With a full-blown scandal over the expenses of some senators engulfing the Canadian Senate, an ongoing inquiry into corruption in Québec’s construction industry, and the daily whirl of allegations from the Republican leadership toward the Obama administration on Benghazi, the IRS, and Associated Press reporters, it is not surprising that young people may be questioning themselves these days about the value of civic and political engagement.
Rarely a day passes without a media story about a scandal, unearthed by the diligent work of an investigative reporter, reaching the mainstream networks. It is no small wonder that cynicism and skepticism are growing about the workings of the body politic or civil society, and whether getting involved and making a difference is still as relevant in today’s world as it was in more recent times.
The temptation to sit on the sidelines and criticize from afar those who are betraying the public trust is becoming more comfortable than joining the fray, fighting for one’s beliefs or a noble cause, and trying to bring about change to a social or political condition. Some actually believe that today’s younger generation—closely wedded to technological innovation—will be more susceptible to growing doubts about the value of civic engagement.
While the current setting in many Western democracies may lead some to pessimism and disengagement, I remain an optimist about the future and why it is more important than ever to get involved.
It was U.S. President John F. Kennedy who set the goal of putting a man on the moon in the early 1960s. It was Neil Armstrong who would be that first man to step on the moon, saying: “It was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Now, Canadian Commander Chris Hadfield, whom Armstrong inspired to become an astronaut, has just ended his space odyssey by singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity, once again fascinating us with space travel and exploration.
Commander Hadfield’s latest voyage in space began in December 2012, and took command of the International Space Station two months ago. Since he began his voyage, Hadfield has treated us to extraordinary visuals, communicated daily in a personal way through social media, and demonstrated amazing musical skills in a space capsule. More than any other astronaut, he made us enter his world, educated us, made us feel special, and once again made us believe in science, imagination and achievement.
During his third mission, the 54-year-old astronaut from Sarnia, Ontario, made many in his country and beyond feel the excitement, the joy and the challenges of being in space. His messages, often delivered in both of Canada’s official languages—French and English—probably did more to unite his fellow Canadians than any law or politician has in several decades.
It’s been said that Canada has usually “punched above its weight” on the international stage. Whether we refer to the world wars of the twentieth century, the creation of the United Nations, the bipolar era of the Cold War, the conflict in Korea, or the reaction to Afghanistan after 9-11, Canada’s contribution in blood, sweat and tears is well documented. In addition, we have constantly played a role in peacekeeping and economic liberalization that is a model to the developed world.
Our close alliance with our neighbor to the south, the United States, has usually kept us in the loop on the major currents in world politics. However, the recent announcement by Foreign Minister John Baird that Canada would not seek a seat at the UN Security Council was met with criticism from many long term adherents of Canada’s traditional foreign policy and with derision by the growing chorus of critics who oppose the values associated with the Harper government’s foreign policy and its ideological stance on international cooperation. Rightly or wrongly, it was interpreted as one more step toward Canada’s declining reputation in foreign policy matters.
Withdrawing from Kyoto, opposing international NGOs that provide abortion services, actively supporting Israel’s right wing coalition government and its approach to the Palestinian issue, and withdrawing from some UN projects have led proponents of traditional Canadian foreign policy to question whether Canada’s international reputation is now so damaged that Baird’s announcement was more an admission of certain defeat for the Security Council seat rather than a point of principle. Some veteran observers of UN politics interpreted Canada’s defeat two years ago for that very seat as a vote against this new orientation under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
To be fair, the world today is far different from the glory days of Lester B. Pearson and his Nobel Peace Prize in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Under Pearson’s influence and that of his successors, Canada’s international profile was built on multilateral cooperation, active engagement and above all, a strong diplomatic corps. However, events today are less predictable and ideologies less certain. We no longer live in the more predictable bipolar world of the Cold War.
The last couple of weeks have shown that terrorism, or the threat of it, is not just something we read about in other parts of the world. Occasionally, we recall the events of 9-11, but soon it will be twelve years since that horrible day. However, the tragic ending of the Boston Marathon reminded us in vivid terms how vulnerable a free and open society is to the threat of terrorism, whether domestic or imported. Hence, the balance between freedom to exercise our rights in society and the need for security and safety from harm is once again at the center of public policy.
A few days after the two Boston bombers were apprehended (with one killed in the process), Canadian authorities arrested two alleged plotters in Montreal and Toronto—supposedly linked to an Al Qaeda cell in Iran—and accused them of planning to derail a Via Rail passenger train with an explosive device. Although the Boston bombings might appear, for the moment, to have been the work of a domestic “lone wolf” operation, the Canadian incident might have a direct international link. Meanwhile, the Canadian Parliament adopted a law giving authorities greater preventive powers in dealing with future threats of terrorism.
There is no doubt that we live in a dangerous and unpredictable world where different kinds of fanaticism continue to grow and lead to actions aimed at disrupting lives and destabilizing political regimes. Let us be clear: successive governments in North America have never been soft on terrorism, but our citizenry is especially strong on freedom. How can we ensure that this remains the course of action on both sides of the border? The answer to this question has repercussions on the economic, social and political life of North America.
As the Harper majority government ends its second year in office, the Liberal party, with its third party status, has just chosen a new leader. Normally, the choice made by the third party in the House of Commons would barely make waves. However, the overwhelming victory of Justin Trudeau—the son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—at the end of a six-month campaign has already begun to change the political landscape in Canada.
Public opinion polls preceding and following Trudeau’s selection have demonstrated that the 41-year-old Trudeau is beginning to have an impact on how Canadians see their current government, what they are looking for in a prime minister and how important the theme of real change could be in the next election. Just prior to choosing Trudeau as leader, Liberals had either narrowed the gap in public approval with the governing Conservative party and the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), or taken the lead. A poll recently published in the National Post showed Trudeau actually widening his lead in approval ratings.
With the elections more than two years away, these polls should be taken with a grain of salt. But it is clear that the Liberals have gained a new energy that makes them, once again, a potential major player in the next electoral cycle. How Trudeau fares in the coming weeks could very well determine the outcome of the 2015 election. If he loses traction, he may quickly become a passing fad. Should he display aplomb and growth in his new role, he could become the prime minister-in-waiting.
It is often stated as conventional wisdom that the United States is a right-of-center country and Canada, with its state-supported healthcare system and greater state-run operations, is left-of-center. In real life, it is far more complex—as we saw when U.S. President Barack Obama handily won reelection last November while the right-wing Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has won the last three general elections in Canada.
Occasionally, a book surfaces about a new political paradigm, leading many to question existing conventional wisdom. One such book has just hit the newsstands in Canada. It is called The Big Shift, co-authored by the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, Darrell Bricker, and the respected Globe and Mail newspaper columnist John Ibbitson. I happen to personally know both authors and can attest to their impeccable professional credentials. Their book covers new ground, challenges existing conventions and offers a highly provocative treatise about the new politics in Canada.
The book’s basic thesis deals with an emerging new coalition of voters—anchored in resource-rich western Canada and in suburban Toronto—who share more conservative values and views about the role of government, the economy and law and order. Using recent census data, they point to a fluid demography where many new immigrants are arriving in Ontario and western Canada from East Asia and South Asia. Ibbitson and Bricker speak of an immigration inflow that is equivalent to the size of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, every ten years. The result is a new, more Pacific-oriented Canada that is more polarized along the conservative-progressive divide than ever in its recent history.
With March 20, 2013 representing the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, historians and journalists in both Canada and the United States have been assessing the wisdom of this historic decision. The Iraq War, due to its enormous costs in human, financial and material terms, has long fallen out of favor with the American people and the political class. Even the Republican Party has taken some distance from the major architects of the war—former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Neither has addressed a Republican National Convention since 2004.
In Canada last week, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made all the media rounds and was strongly commended for refusing to go along with the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003 after the UN Security Council refused to sanction the U.S.-led invasion. It was the first time that Canada said “no” to a U.S. president about to enter a war. It was a defining moment because Canada was a faithful U.S. ally in World War II, in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, the 1950-53 Korean War, and throughout the Cold War. Moreover, Canada was very supportive of the invasion of Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.
The decision to go to war in Iraq was never popular in Canada, despite the initial support of the opposition Conservative party leader, Stephen Harper. The case for weapons of mass destruction and the links between Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, and Al Qaeda were never convincing to the general population. The Canadian government of the day, led by Prime Minister Chrétien, had large-scale support for saying “no,” and this support was especially vocal in Chrétien’s home province of Québec. Even Conservative leader and current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper later recanted, saying the war was a mistake.
Like most observers, both Catholic and non-Catholic, I was surprised to see Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina chosen as the new Pope. He was nowhere to be seen in the pre-conclave media hype. We in Canada saw Cardinal Quellet from La Motte, Quebec as a serious frontrunner. Yet we are observing since Bergoglio’s election and installation as Pope the signal that this new sovereign pontiff could surprise us and become an agent of change. Already, some media have labeled him the “People’s Pope.”
Most would agree, however, that on issues such as contraception, abortion and priest celibacy, little will likely change in this papacy. Many cardinals made this fairly clear in the hours following the election of Pope Francis. This being said, the need for change will not go away because this pope is more accessible and appears closer to his flock. For instance, issues regarding women in the church will have to be addressed. Dealing with the child abuse scandal must also be the object of stronger actions by the new Vatican administration, and must certainly be handled with greater compassion. Failure to deal with these matters will further marginalize the church as a moral authority in the world.
Yet, change in the Vatican can also come in different ways. While many reform-minded Catholics wish this new pope would be more forthcoming in modernizing some of the tenets of dogma, suffice it to say that Pope Francis has, in a few days, changed the style and the tone in the Vatican City. The choice of Francis as Bergoglio’s papal name was not a quick accident of fate. Photos displaying his care for the poor are both sincere and heartwarming. As we have seen every day since his election, the values attributed to St. Francis of Assisi are already evident in this new pope.
As Cardinals gather for the conclave in Rome to choose the next Pope, there is growing speculation about Marc Ouellet, a potential Canadian candidate from Québec. The former Archbishop of Québec and current papal legate to Latin America is seen as a serious contender to replace Pope Benedict XVI. A conservative intellectual from the Québec village of La Motte, who spent 11 years in Colombia, he is considered a potential compromise choice between the traditional European contingency of front-runners and possible candidates from the Southern Hemisphere.
Cardinal Ouellet, often described as a favorite of Rome and the departing Pope, is known for his outspoken views and has over the years developed a number of detractors in his own home province of Québec. Undoubtedly a brilliant and respected scholar, his outspoken conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage have made him a target of harsh criticism from politicians and media in Québec. Once a bastion of the Catholic hierarchy and influence, Québec has become increasingly secularized and can now be characterized as Canada’s most socially liberal province. When Ouellet condemned abortion even in the case of rape, the negative reaction was swift and virulent.
This being said, it will not be the population of Québec or liberal columnists who will select the next Pope. Ouellet and other conservative Cardinals will be facing a far greater opponent in the days ahead—the thirst and desire for change among Catholics. If the Cardinals gathered in Rome reflect the mood of Catholics around the world, the next Pope will have to be a change agent.
There are over 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and while the growth of the Church may be in decline in the Northern Hemisphere, it is expanding in Africa and Latin America. This trend has led to some speculation this time around that a Pope could come from the Southern Hemisphere. But change is needed and desired there as well.
With the election of a pro-sovereignty party in Québec last September, the questions about Québec’s future within the Canadian federation have once again surfaced. While there is no referendum about Québec’s future on the horizon—in part because the ruling Parti Québécois made only a vague commitment in last year’s election campaign to conduct such an exercise, and in part because the Parti Québécois forms a minority government in the National Assembly—it is appropriate to look at the workings of Canadian federalism and see how Québec has accommodated itself within the system.
It is useful to remember that all three countries in North America are federations: Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. All three federalist systems operate differently. There is not a “one size fits all” brand of federalism. In the last 50 years, all three federations have had their challenges. Regional tensions, jurisdictional battles and the aspirations of federated states like Québec have contributed to changes in how these federations operate. Of the three North American federations, Canada is the most decentralized—in fact, it is one of the most decentralized countries in the world.
Canada’s federation has a defined distribution of powers, some exclusive to each order of government—either federal or provincial—and some shared between the two. Economics, culture, immigration, and the environment are shared jurisdictions. All powers not enumerated in Canada’s federal constitution are relegated to the central government through what is called the residual clause.
Despite this more decentralized federation, disputes have periodically surfaced within Canada when central government policies affect provincial jurisdictions through federal spending power or the development of new programs. Since Canada’s creation as a federation in 1867, we have undergone periods of centralizing federal policies as well as periods of greater provincial autonomy. In Canada as in other federations, the Supreme Court has often been called to adjudicate these disputes. The federated state of Québec has been at the center of these conflicts more than any other, always arguing to protect existing powers or add new jurisdictions.
Every February in both Canada and the United States, we celebrate Black History Month. Originally a one-week affair in the second week of February to celebrate the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, it is now a month-long series of festivities and activities to commemorate the contribution of African Americans and Black Canadians to North American society. This year, the celebrations coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
While serious issues and problems affecting African American communities remain, Barack Obama has just been reelected for a second term as president of the United States—not a small accomplishment. For those of us who cringe at the subtle and not so subtle racial overtones in the attacks against Obama (the birther issue is an illustration), we should take comfort in the fact that Obama is the first president since 1956 to receive more than 51 percent of the popular vote twice, and his party received over 1 million more votes than the Republicans in the congressional elections. Moreover, no one can deny the progress made in racial equality in the past few decades, especially since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Already, some historians are questioning whether the progress of African Americans remains fundamentally cosmetic with Obama in the White House. After all, unemployment within black communities is way above the national average, poverty is at record levels, and gun violence is still at epidemic proportions. Yet, Obama carried the vote among African Americans at the level of 94 percent. Are African Americans just voting for one of their own and giving Obama a pass in terms of gains for their communities?
President Obama’s Inaugural Address and State of the Union speech have one thing in common. The emphasis is on jobs and America is changing. Its demographics clearly showed that the electoral map favors the party that is more attuned to minorities, women’s rights and the youth. Its social fabric is being tested regarding gay marriage, gun control restrictions and the possible legalization of marijuana. The economic picture is transforming itself as the U.S. sees energy self sufficiency on the horizon as it actively searches for expanded markets for exporting its goods. Finally, the interminable debate around the debt and annual deficits will go a long way in defining the role of government for future generations.
Canadians observe the U.S. political landscape with interest, and sometimes, with bewilderment. They see the Democrat and Republican parties stuck in political gridlock, and conclude that America still holds to a status quo that is out of tune with new realities. Yet, this is far from accurate, suffice it to say that America has made great strides in many areas that affect our lives north of the border. We must take note.
Canada and the United States form the largest commercial partnership on the planet. And while trade flows have generally stagnated in the decade since 9/11, Canada still sends more exports to the U.S. than any other country (over 70 percent). My home province of Québec sent 68 percent of its exports to the U.S. in 2011; in the state of New York alone, we exported $7 billion of goods compared to $2.4 billion in China, $1.5 billion to Germany and $1.4 billion to France.
As Canadians, we tend to watch the Inaugural activities with interest. Sometimes, as in 1961 or in 2009, we marvel at the significance and the majesty of the event. Many times, we are indifferent and see it merely as a news story in the heart of winter every four years.
We do not pretend to understand the subtleties of the words of a U.S. President, but we cannot deny their scope in terms of the years to come. John F. Kennedy asked his fellow citizens to become engaged: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This time around, Barack Obama said that “America was made for this moment.” He outlined the vision of the Founding Fathers, and laid out a progressive vision of where America must go, which he linked with the basic values of the U.S. constitution.
Many on this side of the border are familiar with the call for an activist government, and an effort to reduce inequalities in society. Much of our social fabric is based on this approach. What was attractive in the speech had to do with the JFK-like call for greater citizen engagement on issues like gun control , and the presentation of a vision of a changing country largely defined by new demographics. It was clear Obama understood his victory coalition, and addressed its inherent and emerging values and hopes. Republicans, take note! Obama2.0 seems more determined to press his agenda this time around.
The prevailing narrative since Barack Obama’s decisive re-election victory last November is that America is changing. His most reliable voting blocs included progressives, minorities, single women, and youths, and his campaign was supported by an impressive, technologically-inspired ground game. Even many Republican talking heads acknowledged America’s changing demographics in their post-election ruminations.
Canada may be on the verge of experiencing something similar in the coming months and years.
Back in the 1960s, and not long after John F. Kennedy’s presidential victory at the outset of the decade, the Canadian political class was transformed with the rise of a brilliant intellectual from Québec called Pierre Elliot Trudeau, then-leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. Fluent in both French and English, coupled with an impressive life story, Trudeau brought Canadian politics into the new media age. Justin Trudeau, the late Pierre’s son and a current member of parliament representing a district in Québec, is a serious contender for the leadership of the federal Liberals and already seems to be bringing Obama’s style to his leadership campaign. Are we about to have a transformation in how we conduct our politics in Canada?
In recent years, Liberals have fallen on hard times. Once called Canada’s “natural governing party,” Liberals now have a third-party status behind the ruling Conservatives and the official opposition New Democratic Party (NDP). The federal Liberal party will choose its new leader in April in the hopes of reviving its fortunes and once again become the leading progressive voice in Canadian politics.
In the meantime, both the Ontario and Québec Liberal parties will also be welcoming a new leader at the provincial level in the first quarter of this year. Each of these parties has a different reality; the Ontario Liberals are in power in a minority parliament and the Québec Liberals are the opposition party in a minority parliament. Can change in existing Liberal parties translate into change in the country as a whole?
A look at Canadian history shows that Canada has benefited from an orderly transfer of power between moderate conservative parties and moderate progressive parties, the latter usually under a Liberal label. In the past four decades, however, Canada’s political landscape has seen the emergence of more ideologically bent parties. To illustrate, the separatist Parti Québécois has been in office for 18 out of the last 36 years in Québec, and a more populist conservative movement—the incumbent Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper—has been a dominant force in federal politics since 1993. Liberals in the meantime have become instruments of power rather than advocates of progressive policy initiatives, leaving a greater left-right split in Canadian public discourse.
Canada’s parliament is dominated today by the Conservatives and the NDP, but new leadership among the Liberals could represent change in the political landscape. But it will not be without risks if the electorate across Canada responds better to the clarity of the current left-right continuum.
The Liberals generally tend to be more centrist in their approach. They believe in progressive social programs, which reduce the economic disparities in society and provide a safety net; they are not allergic to government-generated solutions; yet they have argued for fiscal restraint. It is fair to add that Liberals have never been closed to innovation and reforms to the status quo.
With the emerging debate regarding Canada’s First Nations peoples and their demands for reform, a sluggish economy with increasing pressures on the middle class, rising government debt, and the continuing presence of a separatist movement in Québec, Liberals under new leadership across the country could become a part of a changing Canada—and possibly lead the nation. But will there be a strong enough constituency in Canada to support it?
It is difficult to discuss Canada’s constitutional history without mentioning Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian prime minister. That his son Justin, member of parliament for Papineau, Québec, is running for the leadership of his father’s Liberal Party has once again brought the Trudeau constitutional legacy back in the public eye.
From the 1960s until the 1995 Québec referendum on separatism, politics in Canada and in Québec focused largely on constitutional reform relative to the status of the province. In 1867, Canada was created by the British North America Act (BNA), commonly referred to as Confederation. The BNA Act, which serves as our written constitution, created a federal system with the use of French and English in both the national and Québec parliaments.
From 1867 onward, tensions rose between those who preferred a more centralized federalism and those who wished for greater provincial autonomy (i.e., decentralized federalism) which was promoted by successive Québec governments. This characterized federal-provincial relations over the years, and came to a head in the 1960s. Just as Canada was nearing its centennial celebrations in 1967, it was clear that the country was heading toward an eventual constitutional showdown largely provoked by competing visions within Québec’s political class.
Essentially, three visions emerged to define the debate on Québec’s status north of the border. One approach was articulated by the elder Trudeau (1968–1979, 1980–1984), who argued for a strong central government, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a greater Francophone Canadian presence in national affairs. A second vision with emphasis on Québec’s identity was gradually developed by a former federalist who later became Québec’s premier, René Lévesque (1976–1985). He believed in full Québec autonomy and sovereignty with the possibility of an economic association with Canada. Finally, successive Québec premiers from Jean Lesage (1960–1966) to Daniel Johnson (1966–1968) to Robert Bourassa (1970–1976, 1985–1994) worked for the reform of the 1867 Canadian Constitution, pushing for greater powers for Québec within the federation. From the 1970s to the 1990s, elections were held in Québec, and federal elections in Canada reflected these differing views over the functioning of our federal state.
Various attempts to modify Québec’s status within Canada produced constitutional proposals but they failed to resolve the issue. In 1980, a Québec referendum on sovereignty was held with the federalists winning decisively. In 1982, the Canadian government led by Prime Minister Trudeau then decided to patriate the Canadian Constitution (the BNA Act, which had remained a British statute since 1867) and include a Constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Québec government under separatist René Levesque objected and withheld Québec’s consent. Trudeau’s action to patriate was ruled legal by Canada’s Supreme Court, but it had the effect of splitting the federalist forces in Québec.
By 1990, the Meech Lake Accord had been negotiated between the Canadian government and its 10 provinces to provide a rationale for Québec to finally consent to the 1982 patriation. It provided concessions to Québec to obtain its agreement. This attempt at reconciliation by Trudeau’s successor, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1984–1993), and Québec Premier Robert Bourassa, however, failed ratification by two provinces (Manitoba and Newfoundland). Trudeau, then retired, opposed the Meech Lake Accord and strongly influenced the opposition forces within Canada to the Accord.
This is largely the constitutional legacy that Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre Trudeau, is now carrying as he runs for the leadership of Canada’s Liberal Party. Sovereignists and some federalists in Québec continue to resent the elder Trudeau’s constitutional legacy. For many, it remains an open wound.
Some in the Québec media now believe that Justin Trudeau must address this issue with a position of his own. Will he complete the unfinished work of 1982? The junior Trudeau, in a recent television interview, skirted the issue by saying that Québec and Canada as a whole did not want to revisit old constitutional wounds and had moved on to other issues.
To some, the younger Trudeau’s view was seen as insensitive and to others, reminiscent of his father’s so-called legendary arrogance.
Having lived through some of the aforementioned constitutional battles, I agree that patriation must be addressed given that Québec is the only non-signatory province to the 1982 Canadian Constitutional Act (including the Charter of Rights). However, no one in the Canadian and Québec political class is held to the same standard as Justin Trudeau is, and none wish to revisit the issue in the near future. Outside of his family name, why should Justin Trudeau be held accountable for redressing his father’s actions?
Politics in this century have changed and the policy debates have moved in new directions. The issue of Québec and the Canadian constitution remains pertinent. But should we be settling our accounts with the elder Trudeau by using his son, who has a different agenda and is running in different times and for different reasons? I do not think so.
For many of us north of the border, we are watching the showdown emerging around the U.S. fiscal cliff discussions. Despite President Barack Obama’s rather convincing victory, it is clear that the divisions remain—and the role of government is central to the discussion. The 2011 debt ceiling stalemate resulted in a process where gridlock was essentially institutionalized with December 31, 2012 as the ultimate date to find a negotiated settlement or else. It is a collective “jump off the cliff.’.
Influential voices such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and International Monetary Fund President Christine Lagarde are warning about the decreasing role of the U.S. in global economic matters should it fail to get its debt and deficit problems under control. The increasing possibility that a deal will not be reached in time for automatic tax increases and spending cuts to kick in and threaten a second recession in four years has to preoccupy world economies.
The European Union is in recession, emerging markets are less robust and the U.S. economy has had a sluggish recovery since the middle of 2009. A U.S. recession could have catastrophic results, especially north of the border. In recent days, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney sent some ominous signals about the risks associated with failure to reach a deal on the fiscal cliff. We in Canada may have done better coming out of the Great Recession, but there is evidence that another U.S. slowdown will have a serious impact on a range of our exports and overall consumption leading possibly to a Canadian recession as well.
While Canada’s economic future is often dependent on how the U.S. economy fares, we did get some things right that could serve as a guide to U.S. policymakers. The balanced approach regarding revenue and spending cuts that Obama so often advances has been on our radar with successive governments—both Liberal and Conservative—since the mid-1990s. Deficit reduction, debt control, revisiting entitlement programs, modest stimulus programs, tax reductions, free-trade agreements, and reducing the size of government has been very much a part of Canada’s public policy agenda in the last 20 years. Fortunately, Republicans and Democrats have been sending some more encouraging signals in recent days.
It was Winston Churchill who once said that America will try all solutions until they find the right one. It is clear Obama has a mandate to tax the top two percent, whether he does it by raising tax rates or closing tax loopholes. But there is an indisputable reality: tax revenue will not be enough. Some tough decisions about spending cuts including the defense budget, Medicare, Medicaid, and possibly social security will have to be part of the eventual “grand bargain.”
To do this, it will take leadership and political courage on all sides of the partisan divide. It will also have to involve vision and audacity. Clearly, the eyes of the world are directed on the U.S. political class, and especially on President Obama. Having been decisively re-elected last month, it has been said that Obama has a rendezvous with history as he begins his final term. All are waiting to see how he pulls it off, including Canada.
On a university campus in Montréal on December 6, 1989, a lone gunman deliberately targeted innocent victims, killing 14 young women and injuring another 14 before turning the weapon on himself. The horror of this tragedy led the Canadian government to institute a gun registry law in 1993, which became a source of controversy for many gun owners regarding the mandated registration of unrestricted guns and the larger bureaucracy to regulate it. The law was eventually modified by Canada’s ruling Conservatives in April 2012—abolishing the firearms registry that was established after the Montréal tragedy. The two Canadian opposition parties in Parliament—the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals—opposed the Conservative initiative.
Since 1989, other tragedies have occurred in both Canada and the United States. Every time such an incident occurs, the initial instinct is to raise the issue of access to firearms and the proliferation of gun-related violence. Gun violence has no boundaries; while Canada has greater restrictions in terms of access, the fact remains that gun violence is still high in North America and the conversation must take place beyond the initial shock of the crime.
The U.S. Constitution provides an explicit right to bear arms. In itself, this has resulted in the reluctance by the political leadership to deal with the issue of gun violence and bring the conversation to a national level. To his credit, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has attempted to start a national conversation on the matter. Following the recent murder-suicide of an American football player, sportscaster Bob Costas tried to follow Bloomberg’s efforts—a comment that resulted in swift condemnation from the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) and its like-minded allies in the media—which put an end to the national conversation.
The recent reelection of Barack Obama as President, the increase of Democrats in the Senate, and their slight gains in the House of Representatives has led analysts to talk about a changing America. While Obama is a highly popular political figure in Canada, it was somewhat surprising for many of us glued to our television sets to see him declared President before the stroke of midnight on November 6. After all, the polls had been close, but the victory seems to convey that America has indeed begun to change.
There are two ways to assess what this U.S. election tells Canadians. One way is the actual results which show a changing electorate where minorities, women, and youth will continue to play an increasing role in the choice of future presidents. State referenda also showed a transformation on certain social and cultural issues—legalization of marijuana and support for gay marriage.
The Presidential map with its omnipresent Electoral College seems decidedly more favorable to the Democratic coalition. The Senate map is also favorable to Democratic candidates. The House may still be Republican, but districting in states led by predominantly Republicans governors (30 of 50) can be a determining factor. This has led to some public soul-searching on the part of prominent Republican leaders. In a recent television appearance, conservative Republican Newt Gingrich spoke of the U.S. “as a centrist country with a dominant left”. Where is the center right America of just a few weeks back?
Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper interrupted his trip to India to offer President Barack Obama his congratulations on his reelection. In Canada, there had been talk that Conservative Prime Minister Harper may have preferred a more ideologically-similar partner like Mitt Romney to govern our closest political neighbor and ally and strongest commercial partner.
But anyone who knows Canadian-American relations and history should know that interests and interpersonal relationships play a greater role than ideological kinship.
To his credit, Harper, who won a minority government victory a month before Obama's win in 2008, sent a clear signal that his approach to U.S. relations would be pragmatic and sensitive to the president-elect's interests and agenda. The appointment of NDP Premier Gary Doer as Canada's ambassador to Washington in 2009 had all the makings of Harper's desire for a smooth and operational relationship. He was not wrong: Doer has shown aplomb and pragmatism while gaining access, which is so critical and crucial for a functional partnership.
Canada has only had two political parties who have governed the country’s affairs and destiny
—the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. Just as in the United States, the two-party approach has served our democracy well. Unlike the U.S., however, our parliamentary system leaves more room for the establishment and the sustaining presence of a third party. In Canada, third parties have come and gone, but one has had a persistent role over a number of decades and it is the New Democratic Party (NDP).
The New Democratic Party, created in 1961, was formed from the fusion of the Christian left Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party and the Canadian Labor Congress. By so doing, the new party attempted to enlarge its share of the electorate and appeal to a wider range of progressive views from the political left. Often referred to by its Liberal and Conservative opponents as socialists, the NDP resembles more the social democratic left associated with Britain’s Labour Party and other European countries. Its leaders, generally moderate in tone and policy, have come across as sensible and principled types. While the NDP has never governed nationally, it has been a key player in some of our provinces.
For the first time in its history, the NDP is no longer the third party in Canada’s House of Commons. It is now the official opposition party, and its leader Tom Mulcair could very well become Canada’s next prime minister.
The formerly dominant Liberal Party is embarking on a leadership contest with the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin Trudeau, being touted as the next leader. But a closer look is being directed at Mulcair and the kind of prime minister he could become. Mulcair, a former provincial Liberal minister and deputy leader of the federal NDP, won his party’s leadership race over many long standing and more conventional NDP standard bearers. For some party regulars and stalwarts like former leader Ed Broadbent, it was near heresy to select a recent convert to the NDP.
An enduring characteristic of Canadian politics in the last 50 years has been the question of language and how it plays out in the French speaking province of Québec. From the outset in 1867, Canada adopted a federal system of government at Québec’s behest, giving the constituent federated states defined constitutional jurisdictions. The Canadian Constitution (1867) also guarantees the use of French and English in both the national legislature (House of Commons and the Senate) and Québec’s legislative assembly (the National Assembly).
Over the years, linguistic tensions and divisions emerged in different parts of the country leading many in Québec to question whether linguistic equality actually existed, and whether Québec remaining in the Canadian federation was the best course for ensuring the survival of its French character.
In an effort to respond to the concerns of Canada’s French-speaking minority, (French communities outside Québec, and Quebec’s French majority population), the country’s national leadership eventually adopted the Official Languages Act 1969 making French and English official languages. This Act was later given constitutional force in 1982 by amendment. The principal effect of this move was felt in the federal bureaucracy and within Canada’s minority language communities in their dealings with the central government apparatus. Official bilingualism remains a major feature of Canadian democracy.
While the federal level was coming to grips with language issues in the nation’s capital (Ottawa) and beyond in the 1960s, Québec was undergoing its “Quiet Revolution” with the election of a progressive government headed by the Québec Liberal Party in 1960. By the end of the decade, progressive forces in and out of government had changed Québec’s political and sociocultural landscape dramatically in nearly all sectors of civil society. However, economic challenges remained, and linguistic activism soon emerged as the growing force in the public debate.
By the mid-1970s, following much study, debate and protest, French was declared Québec’s only official language by legislation. This was first introduced by the pro-federalist Liberal Party of Québec in 1974 and later reinforced by the new pro-sovereignty Parti Québécois government in 1977. This approach may have contrasted with the federal initiative of two official languages, but it did represent a growing consensus within French-speaking Québec in dealing with the survival of the French language.
Québec’s new policy did not occur without reaction and confrontation. Many in Québec’s English-language population reacted immediately—some chose to leave Québec fearing discrimination, while others chose to contest the policy in court. Over the years, however, Québec’s language laws have evolved because of new realities, court rulings based on both the Québec and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and legislative changes by successive Québec governments. It is important to add that the English-language community continues to have institutions that meet its needs and defines its character. While irritants remain, Québec has undergone a sustained period of linguistic peace since the mid-1990s.
Today, with increased immigration flows, the growing lure of new technology and greater globalization, new pressures are placed on Québec’s language policy. While French is still the first language of 82 percent of Québec’s population, it remains a minority language in Canada and is now the third most spoken language after English and Spanish in North America. No one in Québec’s current political class is ready to declare victory in the historic battle to protect the French language.
The recently elected Parti Québécois government in Québec has committed to reexamine existing laws to reinforce their applicability to protect and promote French, and likely to initiate new policies to expand the use of French. Despite this intention, it remains clear in opinion surveys available to all lawmakers that the Québec population—both French speaking and English speaking—values multiple language skills and also insists on greater access to individual bilingualism. This latter point is encouraging for those who wish to find pragmatic solutions to linguistic issues.
Language will always remain a part of the political debate both in Canada as a whole, and especially in the federated state of Québec. Having been part of some of the past battles, I remain confident that the road travelled provides a more positive path than a negative one. The hope is that policymakers will see dialogue, pragmatism, inclusion, and an incentive-based course of action as more productive for progress and harmony than a win-lose approach.
Finally, some outside Canada who study the conduct of language politics north of the border may well see it as an example to other countries faced with the challenge of accommodating more than one language in their governance and in civil society.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. His Twitter account is @JohnParisella.
For a country that abhors political dynasties, the announcement by Justin Trudeau on October 2, 2012, that he would vie for the leadership of the Canadian Liberal Party drew a stream of comments and analysis. Surely, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979, 1980-1984) would have been proud of his son’s decision, but he would undoubtedly have known that the expectations would be high. The response in Canada’s English language media ranged from skepticism to nostalgia to hope and excitement. In Québec’s French language media, the response was more tepid, with a mixture of indifference, amusement and curiosity.
Trudeau’s main claim to fame outside of his illustrious name is his ability to have been elected in a Montréal riding that once belonged to the separatist Bloc Québécois in 2008 and resisting the New Democratic Party (NDP) wave in 2011. Lately, the 40-year-old Trudeau took on a Conservative Senator in a “boxing” match for charity, and won handily. For moxie, the young Trudeau can be reminiscent of his dad at times.
This being said, the Canada of Pierre Trudeau has been transformed since the former prime minister left the scene in the 1990s. Constitutional issues involving Québec no longer dominate the political landscape. The preponderant role of Central Canada (Ontario and Québec) in Canadian politics has begun to shift toward Western Canada (Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia) making Justin’s Québec credentials less significant than they were for his father.
The Liberal Party, which he wishes to lead, has also been transformed from its “natural governing party” status to that of a third party. Quite a descent for a party that governed for 75 years in the twentieth century! The progressive voice in Canadian politics is now primarily in the grasp of Tom Mulcair, official opposition leader and head of the NDP party. Becoming the leading progressive voice in the Canadian parliament will be the primary challenge for Justin Trudeau if the Liberal Party hopes to regain a semblance of its former status.
Newspapers across Canada are recalling the events and the issues related to the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) of 1987. Yes, it’s been 25 years, and the general impression in the reports seems more positive than negative. Canada’s premier newspaper, The Globe and Mail, titled it the “deal that freed Canada’’.
The FTA was later transformed into the North American Trade Agreement with Mexico (NAFTA) in 1993. While there remain some detractors on both sides of the border, no one is really questioning its existence, and if anything, both the U.S. and Canada have actually expanded their free trade impetus to other parts of the world.
It is worthwhile to recount that the FTA was not a deal without its obstacles and difficulties in Canada. The unions generally were opposed because of its feared impact on jobs and existing social programs such as Medicare. Some provincial premiers, including David Peterson of Ontario, and the federal leaders of both opposition parties in the national parliament (John Turner of the Liberal Party and Ed Broadbent of the National Democratic Party—NDP) resisted Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney‘s initiative with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and are still to this day somewhat unenthusiastic about the deal and its promise.
The truth is that while the results may be mixed, the absence of the FTA would have deprived the Canadian economy of greater access to the world’s largest market at a time when both countries were coming out of a recession. In the early years, until 2000, the trade level rose dramatically—exports to the U.S. tripled, and imports from the U.S. increased significantly. With Canada getting its government deficit and debt problems under control in the 1990’s, Canadians entered the new millennium poised for better days. The FTA was in effect delivering on its promises, at least in its early days.
We may be observing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s last trimester in this pivotal and strategic post. Hillary became a household name during her husband’s presidential years. Her subsequent six year tenure as New York Senator, along with her “break the glass ceiling” campaign for the U.S. Presidency, has made her one of the most influential leaders in the world. This will be apparent at UN week in New York.
Until Barack Obama burst onto the scene, the probability of Hillary as President was highly likely. To this day, there remains speculation that she will be a candidate in the 2016 Presidential election. Presidential politics seem to go well with the current Secretary of State. The fact that President Obama was able to convince her to accept being his Secretary of State says much about the President, but it says much more about the kind of public servant Hillary Clinton is.
Canadians have generally shown greater affection for Democrats in the White House over Republicans since the JFK assassination. Most Canadians would have preferred a second Clinton Administration under Hillary’s stewardship than any other choice in 2008. While President Obama remains highly popular north of the border, Secretary Clinton is seen as very effective on her own, and very much a co-architect of the Obama foreign policy. Canadians appreciate her moderation, her civility, her approach to diplomacy and her overall civic engagement.
Relations between Canada and the U.S. under the Obama Administration are built on mutual respect and mutual interests. Clinton has worked closely with two successive Foreign Affairs Ministers, Lawrence Cannon and John Baird. The Canada-US partnership remains the closest on the planet both commercially and strategically.
A few weeks ago in a previous blog, I cited the JFK quote, “civility is not a sign of weakness.” Let me tell you a story about two politicians from different ends of the political spectrum who were not in the arena at the same time, but who share one thing in common—civility. They are former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, and former Québec Premier Lucien Bouchard.
Last week, Mr. Lougheed passed away at age 84, and tributes to his character have not stopped coming in.
During the same week, Mr. Bouchard launched a book about the importance of young people and their involvement in political life. In so doing, Mr. Bouchard was asked to comment on the new political situation in his home province of Québec. The party he led, the separatist Parti Québécois, has regained power after 9 years in opposition, and the return of the PQ has once again raised concerns about the future of Canadian unity. Bouchard easily dominated the news with some frank talk, and in the process, he actually questioned his former party’s political agenda. It took courage for him to do so.
Unlike in other Canadian provinces, a Québec election can have repercussions on the functioning and future of the Canadian federation. Since 1970, the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) has been a significant force in Québec politics. It has formed governments on two occasions: 1976-1985 and 1994-2003.
Last week, on September 4, PQ won a minority government with 54 seats, compared to 50 seats for the outgoing Parti Libéral du Québec (Québec Liberal Party—PLQ). It was a close election with only 31.9 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots for the PQ, the lowest total for a government in Québec history. Nonetheless, Pauline Marois became the first woman elected as premier in the history of the province. A dedicated sovereignist, determined and perseverant, she should not be underestimated as she takes over the reins of power in a minority government.
Departing Premier Jean Charest leaves office after winning three consecutive mandates. Following the election results, Charest decided to end a 28-year career in both federal politics (i.e., Ottawa) and provincial politics (i.e., Québec). His career stands out as possibly the most unique in Canadian history: he left a promising federal career, having served for a short period as deputy prime minister of Canada, to run for provincial politics and became premier in 2003.
It is too early to draw sweeping conclusions about the Charest era. Suffice it to say that he promoted Québec’s role in the Canadian federation and that he departs office with support for Québec separatism at its lowest level, despite the PQ win.
In Canada, the Conservative party has had a majority government since May 2011, yet it never talks about dismantling the nation’s social safety net. Both the opposition parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals, have led governments in our federation—in the case of the NDP at the provincial level, and Liberals at both levels—that have produced balanced budgets and worked to reduce the public debt. The one constant between parties of the Left and the Right in Canada since the mid-1990s has been the recognition given to three important tenets usually associated with fiscal conservatism: the means to keep social programs viable and sustainable, or cuts must follow; the need to balance yearly budgets; and the obligation to address the debt burden as part of GDP.
With the political convention season ending in the United States, the Democrats and the Republicans are also presenting policies and making promises on how to deal with existing social programs, yearly government deficits and the increasing debt. Unlike Canada, the thorny issue of eliminating taxes or bringing in new taxes, and the maintenance of existing social programs in order to deal with yearly deficits and long-term debt have been the wedge issues between Democrats and Republicans since the Reagan days, and are at the center of the 2012 presidential debate. Republicans want to balance budgets by reducing the size of government through lower taxes and cutting spending. Democrats, taking a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook, want to balance budgets with a mixture of cuts and raising revenue. Of the two, it is fair to say the Democrats resemble most of the Canadian approach.
The reality today is that the issues of social programs, deficits and debt must be addressed outside the prism of ideological purity and rigidity. Undoubtedly, the social safety net in both countries, with its universal character which emerged in the post-depression years often out of necessity, and in the post-World War II period because of prosperity, will be hard to dislodge. In the United States, “Don’t touch my Medicare or my social security” is a more powerful force than “Lower taxes on the rich, cut spending, and reduce the size of government.” I am certain Canadians would have similar reflexes .
Does this mean that we are condemned to the status quo? Must we be resigned to the fact that deficit and debt will eventually drive us over the cliff, and then it will be too late? The debate should not be relegated to the Left-Right continuum of politics. Nor should it be limited to one about the role of government, whether it should be active or limited. It should be about the will to act, the need to rise above partisan concerns, and the desire to compromise. In this regard, failure to endorse the Bowles-Simpson Commission Report on the Debt in the U.S. was likely a missed opportunity.
The latest flap over Missouri GOP senatorial candidate, Todd Akin, and his atrocious comments about “legitimate” rape received much coverage north of the border. This, along with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, has led many Canadians to wonder about the state of the Republican Party today.
It was not always that way. The presidency of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s saw much cooperation and few differences between the governments of both countries. The Reagan years also marked important areas of cooperation such as in acid rain and free trade. Over the years, many in Canada recognized the Republicans as friendlier on economic issues despite clear contrasts on social and cultural issues.
Yet, since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Canadians have shown more interest in candidates of the Democratic Party. This can be attributed partly to a question of similar views on the role of government and social issues, as well as the tone of the rhetoric. The 2008 election and the selection of Barack Obama reinforced this sentiment. Most Canadians would still prefer President Obama win in November.
With a close election in the offing between President Obama and Mitt Romney, Canadians will have to come to grips with the reality that the Republican ticket of Romney–Ryan could win. Considering we have a Conservative government in our nation’s capital, one can actually expect that relations could be warm and productive. Would a GOP in November be good news to Canada? How will Canadians react? Before answering, let us see how Canadians see the GOP.
It was President John F. Kennedy (JFK) in his inaugural address at the height of Cold War who said; “So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is subject to proof.” Strong and meaningful words at a time when the world faced the risk of nuclear war. Yet, these words ring true today when we look at how democracy functions, and how election campaigns are conducted both in Canada and the United States.
In May 2011, Canada held a general election which, according to seasoned observers, was the most aggressive in rhetoric and in the use of more personalized attacks. Currently, the Canadian province of Québec is conducting a general election of its own where the tone is more strident than usual. Are we witnessing the Americanization of political campaigns north of the border?
In the United States, we know that elections campaigns can become blood sports. The current presidential campaign has already been labeled by nearly all pundits as the most negative in years. While the hope is that the arrival of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential candidate will change the nature of the debate to one about ideas, direction of the country, and issues, there seems no evidence of a change in tone in recent days. The rhetoric continues to be negative, polarized and personal.
The purpose here is not to take a position on who should win in these elections, but it is to express the hope that civility in election cycles can once again take its place in the conduct of those campaigns. Voices are rising in greater numbers criticizing the vitriolic tone of the debates. It’s not too late for things to change.
Both sides of the U.S.-Canada border are currently commemorating the last major armed conflict between our countries. The War of 1812 was obviously not the war to end all wars, but it is being remembered as the one that marked the beginning of 200 years of peace and prosperity between the closest and friendliest neighbors today on the planet.
Today these two great democracies, each a federation, share the most important commercial relationship in the world. They have not only traded and done commerce together, they have fought side by side against oppression, they contribute to each other’s energy security, they share a border and work together to protect it, they have worked jointly on environmental concerns, they adhere to similar values and have cultural links, their citizens travel to each other’s country and enjoy its amenities—all this and more make the Canada-U.S. relationship the most durable and unique partnership in human history.
In recent weeks, some of Canada’s former ambassadors including Derek Burney, Alan Gottlieb, and Michael Kergin have weighed on the nature of the relationship over the years. Some have complained about the current state of affairs .The general impression left from their writings is one of complexity, and sometimes not always working in the interests of Canada. Fortunately, former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Gordon Giffin presented a far more optimistic account of the relationship. The real picture is probably somewhere in the middle.
It is to be expected that the world’s premier power and a respected middle power will not share the same national interests and priorities. In my former role as Québec’s Delegate General in New York including our office in Washington, I can attest to the fact that getting on the agenda of leading policymakers in the U.S. was not without obstacles. Yet, persistence, perseverance and close cooperation with the Canadian embassy, allowed us to pursue our goals and our common interests.
With charges formally laid against the presumed murderer at the movie theatre in Aurora, and with the families of victims quietly grieving in their homes and in their hearts, it may be appropriate that we once again reflect on what's next, as opposed to what happened. Many in Canada, as elsewhere, were shocked and saddened at such a horrendous crime and the question most often heard is: What can be done to avoid these kinds of mass killings?
We are reminded of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Gabby Giffords and others, and wonder why not much follows after the "breaking news" hits the airwaves, the expressions of sadness and grief, the heart wrenching profiles of victims, and the wall-to-wall television coverage that garners high ratings.
As a Canadian, it can be difficult to comprehend this American love affair for "bearing arms." After the Aurora, Colorado, tragedy, a spike of 41 percent in gun demand occurred in the state of Colorado. True, the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is explicit about the right to bear arms, but were the Founders thinking of sophisticated technological weapons such as AK-47s and weapons that can shoot 100 rounds per minute? Or, did they assume that one day in the future, an individual could order ammunition and a magazine by a technique called the internet like he was ordering a book? I doubt it.
In the aftermath of the shooting, some of the discussion centered quite rightly around mental illness and the impact of the de-institutionalization of patients along with reduced budget for diagnosis and care of mental patients. All very legitimate discussions to have in a search for solutions. But it was not dealing with the reality on the ground that Friday night in July—a shooter meticulously planned a mass murder for weeks and proceeded to legally arm himself to perform the deed, and if the gun had not jammed, many more innocent victims would have perished.
Just completing a week of instruction at the University of Montreal Summer School on U.S. politics, I am astonished and impressed to see the level of interest of Canadians ,and particularly Quebecers ,for U.S. Presidential politics. In 2008, Canada was as caught up in the classic Obama – Clinton primary battle as many Americans were. The stakes on U.S. – Canadian interests and issues were not at all the concern. The contest and the candidates is what captured the attention.
To understand this phenomenon, it is important we go back to the beginning of the television age in Canada in the 1950’s. Our national network, CBC, would regularly include coverage of both party conventions in an election year. This is how we got to know about Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy and their epic battle. No such coverage of our campaigns would ever be considered north of the border by U.S. television networks.
When President Kennedy won election in 1960, interest peaked for this first-ever telegenic president. We wanted a Kennedy of our own. And who can forget November 22, 1963? Canadians were glued to their television sets, and shared the tears and the sorrows over the tragedy in Dallas. Since then, the interest for who will become the President of United States has never wavered. The rise of Barack Obama and the nature of the campaign in 2008, however, brought it to new heights.
Why is it important to follow the various election cycles in the U.S.? Despite the attractiveness of some candidates and appeal of American political campaigns, we cannot be insular to events and issues affecting our closest neighbor, friend, and principal commercial partner. The most powerful nation on the planet sits on our border.
Over the Québec, Canadian, and U.S. holidays, I had the good fortune to read a book entitled “The Presidents’ Club”, written by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. It is a story about the world’s most exclusive and unique club – living former U.S. President and how they interact.
What struck me in the accounts is how Presidents of different parties can actually find common ground for the common good. How Republican Hebert
Hoover helped Democratic President Henry Truman to lead a food drive in post-World War II Europe and prevent the starvation of 100 million people. And how Hoover also helped design the executive branch in a nuclear, Cold-War world.
We see how Eisenhower and Kennedy found ways to help each other, how Nixon had an influence on Clinton, how Ford and Carter became close friends, and how Clinton and the Bushes did things together for the greater good. In a world of polarized politics on the left-right continuum, this book projects a degree of hope that there are politicians who can overcome the partisan debates of the day and the spin wars in the media, and act for something more important.
Politics in the past decade in the U.S., Canada, and my home province of Québec has seen a greater degree of polarization and divisiveness. Very often, insults are hurled in the heat of the debate, forgetting the need to keep civility as the cornerstone of democratic debate. The media and social media networks appear to feed on these spectacles of one-upmanship. Meanwhile, an increasingly frustrated electorate turns off, opts out, and stays home. Who is to blame?
Once again, Canada may be on the verge of breaking new ground in a case involving the decriminalization of assisted suicide. Back in 2003 the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 preventing an Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) patient, Sue Rodriguez, from having recourse to assisted suicide. This time, a British Columbia (BC) court ruled that Gloria Taylor, an ALS patient who wants to choose her moment of death, had the right to decide when. However, the ruling does not change the law for all future patients—just for Mrs. Taylor.
According to the BC court ruling, the Canadian federal government has a year to change the existing law to allow assisted suicide. Or, the case can once again make it to the Supreme Court. The Canadian court system, similar to U.S. courts, has been known to provide rulings with far-reaching social, cultural and political ramifications. Access to a therapeutic abortion, gay marriage and decriminalization of marijuana for simple possession and medical use are examples of the judicial audacity of our Canadian courts in recent years.
Canada’s Supreme Court judges are chosen by the prime minister, then scrutinized—but not confirmed—by the legislature as in the U.S. Canadians have benefitted from enlightened judgments that make Canada a leader in advancing the rights of individuals and breaking new ground. The adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights in 1982 has only added to the Court’s scope and range in decision-making.
This case has already stirred the waters. Some experts like Margaret Somerville, director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, argue that the BC court ruling represents a slippery slope. It seems to place individual autonomy above all other values, says Somerville.
Others counter that legislation in the Netherlands, Belgium and in U.S. states such as Oregon, show that conditions must be met to avoid abuse and respect the rights of the disabled and therefore, allow assisted suicide. The case of Taylor is interesting because she is not in a terminal phase and does not want to die. She merely wants the right to choose and decriminalization would facilitate her wish.
It’s been 40 years since the Watergate scandal surfaced in June 1972, making this month an important moment to reflect on the lessons learned for the U.S. political system today.
In 1972 America was still mired in the Cold War. President Richard Nixon was in full electoral mode, trying to win a second term. Coming off some real successes with the USSR leadership of the day (détente) and visiting China (full diplomatic recognition), President Nixon had momentum and was facing Democrat George McGovern, seen as too far left to pose a real threat to his re-election . Yet, Nixon was not sure of a second term and had in place a mechanism to neutralize his opponents.
We know the rest. The burglary at the Democratic offices of the Watergate Office Complex, the resulting cover-up, abuse of power, perjury, news of break-ins, existence of a clandestine group called the Plumbers operating from within the White House, and the eventual resignation of the sitting president in 1974. Yet, Nixon had been re-elected in 1972, and the process that led to his departure was a true manifestation that the American constitution at the end of the day worked.