Behind its enlightened and progressive posturing, Trudeau’s Liberal government plays a reactionary role in Canadian society and the world, argues Ontario-based John Clarke
After the years of stern austerity under the Conservatives, the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in October of 2015 was seen as a new start that raised hopes for a more progressive federal government in Canada. Trudeau, himself, was more than ready to promote this perception.
The Cabinet that was sworn in was proclaimed to ‘look like Canada’ in terms of diversity and gender balance. The country was promised an enlightened regime and a future of ‘sunny ways.’ The liberal media, in Canada and internationally, was ready to regard Trudeau as the personification of progressive values in a political leader. He is, of course, profoundly image conscious and notoriously photogenic. If there is a world record for the greatest number of selfies taken by someone holding political office, Justin Trudeau must be the odds on favourite for the title.
My purpose in writing this piece is to challenge and expose the false claims of Trudeau and his fellow Liberals to represent anything that is remotely connected to social justice or progressive values. I seek here to demonstrate that, behind the posturing and cynical image making, is a Liberal government that represents Canadian capitalism, internal colonialism, international exploitation, endless war and climate vandalism. I want to assess the reactionary role that this government plays and Trudeau’s personal contribution in this.
Before I do, however, for the benefit of international readers, I must offer a few comments on the nature of Canada and of the Liberal Party, in order that Trudeau’s progressive act may be placed in some context.
Canada and its Liberal Party
It must be stressed that the Trudeau government is governing a state that is oppressive and exploitative. The test of any progressive credentials would be whether that fact was being acknowledged and challenged. I shall show that this is most certainly not the case when it comes to the Trudeau government.
Canada was established by conquest and dispossession. The French colonial power was defeated and its population placed under British rule, leaving a national question in Quebec that is unresolved to this day. However, the Indigenous nations living on the territory were subjected to a genocidal colonialism that is still a work in progress. Canada is a settler state and the methods it has employed in this regard are such that those creating Apartheid in South Africa looked to the Indian Act and reserve system here as a model they could learn from.
The federal system of government in Canada has made the implementation of austerity measures somewhat more complex that in the UK, because of the primary role of the provincial governments in matters of social policy. However, the same essential process of deindustrialisation, social cutbacks and privatisation has unfolded and the low wage, precarious workforce has expanded massively.
Nonetheless, it is vital to note that Canadian capitalism is also focused on super exploitation on a global scale. Canada is a G7 Country and its banks and major companies are party to the looting of oppressed countries. Canadian mining operations are especially rapacious, with 75% of the world’s mining companies based in this country.
For present purposes, no detailed history of the Liberal Party in Canada is necessary. It’s enough to simply clarify the nature of the beast. Think of Canada as a parallel universe where the Liberal Party didn’t fade away and has remained a front rank steward of capitalism. As someone who came here from the UK, I’ve always said that the two things I have never quite got used to are cold winters and Liberal governments.
As a resident of Ontario, I am presently cursed with Liberals at both the provincial and federal level. They are consummate political chameleons. It is often said of them that they campaign on the left and govern on the right. This has enabled them to perform two very useful functions for the ruling class. They are a totally reliable replacement for the Tories, when a period of slightly more moderate class war is in order. At the same time, they are specialists in preventing social democratic governments.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) has never held power at the federal level because of the ability of the Liberals to present themselves as the progressive option to the Tories. Indeed, as the NDP has embraced the austerity consensus, it has run into the thorny problem that a Canadian version of the Blairite Third Way is claiming ground that is already occupied. In the last federal election, Trudeau outflanked the NDP on the left, as its prospects were improving, challenging its leader Thomas Mulcair’s hard line on deficit reduction by promising to put job creation first, even at the cost of a modest increase in the deficit. So, you begin to see the kind of political operation that can use a photogenic pseudo progressive like Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau: The Next Generation
Anyone slightly familiar with Canadian political history will realise that the name ‘Trudeau’ rings a bell. Justin is, indeed, the son of a rather towering figure and former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. He is the only relative of a former PM to ever hold that office and he is the quintessential product of privilege and high placed connections.
He has played various roles, including, rather fittingly, drama teacher. He came to prominence in 2000 when he delivered a massively publicised eulogy at his father’s state funeral. He became a Liberal MP in 2008, when the Liberal Party was still licking its wounds after a huge defeat at the hands of the Tories. In 2013, he took over the Liberal leadership, in a period when efforts to fill that post effectively had not gone well. In the 2015 general election, the Liberals under Trudeau, went from a humiliating third party status in the House of Commons, with only 36 seats, to forming the government with 184 seats. This was the greatest gain ever attained in a Canadian federal election.
Governments in capitalist societies generally operate with an inner circle of power brokers. The person who plays the role of leader may be a highly influential or dominant force, may be little more than someone who fronts the operation or may fall somewhere between these extremes. Old Man Trudeau was clearly not there to take orders and read his lines. He was a powerful force to be reckoned with and the shadow he cast over Canadian politics is still around. It’s much less easy to imagine the present Prime Minister Trudeau imposing his will on cowered underlings. It’s far more likely that he is in the role he is because of the family name, his image-making style and his shallow but effective communication skills. Whether he is a major force in the decision making or merely the photogenic face of the present Liberal regime, however, we are dealing with something called the Trudeau government, and the question of whether it plays a progressive or reactionary role is a very easy question to settle.
In 2016, Trudeau used a visit to a university to demonstrate his grasp of quantum theory. For those who already appreciated the false nature of the Liberal PM’s ‘progressive values’, the political possibilities of waves that are particles at the same time were obvious. The term ‘quantum politics’ came into being. Social media abounded with images of Trudeau at a blackboard explaining how he could attend Pride Parades and be feminist while ensuring billions of dollars worth of armoured vehicles were supplied to the theocratic Saudi torture state. It remains to present a few more of Trudeau’s progressive waves that are also rock-hard reactionary particles. It might be well to start with the brand of ‘reconciliation’ he peddles in his dealings with the Indigenous Peoples on the receiving end of Canadian colonialism.
The Smiling Face of Colonialism
Speaking at the UN last year, Trudeau said, "For Indigenous peoples in Canada, the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect and abuse." No Tory Prime Minister would ever have uttered these words and some Liberal PMs would have hesitated. For Trudeau, however, it was thrown out readily, perhaps even with a few of the tears he likes to shed on such public occasions. The only problem is that his government is still piling on the ‘humiliation, neglect and abuse’ with abandon.
I mentioned the admiration the architects of South African Apartheid had for the Canadian reserves on which Indigenous Peoples lived. To this day, the despairing conditions on these parcels of land generate appalling levels of suicide and self-harm. If there was an ounce of sincerity in Trudeau’s speech to the UN, his government would be sparing no effort to address this shame and horror. Yet you can pick from a bumper crop of news articles in which Indigenous leaders denounce the Liberals for their failure to act.
Across Canada, there are reserves that lack the most basic services, including drinkable water. After three years of Liberal government, the number of Indigenous communities that are under ‘boil water advisories,’ is greater than when the Tories left office. Recent promises on this issue in the Federal Budget have been met with a healthy skepticism. When the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the Trudeau government was guilty of discrimination for failing to provide sufficient funding for ‘First Nations child and family services,’ the Liberals argued that they were not subject to the authority of that body.
The greatest act of climate vandalism that the ever-two-faced Trudeau government is engaged in is its determination to proceed with the transportation of Alberta oil sands by way of pipeline construction. This is a criminal act against the whole planet but it is also an egregious violation of Indigenous Rights. The UN-recognised right to 'free, prior and informed consent' of indigenous people on issues that affect them counts for nothing as far as Trudeau is concerned; pipelines will pass through traditional Indigenous lands regardless of the wishes of the people who inhabit them because it is ‘in the national interest’ for this to happen.
The Farce of Poverty Reduction
In the 1990s, a previous Liberal government did all it could to decimate the social infrastructure.
A piece of legislation called the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) was abolished. This had ensured that 50% of the costs of social assistance systems at the provincial level would be covered by cash transfers from the federal government. CAP included some standards of fairness and adequacy that a province had to agree to in order to receive its transfers. This was replaced by reduced but open-ended transfers that provinces could use as they saw fit.
During the same period, the federal commitment to create social housing was ‘downloaded’ onto the provinces which, in turn, often dumped responsibility onto the municipalities.
The Trudeau government has dealt with this legacy with a rather typical covering of progressive fluff over neoliberal continuity. They have taken the road of the tried and tested stalling tactic of the ‘poverty reduction’ study that offers the illusion of eventual change but few if any commitments.
Similarly, with great flourish, the Liberals announced a National Housing Strategy and it is a classic smoke and mirrors job. Funding will be released over an extended period, well beyond that mandate of the present government. Much of the spending is entirely conditional on provincial cost-sharing, and there is much less emphasis on the direct creation of social housing than the deals with property developers to provide some dubiously ‘affordable housing’ as they create an oversupply of homes for the well-off.
Allies in British Columbia have labelled the initiative a ‘National Gentrification Strategy’.
Having already taken innumerable selfies at airports with arriving refugees, Trudeau sent out a tweet in January of 2017 in which he stated, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcometoCanada”. With this message, he carved out his place as the anti-Trump fountain of enlightenment. An ugly reality stands in the way of these fine words.
The indefinite detention of migrants continues under the Liberals. People who are locked up in this way are often joined by the children. As the racist antics of Trump’s enforcers takes effect, Trudeau and his ministers are determined to prevent people crossing into Canada to try and survive. A ‘Safe Third Party Agreement’ with the US is kept in place. This means that anyone who shows up at a border crossing and seeks asylum will be deemed to have no claim. The only way around it is to make your way across the border and into Canada. It is then possible to file a claim.
During the winter, along vast stretches of the border with the US, this has created a ‘frozen Mediterranean.’ Inadequately dressed refugees risk their lives and suffer frostbite to try and reach safety. People have lost their fingers and toes to the cold because of the agreement Trudeau is determined to maintain with Trump.
In another quantum moment, moreover, Trudeau has made it abundantly clear that you may be welcome to Canada but still be denied entry or deported by a very vigorous system of enforcement.
Outdoing the Tories
The global agendas of neoliberalism and endless war are intensifying works in progress. In some key areas, the Trudeau government has not been content to merely maintain the pace set by their Tory predecessors.
With the Carillion debacle in the UK in mind, it is worth noting that the Trudeau Liberals are going further than anyone before when it comes to public-private partnerships and the privatisation of public services and infrastructure. Their Canada Infrastructure Bank will open the door to a profit bonanza with all the predictable degrading of services and bailouts paid at public expense.
Even more glaringly, the Liberals under Trudeau are looking to massively advance Canada’s military role.
Military spending will increase by 73% during the coming decade, and that this will be undertaken to provide the enforcement mechanism for the role of global exploiter was made clear by the Foreign Minister’s comment that, “Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power.”
The Liberal Party does what it does best
It is not at all impossible that Justin Trudeau will be a one-term PM. His enlightened rich boy routine is starting to become irritating and his love for the cameras just a little too blatant. More importantly, his progressive spin comes up against the grim reality of the age of austerity and the experience of this is more telling than all his PR fluff.
However, even if his turn on the stage is drawing to a close, he has delivered another period of Liberal rule in Canada. Mainly in appearance, it has been kinder and gentler than what came before and, yet, the agenda of neoliberal capitalism has advanced under his stewardship. For a significant period, the false promise of a new beginning has disorientated people and enabled the regressive reality to be imposed.
The working class in Canada has fought and won many battles but it has always had to contend with the power-sharing system that leads to periods of overt Tory reaction, followed by periods of more subtle and disorientating rule by a Liberal Party that is probably very similar to what Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher hoped the Labour Party would become and continue to be.
Justin Trudeau is the leader for the present round of Liberal duplicity. He has struck a pose of photogenic enlightened capitalism with considerable cynicism and, we may hope, with passing success.
His progressive credentials are a sham and he represents everything in this society we need to fight and to defeat.
John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.