Sunny ways, again?

Following in the footsteps of former Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, Justin Trudeau promised Canadians “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways” when he was first elected to a majority government in the fall of 2015.

Laurier, himself, drew his ‘sunny ways’ comment – which he made in 1895 in reference to a fight over the rights of francophone Manitobans to education in their own language and religion – from the Aesop’s Fable “The North Wind and the Sun,” which carried the moral ‘Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.” Laurier sought to resolve the education dispute through negotiation, diplomacy and compromise rather than forced legislation. He did sort the matter our without imposing a new law, but many Francophones would argue that they were losers in the outcome.

There were some sunny ways, or at least hopes for them, following Trudeau’s 2015 election. After all, we were a country that had just lived through nine years under the oppressive government of Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party. Trudeau offered us the opportunity to dream, and took a few important, but in the end not big enough, steps to make those dreams a reality.

The days were cloudy by the time of the 2019 election. Voters were not so sure about the smiling, boyishly charming Justin Trudeau after his government was plagued with a number of serious scandals, including his handling of the SNC-Lavalin controversy, in which he kicked two prominent women out of the Liberal caucus. While Trudeau hung onto power in 2015, he was reduced to a minority government, and the number of Liberal MPs fell from 187 to 157.

A “pivotal” moment

There was no mention of sunny days when Trudeau emerged from Rideau Hall on Sunday morning, less than two years since the last election, to make his much-anticipated announcement that voters will head to the polls on September 20th, after the shortest election campaign permitted under Canadian law:

“In this pivotal, consequential moment, who wouldn’t want a say? Who wouldn’t want their chance to help decide where our country goes from here?”

It’s hard not to feel some cynicism about what seems to be, at best, a politically strategic — for Trudeau and his Liberals, not for the country — decision to call an election as we face the likelihood of a pandemic fourth wave.

Trudeau says he is focused on the “path forward.” Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole promises to bring a “fresh” approach. Bloq Quebecois leader Blanchet calls the timing of the election “very irresponsible.” The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh is telling voters he wants to be the next prime minister. And the Green Party, under its new and so far unelected leader Annamie Paul, is mired in internal disputes and very short of cash.

There is little doubt that the Liberals, and Trudeau himself, top the polls right now, with a return to a majority government in the cards. Trudeau is, generally, seen as having handled the pandemic well, especially in his quick action to move money out to many of those most immediately and seriously affected by it.  

He has largely said the right things, although his actions often do not support his words, in responding to the recent discoveries of more than 1,000 Indigenous children’s graves at residential schools across the country and to ongoing calls for reconciliation and ending violence against Indigenous women and girls. Less than a month ago, his government reached an $8 billion agreement to settle a First Nations water class action.

The 2021 budget offered much to women, including commitments to build a national child care strategy and to develop a national action plan to address gender-based violence/violence against women. Both had significant dollars attached to them, and steps have been taken to get both initiatives underway.

He enters the campaign with a decent track record to call on.

Where to turn?

However, it will take more than this for Trudeau to hold or increase his seat count. Ennui – less than two years since the last election, six provincial/territorial elections since the pandemic began, an Ontario provincial election looming in June 2022, exhaustion from the past 18 months of pandemic living – combined with concerns about how the country is going to pay for all those much-needed pandemic expenditures; cynicism about the chasm between what the Liberals say, which often sounds so good, and what they actually deliver, which generally falls short of the mark; and anger at being asked to vote while COVID-19 is still a threat to public health could turn voters against the Liberals.

The challenge, of course, for voters who feel this way, is where to turn. The Conservatives are just too scary for most of the people who otherwise would vote Liberal; the NDP, while it has behaved responsibly as the holder of the balance of power in the current minority government, is not seen to have what it takes to form a government; only people in Quebec can vote for the Bloq, and the Green Party, much as it might have had hopes for an increased seat count, will be lucky to hold onto the two seats it has now because of its internal scrapping.

I don’t know what I will do on September 20th. I might vote, I might register a non-vote, I might stay home.

What I do know is that, whatever Wilfred Laurier thought he learned from Aesop’s Fables, there’s going to be a whole lot of bluster and not much gentleness and kind persuasion directed at all of us over the next 36 days, so we’d better all hold on to our hats.

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