Canada’s opposition finally puts substance before style

Canada’s Liberal Party leader seen as young and inexperienced comes out swinging.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks at the Royal York Hotel about "Liberty in a culturally diverse society." while addressing the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada
Trudeau's stance seemed cowardly, writes Zerbisias [Getty]

Just as the political pundits were declaring Justin Trudeau down for the count, the leader of Canada’s federal Liberal party got up to punch above what had been his apparent light weight.

Last Monday in Toronto, he gave a perfectly timed speech – some are calling it a “manifesto” – before a crowd of alumni of Montreal’s McGill University.

Everything about it was a jab at the “politics of fear” currently being waged by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government which, in an effort to divert attention from tanking oil prices and its dubious management of the public purse, is playing the terror card. It is attacking Muslims to justify its much-criticised Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015, which even Conservative supporters find alarming for its proposed restrictions on civil rights.

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“These Conservatives pretend to talk a good game about freedom, but look at what they’ve done with it,” Trudeau told his audience. “Their instincts are now to be suspicious of people who do not share their beliefs, to harden divisions with people whose views differ from their own.”

Biggest misstep

The speech almost made up for his biggest misstep to date: his declaration that, although it is fundamentally flawed, he would vote for C-51 and then, when his party is in power, he would introduce amendments to it.

Clearly, this confounding position came about because public opinion polls indicate that Harper’s fear tactics are successful with much of the electorate. So it would be politically risky for Trudeau to come out swinging against the bill as has Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the leftish-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), the official opposition.

Trudeau’s stance seemed cowardly, managed, as if the backroom was pulling the strings.

Until Monday, Justin had yet to display either the intellectual heft or the independence of his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, arguably the most revered Canadian prime minister ever. He would stand unfazed as separatist rioters hurled rocks and bottles at him; in parliament he would mouth the f-word at the opposition; and he would pirouette behind Queen Elizabeth’s back while at Buckingham Palace, a show of defiance and not deference. He didn’t lead by pollster. If he had, he would never have stripped Canadians of their civil liberties in 1970 in the wake of the Quebec separatist kidnappings of a British diplomat and a provincial cabinet minister. Invoking the War Measures Act would turn out to be a decision that launched the country into a decades-long constitutional crisis as a generation of Quebeckers could not, would not, forget and forgive. But he showed no remorse.

Justin Trudeau was essentially drafted in 2013 by a party in disarray, one that had gone through four leaders in a decade, none of whom could muster the votes needed to confine Harper’s western-based Conservatives to the back benches. He brought the brand name, the looks, the youth, and the willingness to pose for selfies whenever mobbed by fans, to his frequent public appearances.

All shine, no substance

But he seemed to be all shine, no substance. Plus there were the gaffes, both important and trivial. In recent weeks, as he headed into his third year at the party’s helm, the pundits and editorialists had been almost gleefully detailing them.

In his Monday speech, Trudeau also compared the government's anti-Muslim 'rhetoric' to Canadian immigration policies during the 1930s and 1940s, policies that limited the number of Jews entering the country while the Nazis were overrunning Europe.

Still, polls show, Trudeau and Harper run just about neck and neck.

Which is why the Conservative guns have been trained on him, tracking his every move.

At Monday’s speech for example, Trudeau raised the recent conflicts caused by Conservatives over women in niqab.

“[T]hose who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn,” he said.

The next day in parliament, Harper retaliated, claiming that the niqab “is rooted in a culture that is anti-women”. But it backfired. On Wednesday, Canadian women by the thousands were trolling Harper on Twitter, using the hashtag #dresscodePM and demanding to know if the prime minister approved of their dress.

In his Monday speech, Trudeau also compared the government’s anti-Muslim “rhetoric” to Canadian immigration policies during the 1930s and 1940s, policies that limited the number of Jews entering the country while the Nazis were overrunning Europe.

‘Beyond the pale’

Almost immediately, he was pounced on by Defence Minister Jason Kenney who called his speech “outrageous and beyond the pale” for invoking “the Holocaust”, even indirectly. Two influential pro-Israel lobby groups also hastened to denounce Trudeau.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Public Security Minister Steven Blaney directly referred to the Holocaust to sell Bill C-51’s limitations on speech: “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers,” he said. “It began with words.”

But the lobby groups, known to be close to the Harper government which unequivocally supports Israel, did not frown on this comparison.

Whether Trudeau has miscalculated the mood of Canadians on the terrorist bogeyman and matters Muslim is not yet known. Presumably, his pollsters will tell him soon enough.

But this week he did give the pundit class pause.

Suddenly, it looks like Justin Trudeau has found an opening on the Harper Conservatives’ weak flank – and, come the election later this year, he may just knock them out.

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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