Canada has long been portrayed as a dull northern neighbor. Sondra Gotlieb, wife of its then-ambassador in Washington, D.C., once joked about a way to raise her country’s profile: “Maybe we should invade North Dakota.”
But Canada is, at this moment, a stormy place. The Great White North is a physically battered country. Vancouver was recently cut off by land due to floodwaters. The TransCanada Highway is damaged and temporarily closed by another flood in far-off Newfoundland. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inspected the flooded Fraser Valley on Friday a day before arrival of another “atmospheric river.” A third, expected on Tuesday, is reportedly a doozy.
The country is also being buffeted by its political divisions, even after Trudeau’s governing Liberal Party was returned to power in September’s election. With Quebec separatism on the wane, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is talking about “expanding our provincial autonomy.” He said recently, “We’re not talking about separation, we’re talking about being a (province with) cultural identity within the nation of Canada, but being a nation within a nation.”
Saskatchewan? The first jurisdiction in North America with Medicare? Declaring itself a “distinct society” in the manner of French-speaking Quebec? Unlikely, but Moe’s rumblings suggest deep divisions that in some ways mirror those in the U.S.
Canada has flipped the “red state-blue state” terminology of U.S. pundits. If you look at a map of House of Commons seats won in the September election, red marked seats are held by the ruling Liberals, blue ridings carried by the opposition Conservative, with a splattering of orange for seats captured by the leftist New Democratic Party.
An almost unbroken “blue streak” stretches from central British Columbia through Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and into rural Ontario. The Liberals won just half-a-dozen seats in the urban areas of Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. The party’s only bastion of strength in Western Canada is metropolitan Vancouver. The Liberals, as with Democrats in the U.S., win with urban and suburban votes. They have a lock grip on Toronto and Montreal. Conservatives won more overall votes in September, but captured only 119 seats in the House of Commons. (They won all of Saskatchewan’s 14 seats.) The Liberals took 160, ten shy of a majority. The New Democrats indicate they will keep Trudeau’s government in power.
In the Speech from the Throne, opening a new session of parliament, the Trudeau government outlined a program that sounds familiar to progressives’ agenda south of the border. The government promised to move on climate change, action on gun safety – a mandatory buyback of “assault style” firearms — $10-a-day childcare, and a federal ban on gay conversion therapy.
The Trudeau government is building the TransMountain Pipeline to carry bitumen crude from Alberta to an export port just east of Vancouver. Citing the floods in British Columbia, however, Trudeau’s Liberals sounded a trumpet in the throne speech: “Earth is in danger. . . From a warming Arctic to the increased devastation of natural disasters, our land and our people need help.” The government is expected to legislate a cap oil and gas emissions and accelerate a move toward net zero emissions.
The trumpet is a warning siren to the “blue streak” on Canada’s map, for the energy sector of the country’s economy is centered in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and northeast British Columbia. In a speech last week, Conservative opposition leader Erin O’Toole accused Trudeau and his Liberals of targeting “the cleanest, most ethical, most environmentally conscious and most indigenous-engaged sector in the world.” O’Toole added that Trudeau is heading “an ideological cabinet that is focused on shutting down industry and stopping investment in our country at a time when Canada is drowning in debt and division.” (O’Toole was targeting Canada’s new Minister of Environment, Steven Guibeault, a Montreal MP and onetime Greenpeace activist arrested in 2001 for trying to scale the CN Tower in Toronto.)
Climate change is a front burner issue in Canada. The West burned beneath last June’s “heat dome” with Lytton, in the Fraser River Canyon, reaching a national record temperature of 49.6 degrees Celsius (121.3 degrees Fahrenheit). A lethal fire burned much of the town a day later. Summer fires have become what B.C. Premier John Horgan describes as “the new normal,” blanketing the province with smoke. The warming climate has set off pine bark beetle infestation that has killed millions of acres of forest.
Environmental protest has grown more militant, with periodic sit-ins obstructing construction of a natural gas pipeline across northwest B.C. About 1,000 people have been arrested at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island in protests directed at logging of old growth forests.
Renowned environmentalist David Suzuki, who topped a national poll of most admired Canadians, stepped into the fray a week ago with this prediction. “Our leaders are not listening to the urgency that is demanded to meet the issue of climate change. And I am worried that this is just the next step – if it goes on – to people blowing up pipelines.” Dr. Suzuki since walked back his “poorly chosen” words, saying: “Any suggestion that violence is inevitable is wrong and will not lead us to a desperately needed solution to the climate crisis. My words were spoken out of extreme frustration and I apologize.”
The defenders of Canada’s carbon economy have taken out after him. O’Toole charged that Trudeau has been “shockingly silent” on Suzuki’s warning. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said that Suzuki should be “cancelled” and accused the scientist-environmentalist with inciting violence: “It’s like the gangster movies where they say, ‘You know, nice little pipeline you’ve got here. It’d be a terrible thing if something happened to it.’ This is totally irresponsible.” (Kenney needed a distraction to seize upon. The provincial government’s maladroit handing of the COVID-19 pandemic has made him Canada’s least popular premier.)
Late in the last century, when separatist Quebec governments twice put sovereignty referendums in the provincial ballot, there existed an acute possibility of Canada coming apart. Not so today. Nor is our neighbor likely to turn right. Conservatives in Canada do not have the sort of weapons deployed by Republicans south of the border — right wing media to create an “alternative reality” and the political cudgel of gerrymandering legislative and congressional district boundaries. The population of Canada supports social programs introduced by Liberal governments, and that influential population is largely urban.
Still, along with climate change, Canada’s political climate is heating up. A country founded on the principles of “peace, order and good government” is witnessing continuous rancor. Canada is a country polarized.