bit of compassion.
Trudeau really came into the spotlight at his father’s funeral, with Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter and all sorts of Davos types present. His eulogy has been called historic — some wags even compared it to Pericles — and launched his career as a national public figure. Seven years later, he was elected as a member of parliament (MP) in Papineau, a district in Montreal.
At this point, Butts, Trudeau’s Karl Rove, started to craft his rise to the top. During these years, Trudeau often served as a punch line — a Canadian George W. Bush best known for charity boxing matches and non-committal positions. At most, he joined interim Liberal Party leader Bob Rae in denouncing the far-right Harper Tories for the same policies that were implemented by previous Liberal governments.
Stars in Their Eyes
Donald Trump might repeat “they love me in China,” but they really love Trudeau. Notwithstanding his perfunctory human rights statement — which he’d never bring to Saudi Arabia or Israel — that the Chinese state media called “disappointing,” he is a star. Billionaire Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Alibaba, called him the “future of Canada,” and youth and women’s party-published magazines portrayed him like his dad’s old friend John Lennon.
Canada and China have a long-standing relationship — Canada always did business with “communists” — but Harper’s government had cooled things off. Not so with Trudeau. China’s and Canada’s bourgeoisie portray themselves as less protectionist than the United States — and, indeed, under Trudeau’s leadership, the Canadian state has again started to gripe about American tariffs, in particular regarding negotiations over the softwood lumber trade.
This true-blue free-trade neoliberalism with a dash of socially progressive measures is, after all, the Liberal party’s bread and butter. We might forgive Chinese teenagers and billionaires for falling for it, but the Canadian labor movement should be more skeptical.
Of course, the traditional labor party, the NDP, doesn’t offer much of an alternative, and Trudeau did run on a more Keynesian, Piketty-inflected platform than NDP leader Tommy Mulcair.
But the labor movement’s love affair with Trudeau differs from the old strategic ass-kissing of whoever holds power. Hassan Yussuf, Canadian Labour Congress president, effusively praised Trudeau, and he’s not alone. This approval, however, represents Canadian labor’s radically diminished expectations and suspension of rational analysis.
Take the recent settlement between Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), one of the few large unions with a real rank-and-file culture and a far-left leadership. CUPW held their ground and built immense community support nationwide, helped by the unpopularity of Harper’s move to halt door-to-door mail delivery.
The union successfully staved off a two-tiered pension plan. The state could have legislated binding arbitration or called employees back to work. But right as CUPW was in legal strike position, the minister of labor appointed a mediator. CUPW successfully held back concessions, an important fight that lays the groundwork for their visionary approach to public services.
But Yussuf and the Liberal-fluffing Toronto Star see this — and the Trudeau government’s apparent willingness to discuss expanding the Canada Pension Plan — as evidence that labor has a friend in the prime minister. By not forcing a settlement — by simply allowing the normal functioning of legal collective bargaining to proceed — Trudeau became labor’s hero.
Further, on private-sector labor issues, Trudeau’s record has been terrible. His championing of the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement (CETA) privileges corporations over workers. As Linda McQuiag points out, under CETA, “investors will still be able to bring lawsuits over government policies they don’t like, and their lawsuits will still be decided by special tribunals where they will enjoy stronger legal protections than are available to any other group in domestic or international law.”
As of Labor Day, no union has called to scrap or substantially alter CETA. In the past, the Canadian labor bureaucracy has fought trade agreements that would hurt the working class. Today, they’re too busy swooning over Trudeau to protect workers’ interests.
We Stand on Guard for Thee
Trudeau’s foreign policy, like President Obama’s, seemed to scale back on his predecessor’s warmongering. But in reality, it is as aggressive, if not more, than Harper’s.
A case in point is Canada’s long tradition of serving as an international warlord — a supplier of arms and weaponry to anyone who can pay. Canada is now the second biggest arms dealer in the Middle East. John Bell lists Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, Colombia, Peru, and Turkey as customers of Canadian arms companies or multinational companies with powerful Canadian subsidiaries.
“Sunny Ways” Trudeau famously declared himself a feminist, but he sells weapons to the most vicious and misogynistic government in the world. He chastises China’s human rights abuses, but never Saudi Arabia’s.
In fact, as Bell points out, Canadian arms dealers enjoy more — not less — freedom under Trudeau. The previous laws forbade arms exports that could be “diverted to ends that could threaten the security of Canada, its allies, or other countries or people.” This language stopped Harper from making certain deals with the Saudis, thanks to their massacres of civilians in Yemen and Bahrain.
Trudeau and his pals removed the reference to “other countries or people” and replaced it with “civilians,” limiting the prohibition to Canadian citizens and thereby opening up trade. The fact that no opposition campaign, no peace movement, not even a peep from those within the NDP or the Liberals, who have traditionally opposed Canada’s role as an arms-dealing state, has emerged testifies to the Trudeau team’s ability to manufacture consent.
Traditionally, the Liberals took an even-handed stance on Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Some pro-Israel types hated Pierre Trudeau for this, but his son won’t face the same criticism.
In February 2016, the Conservative Party tabled a motion condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that was supported by Trudeau and all but a handful of his Liberal colleagues. The resolution called the BDS movement “demonization and delegitimization” and implied quite strongly that it is motivated by antisemitism.
Even the cowardly former NDP leader Tom Mulcair criticized the motion as an attack on free speech and the rights of advocacy groups. Mulcair rightfully compared it to the Liberal support for Harper’s horrifying anti-terrorism legislation — a controversial measure Trudeau took a “mend it, don’t end it” position on during last year’s election.
As a result of the BDS sanctions, schoolteachers, university and college instructors, and others working in the broadly defined public sector are feeling a chill. Indeed one schoolteacher in Mississauga was suspended over her longtime involvement in Palestine solidarity campaigns.
While the official Canadian policy toward Palestine-Israel remains unchanged — it opposes the occupation and the “separation barrier” — in practice Canada continues to support the Netanyahu crowd.
Other examples of Trudeau’s belligerence and hypocrisy proliferate.
There is a well-documented difference between the rhetoric and the reality of Canada’s commitments to combating climate change following the COP21 summit. At least on oil pipelines, Canada has often tacked right of the US Democratic Party, which, due to lower oil prices and environmentally concerned voters, has halted a good number of joint oil projects, notably Keystone XL.
The country’s attitude toward migrants and, in particular, their detention and effective torture is shameful — reports abound of migrant deaths, with the leading causes being lack of adequate health care, followed by suicide.
Canada has also led NATO’s confrontation with Russia, sending a one-thousand-strong peacekeeping force into Latvia near the Russian border, putting the nation on war footing.
Explaining the move, defense minister Sajjan told reporters that it was “about sending a right message of cohesion within NATO, giving confidence to member states, and showing how important deterrence is so we can get back to a responsible dialogue.”
While denying that a new Cold War has begun, Canadian diplomats are already using Cold War language, referring to “reassurance measures” like helping the right-wing Ukrainian government.
And let’s not forget Canada’s continued deployment in Iraq. Sunny ways indeed.
Not the Left's Friend
Justin Trudeau represents everything wrong with politics in advanced capitalist countries right now. He is the future of center-left politics, a spectrum that ruling classes would like to see as cosmopolitan versus nativist, not socialist versus capitalist. The UK Labour Party’s right wing likely fantasizes about finding their own Trudeau to stop Corbyn.
Trudeau manufactures consent more skillfully than Obama, and has at least as much charisma. He outshines Hillary Clinton in both departments. Justin Trudeau is the personification of Vox. He thinks like Ezra Klein, but talks like a weird fusion of Malcolm Gladwell, Bono, and Richard Branson.
He became prime minister by tacking to the left of the NDP, and is governing to the right of the Conservatives. A self-proclaimed feminist, he has done nothing to improve the negligible access to family planning and abortion services in the socially conservative maritime provinces. Calling poverty sexist, he nevertheless implements policies that impoverish women in Canada and around the world.
Enormously popular for his stance on marijuana, he placed former Toronto police chief Bill Blair in charge of the marijuana file; enforcement of pot laws has skyrocketed. Declaring himself an environmentalist, he’s joined Sarah Palin in a chorus of “drill, baby, drill” and called for more oil extraction in Alberta’s tar sands. Ostensibly working to “restore Canada’s good standing in the world,” he has embarked on a foreign policy substantively more aggressive than Obama’s second term.
Fighting back against Justin Trudeau’s agenda for Canada will require immense thought, organization, and coalition building, not unthinking praise for the prime minister.
CUPW’s campaigns are a good start, but will fall flat if they keep, like the labor leadership, genuflecting the benevolence of our handsome bare-shirted princeling. Attempts at building a genuine radical left party will be difficult without rank-and-file and community support. Outside of Quebec, these are hard to come by. Trying to find a New Democratic Sanders or Corbyn also likely won’t amount to much given the decrepit state of that party.
Canadian radicals, instead, should build power in their workplaces, unionized or not, and strengthen movements to rebuild a militant minority that would create a new basis for counter-power.