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 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 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.