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Testing Canada’s DemocracyTesting Canada’s Democracy

Testing Canada’s Democracy

The election results demonstrate Canada’s strength in democracy, writes Convivium’s Peter Stockland, citing an Adam Gopnik analysis in the New Yorker crediting a spectrum of parties reflecting the mood and interests of the country.

Peter Stockland
5 minute read

Fittingly, it fell to one of Canada’s finest expatriate essayists to characterize succinctly with characteristic understatement this week’s federal election.

“There is no place in a democracy for gangster government,” Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker the morning after the night before. “That reminder made Monday night a truly worthwhile Canadian initiative.”

Gopnik, raised in Montreal and a McGill graduate, knows his Canada, and isn’t damning with faint praise. He speaks the lingo of what we must now, under orders from the political fashion police, call progressives. At heart, however, he remains an old school tie liberal, genuinely committed to the venerable institutions of democratic governance. 

Looking north across the border with perspicacity rather than nostalgia, he sees in Justin Trudeau’s victory a validation of the primacy of those institutions. This is not an Obama-style endorsement of Justin Trudeau. It is recognition the system that chose the winner functioned properly and as its long tradition demands. In a world furiously spurning those traditions, and the institutions they uphold, this is something, not nothing.

“These days, every national election tests the strength of election; every liberal democracy tests the strength of liberal democracy itself. Monday night’s results was, like Emmanuel Macron’s revival in France, or the election of Pedro Sánchez, in Spain, one of a few stirring signs that all may not yet be lost. Watching the results, there was much congeniality, a surprising amount of crabbiness… but absolutely no crazy,” Gopnik writes.

Political crazy, at least south of the border in this Trumpian era, “has places to hide in that are deeper than any goodbye,” in the immortal words of that other hyper-eloquent Montrealer, Leonard Cohen. Gopnik frets at signs from the Canadian campaign that southern bats in the belfry might be migrating north as well, though he acknowledges their instances remain too derivative and picayune to cause serious alarm.

Far more worrisome, he says, are the fissures in our federation. In the generation since the constitutional wars of the 1990s and the near-death experience of the 1995 Quebec referendum, Canadians have come to believe that such fault lines – between the West and the Eastern Laurentian elite; between Quebec and Canada; between Toronto and the remainder of the universe – were but mythical spaces where unicorns are born. The (seemingly) rapid reappearance in the 2019 election of a deeply divided Confederation serves as a mud-ugly reality check. Yet here, too, Gopnik turns to the institutionally rooted strength of Canadian liberal democracy as a safeguard against worst case scenarios of Quebec nationalism reverting to revival of outright sovereignty, or of any Western separatist movement gaining serious traction.

I think he’s got that pretty much right. Watching the current energy-draining complexity of Britain’s “Brexit” bid to withdraw from a 28-country economic union of sovereign European states offers fair, and surely prohibitive, warning of the utter shemozzle that would accompany an attempt to break Confederation into modular parts. Much like septuagenarian couples who can no longer bare speaking to each other across the breakfast table, cost-benefit wise, it’s invariably wiser to avoid the travails of divorce. Such hard-gained wisdom tends to blunt the sharpest swords of division. 

It’s a point Canadians who scorn Monday night’s election of 32 Bloc Quebecois MPs tend to miss. There is nowhere better for the BQ to be than in Canada’s House of Commons channeling Quebec’s interests through a federal democratic institution. Indeed, if the Bloc really wanted to throw a spanner in the works, as the English say, they would follow the practice of Irish republican Sinn Féin MPs. Since the early part of the 20th century, they have refused to take their seats in Westminster in order to gum up the “alien” U.K. government. 

In a minority Canadian parliament, 10 per cent of the seats being left permanently vacant by such a strategy of abstention could imperil, or at least seriously impede, the government of the day as it tries to pass budgets or contentious legislation. In its infancy during the early 1990s, the option was actively, if briefly, considered by the BQ and rejected as antithetical to Canadian and Quebec democratic tradition. 

That tradition, Gopnik concludes, was sustained by the 2019 vote being “what an election ought to be – a spectrum of parties running from the socialist left to the free-market right, fighting for specific ideas and regional interests and arriving at a result that, more or less aptly, and however imperfectly, reflects the mood and interests of the country.”

By “the country,” he makes clear, he means the whole that is, in democratic liberal understanding, greater than the proverbial sum of its parts. No one gets everything. Some get less than they merit, which is the definition of injustice, but the institutional means are available to correct such deficiency over time. Ultimately, the system embodies “pluralism and the inevitable oscillations of power.”

Again, I think he’s got this largely right, though with one serious caveat that must be registered so it remains in front of Canadians from the first day Parliament reconvenes. It is the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Gopnik recognizes the potential it held to dethrone the Liberals. But the other parties failed to use it effectively during the campaign, he says, so we can consign it to things that coulda, maybe shoulda, gone wrong but didn’t. Hey! Presto! Justin Jolson escapes the raging Swanee River again, cape and Liberal red tights intact and unsullied. 

Not quite so fast. What happened with SNC-Lavalin – a prime minister making his own attorney general an offer she couldn’t refuse to protect an engineering firm that paid bribes to the terrorist Gaddafi family, for Heaven’s sake – came as close to gangster government as the people of Canada should ever risk. 

Did it, in fact, cross the line? Most of us, given the Canadian predisposition for assuming positive intent, want to believe it didn’t. The harsh truth is we simply don’t know. The Prime Minister was calling the shots, so to speak, and wouldn’t allow a full and proper investigation. But the Ethics Commissioner’s inquiry declared unequivocally that Prime Minister Trudeau’s actions broke the law. Equally unequivocally, he was prepared to protect his own political turf by breaking faith with the very concept of rule of law. In doing so he tested, to use Adam Gopnik’s words, liberal democracy itself. If we fail to remind ourselves, or worse refuse to acknowledge, what was at stake in SNC-Lavalin, the next test might risk full-scale institutional failure. Not to overstate it, but that would almost certainly bring "crazy" to the north on a wild wind from the south. 

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