The Next Domino? Justin Trudeau Grapples with a Restless Canada


The affluent, urban riding (district) of Toronto-St Paul’s has long belonged to Canada’s “natural governing party,” the Liberals of Prime Ministers Pierre and Justin Trudeau.  The country was shocked last week when an opposition Conservative claimed the seat in a by-election.

After three election wins, and nine years in power, has the “great white north” tired of its prime minister and his Liberal Party? The question is being posed from sea to sea to sea as Canada Day is celebrated on July 1.

Justin Trudeau vows to lead the liberals into a forth election. “This was obviously not the result we wanted,” he said of the by-election, “but I want to be clear. I hear your concerns and frustrations.”

Canada is a country surrounded by envy. It adopted universal health care more than 40 years ago. It welcomes immigrants and has embraced multiculturalism. It has managed to both act on climate change while a new pipeline is transporting bitumen crude oil from Alberta down to an export terminal just east of Vancouver.

What, then, are the “concerns and frustrations?” Start with a major housing squeeze and soaring prices. Restrictions over the COVID-19 outbreak stirred protests including a trucker-led cavalcade that occupied downtown Ottawa. The government’s carbon tax, imposed in a time of inflation, has prompted Conservatives to run on the theme of “Axe the Tax.”

The right wing populism infecting American politics has moved north across the 49th parallel. Cash from the American right helped fuel the trucker protest. Trudeau has become a target for Donald Trump. Public frustration is being harnessed by a feisty new Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, and the Conservatives lead in national opinion polls.

Canadians have a relationship of both pride and impatience with two generations of Trudeau leadership. Pierre Elliott Trudeau served as PM from 1968 to 1984, with one nine-month break for a short-lived Conservative government. The senior Trudeau brought home Canada’s constitution, made his country officially bilingual, and beat back a Quebec referendum on sovereignty. He fought separatism with federalism and famously refused to budge from the reviewing stand when confronted by rock-throwing separatists at a Saint Jean Baptiste Day parade in Montreal.

Western Canada couldn’t stand him, yet the elder Trudeau held power thanks to support in Quebec and populous Ontario. In an election soon after his retirement, the Liberals’ strength in parliament cratered from 140 seats to 40.

A product of his father’s tumultuous marriage to Margaret (Sinclair) Trudeau, Justin Trudeau taught for a time at a private school in Vancouver and worked as a bouncer in a tavern. He entered politics after delivering an elegant eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000, won a Montreal-area seat in parliament, and rescued the Liberals with a surprise 2015 election win.

He is blessed with the jolting bluntness of his father. Asked why women are 50 percent of his cabinet, Trudeau replied, “because it’s the 21st Century.” He marched in a Vancouver Pride parade soon after being elected party leader, and spoke of his experience smoking marijuana.  He recently linked the government of India to the “credible allegation” that it engineered the assassination of a Sikh terrorism suspect who fled from India to Canada.

The Toronto-St Paul’s election result has worried Liberal MPs, who have been leaking to the press, though not one prominent figure has gone on the record. The Liberals hold a majority in parliament thanks to support on no-confidence motions from the 30 or so MPs from the leftish New Democratic Party.

But Canadian politics features an operation foreign to America — the total head transplant. A leader knows to go when beset by scandal or loss of popularity. He/she is quickly replaced. The life of government goes on.

For the second time in 40 years, Canadians are getting tired of a Trudeau. Each man has presided over a discontented country. Each has suffered a marital separation during his third term in office. Each can point to achievements  shaping his country’s history.

Some years back, Pierre and Justin went rafting on the Tatshenshini River, in far northwest British Columbia, which carves its way through some of the world’s greatest coastal mountains. Pierre Trudeau read by the riverbank while Justin tackled the grunt work in camp.

A guide on the trip was struck by the serenity of the elder Trudeau, and ventured to ask him about it. History will judge and history is resistant to lobbying, came the tart reply.

When Pierre Trudeau died in 2000, the entire country plugged in memories. Thousands lined up to view the coffin. The funeral at Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal brought together fierce adversaries from past political wars.

Justin Trudeau is still working on his legacy, but time may be running short. He can, of course, cite Trump’s claim that he “is destroying” Canada.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. I can’t help but notice that “age” is not a big election issue Up North.

    So, along with a national health system, they’ve got that going for them.

  2. Bravo Joel for your careful dissection of Trudeau heritage, sustained by his eastern Canadian family fortune that began post-WW II with a chain of gas stations. Extractive, polluting, environmentally destructive and capital-intensive industries are the very foundation of Canada’s economy, largely financed by outside capital. Justin’s trans-Canada image was made possible by his British Columbia maternal grandfather, legendary Liberal Party leader, the late Jimmy Sinclair, a Scottish-born Anglican politician who provided the connection that brought Justin’s parents, Sinclair’s daughter Margaret and Roman Catholic Pierre Trudeau – 29 years apart in age – to romance and their 1971 marriage. Justin Trudeau continues to symbolize his family’s and nation’s effort to maintain a unity of culture. This is tough, because in many ways, Canada it is still a British colony that eventually got labeled a “Dominion” – or some sort of a grown-up colony – until the 1980s and is still trying to figure out how that works. Whatever a new Canadian political leadership might be, it likely will not have such a romantic amalgam.

  3. Oh my! All my friends said that they were moving to Canada, or France, if Trump was re-elected. Ditto Bush (that turned out OK, didn’t it?)
    Guess we’re all in the same boat. Fight or flight. There should be a middle ground, but there isn’t at the moment:
    More historical perspective is needed to understand how far the political pendulum swings and the modulation.


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