Canada At Mid-Year 2010: A View From North Of The Border


By David T. Jones

Following World War II, Canadian politics were regarded as dull; then, all of a sudden, they weren’t. For almost two decades, the country raced through the political science equivalent of a wind sprint marathon:

  • a majority party reduced to two seats in 1993;
  • Quebec separatists surged to power and forced a referendum in 1995 that almost split the country;
  • extended bilateral relations with the United States over foreign policy ranging from border security post 9/11 to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • a massive financial scandal (“Adscam”) that smashed the Liberal dynasty first into a minority government (2004) and then into two successive minority governments (2006 and 2008) by the revived Tory party.

But by mid-2010, political circumstances had calmed-always under the proviso that a minority government by miscalculation or design can be defeated by parliamentary vote and cast into the uncertainties of a defining election. Canada is emerging from the Great Recession in significantly better shape than the rest of the West (and particularly the United States). In contrast to historical precedent, its unemployment rate is significantly lower than the United States; its projected GDP several points above its southern neighbor; its budget deficit is projected for balance by approximately 2015; and its banks required no bailouts.


The Tories hold the whip hand. Their plurality in Parliament is close enough to a majority (144 of 308 seats) that all three opposition parties must combine to defeat them. That means Liberals (77 MPs), socialist New Democrats (NDP) (36), and the Quebec separatist Bloc Quebecois (BQ) (48) must agree that an election would be beneficial. Such is not an obvious or easy circumstance to arrange, but at the same time, the Government is constrained technically by law that mandates elections every four years-unless it is defeated in Parliament. Thus, for the Government to have an election prior to October 2012 would require an orchestrated defeat, which could easily redound to its detriment with a Canadian population uninterested in further elections having had four since 2000.

The Tories are defined by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He has been very competent but not much loved. His caucus respects and admires his political talent–he has, after all, resurrected the party from the Canadian political graveyard and increased Tory parliamentary strength in each election-without being uncritical acolytes. He once wryly commented that he became an economist because he didn’t have the charisma to be an accountant-a self-enfacing line that was less than fully truthful but which his opponents were happy to accept. Nevertheless, the reality remains that you don’t have to love your electrician, plumber, or accountant; as long as they perform as desired, you will continue to employ them. Such is the case for the prime minister. He has gained personal confidence in office, adroitly oversaw the Vancouver Olympics, instantly pushed Canadian relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake (putting the Haitian-Canadian governor general in the forefront). And he oversaw the G8/G20 meetings in Toronto during which Canadian recovery from the Great Recession was showcased and for which he deserves at least partial credit. Canadians see him acting respectably/credibly as prime minister and have grown more comfortable with him; he can no longer be depicted as “scary” with a “hidden agenda.” And as he has grown more comfortable in the job, he has revealed “humanizing touch” elements, e.g., joining a charitable event to play a popular tune on the piano; being knowledgeable about current music; attending hockey matches with his young son. He remains easy to caricaturize as dull, but no longer can be skewered as robotic.

Critics depict him as preternaturally lucky. He was fortunate in countering a weak opponent for leadership of the old Canadian Alliance party; fortunate that the leadership battle for the former Progressive Conservatives resulted in a pliable leader willing to agree to a union of the two parties. He was lucky that the “Adscam”/sponsorship scandal damaged the Liberal party nationally and particularly in Quebec prior to the 2004 election; lucky to have encountered weak Liberal leaders during the 2006 and 2008 elections; and again lucky to have had exterior events such as the Haitian earthquake distract the electorate from significant internal tactical political errors, such as “proroguing” (suspending) Parliament in December apparently to avoid review of Canadian Forces handling of detainees in Afghanistan. Still one recalls the aphorism attributed to Napoleon who, when about to promote an officer to general, would ask “Is he a lucky man?” And, ultimately, one must have the intelligence, energy, administrative skill, and political design to take advantage of “luck.”

Thus Harper grows more experienced and entrenched as prime minister with each day he holds the job. He now has a (small) cadre of ministers that he trusts sufficiently for them to speak for the government. His control over the administration is very tight-exceeding the controls of previous prime ministers who had steadily increased central direction. Unsurprisingly, that control makes the government unpopular with public service mandarins (whose attitudes toward Conservatives are reflexively less positive than toward Liberals). Indeed, one critic has apocalyptically described Harper as the least democratic prime minister in Canadian history. He continues to ignore the Parliament Hill media where a fit of mutual pique has evolved into entrenched, apparently irreconcilable positions-obviously to Harper’s detriment as nobody wins a fight with the press.

But the bottom line remains: Harper’s intelligence; iron discipline, organization, and attention to detail; loyal personal staff; and weak opposition leadership are a winning combination. One observer wryly suggested that if the Liberals continue to serve up turkeys as leaders, Harper could end as the longest serving prime minister (a bit of a stretch as Mackenzie King served for 21 years).


Eighteen months ago, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was regarded as the best thing since bottled Molson. Ignatieff was characterized as intelligent/intellectual, handsome, media savvy, and charismatic. He would appeal to Quebeckers with good French (and some family ties albeit they distant); his many years overseas (United Kingdom/United States.) writing and lecturing on international relations would provide unparalleled foreign affairs experience; and his antenna for Canadian issues had sensitized after several years in national politics.

But now that perception has changed. Why? What turned gold into dross virtually overnight-without even an election defeat? Answer: a little bit of everything: a touch of the aloof haughty patrician that hasn’t worn well; residual irritation at his “coronation” as leader without competition; failure to control (and understand) the Liberal parliamentary caucus on some key issues (abortion and immigration being the most recent); and political miscalculations. In general, he has appeared inept in comparison with PM Harper and the socialist leader Jack Layton, and leadership polls reflect popular disdain. Anecdotal accounts relate instances of Ignatieff entering a room filled with Liberals who by and large ignored him, or spending time at an event talking to only one person (and then leaving) with the consequence that other Liberals didn’t even know that he had attended. One observer commented that Igantieff was “a man in search of himself, and when he found himself, he ran away.” Another suggested that the best thing Ignatieff could do for the party was to “take a walk in the snow” (a reference to Pierre Trudeau’s decision to resign in February 1984) during the summer.

Such cranky commentary immediately prompts the “If not Ignatieff, Who?” line of speculation. And here Liberals are all over the political map. Some want Bob Rae, a loser in the competition for the last contested leadership race. (Rae bears the onus of having been a disastrous socialist premier of Ontario before switching to the Liberal party-and there are many Ontario Liberals who have not forgotten let alone forgiven him.) Others look for a fully contested race featuring new young stallions rather than old war horses. Most intriguing is former PM Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, who raises the question of whether he will be “Just in Time” to save the Liberals? Trudeau is photogenic, gives a great speech, has a lovely wife and young child, and excites the younger generation. Thus far, however, he has been dismissed as not sufficiently experienced. Most brutal is the judgment that, “He’s Margaret’s child, not Pierre’s.” (Margaret Trudeau was famously erratic and unpredictable.)

To be sure “buyers regret” can be overblown. As opposition leader, Harper was roundly and dismissively derided. The cure for Ignatieff’s political ails is simple: win the next election.


The socialist NDP is also leader-defined. In the NDP’s case, Jack Layton is working constantly to expand the NDP’s influence. Layton is well-regarded for professionalism, French capability, and maintaining caucus discipline. However, the NDP polling numbers have not changed and, despite increasing the NDP’s parliamentary representation in successive elections, the party appears to have gone as far with Layton as he can take it.

Likewise, the Greens’ support is a continent wide and an inch deep, leaving the party with zero parliamentary seats. Green leader Elizabeth May has abandoned the forlorn hope of campaigning in Nova Scotia, her home, which is the satrapy of highly popular Defense Minister Peter MacKay. She will seek a winnable slot in greener-friendly BC.


The “left” in Canada is frustrated and views with despair the results of a splintered vote between Liberals, NDP, and Greens. This has allowed the Tories, with between thirty-five and forty percent of the vote, to obtain a plurality and so benefit from Canada’s “first-past-the-post” election rules. Consequently, various opposition elements promote self-serving electoral reform, touting one variation or another of proportional representation.

Alternatively (since proportional representation isn’t going to happen federally), some talk about a coalition of the left, with the UK Tory-Liberal coalition government as a possible example. This concept is being approached very gingerly given the disastrous consequences of the December 2008 Liberal-NDP (with implicit Bloc Quebecois support) effort to create a coalition to oust the just installed Tory government. Harper was able to demonize a politically legitimate exercise as un-Canadian and ignite widespread negative reaction by noting the prospective coalition’s reliance on separatist votes. Consequently, NDPers and Liberals musing over a coalition before or after the election is more an illustration of desperation than of pragmatism. Secret talks between unidentified NDP and Liberal members to create a unified new party (Liberal Democrats?) advanced far enough in early June to attract denials and denunciations from both Ignatieff and Layton.


When there is nothing else to do, political observers speculate about the next election. As noted above, current polls do not provide comfort for any party. The Tories remain frustratingly short of a majority; the Liberals (despite a new leader, reorganized party bureaucracy, and better fund raising) have not improved polling numbers over the year; nor have the NDP or Green parties improved significantly. The Bloc Quebecois has settled into the Ottawa governing framework-extracting as much “booty” for Quebec from the government as possible and holding a lock on their parliamentary representation. Thus it is a guess to predict the timing of the next election.

Several problems confront the Canadian polity at mid-2010.

The Economy. As noted above, Canada is emerging from the Great Recession as the OECD poster child for good performance. Canadian attitudes toward money/banking were cautious and uninspired by creative risk taking. Elsewhere, “go go” economies became “went gone” busts. Canada ventured less, and that proved to be the most adroit approach. We can expect more of the same, recognizing always that Canada’s ultimate economic engine lies south of the border, and the country suffers persistent collateral damage from U.S. difficulties, (e.g., Ontario unemployment connected with collapse of U.S. auto manufacturing).

Afghanistan. As a result of a Tory-Liberal pact in early 2008 (which by adroit calculation also removed Afghanistan as a political issue in the 2008 election), the Canadian government announced that its military forces would leave Afghanistan in 2011. That date eventually solidified into departure in July 2011, repeatedly reinforced by senior government officials. The U.S. government did not publicly argue against this position; at the ten year mark, one might appreciate that Canada had endured a long, unpopular, expensive (and bloody in terms of twenty-first century social sensitivities) combat mission.

Thus Secretary of State Clinton’s comments in March praising Canada’s sacrifice/commitment while noting that the United States would appreciate continued commitment (and recognizing that such was Ottawa’s to make) were widely misinterpreted as U.S. pressure to maintain a combat force in country. It was not such an arm-twisting exercise; U.S. forces had over two years of warning and could well cover the departing Canadians.

Even so, following an all-parties investigatory visit to Afghanistan in June, the Canadian committee’s members returned to Ottawa making noises that could be interpreted as being willing to leave a residual force focused on training the Afghan army (Defmin MacKay had already committed to train Afghan police). But having been spun on the topic by Canadian Forces commanders in Afghanistan, who want to continue the commitment, the Liberals/NDP may well be re-spun by Canadians who want simply to see an end to it all.

A sub element of the Afghan saga is the continuing argument over Canadian treatment of Afghan detainees in 2006. The issue was never whether Canadians did any mistreating, but rather whether they failed to protect those that they had captured from subsequent mistreatment by Afghan authorities. In testimony in late 2009, a Canadian diplomat claimed that his reporting messages had warned of abuse–which had been ignored by senior Canadian officials. After much kerfuffle over what was known, when, and by whom, the documents in question were submitted for review by a retired senior judge with the intimation that most should be released without deletions, and subsequently there was agreement between the government and opposition to release most material.

Peripheral to the hair pulling matches in Parliament was the reality of what to do with the prisoners. Doubtless the Afghan prisoners were “abused”-but the Canadian alternatives were turning them over to the U.S. forces (then in the throes of Abu Ghraib/Gitmo) or creating at substantial expense a prison for individuals detained by Canadian Forces-an unacceptable position when the Afghan government was regarded as an ally.


Quebec is responsible for more political turmoil than in the Rest of Canada, but it is not due to resurgent sovereignty. Rather it stems from popular angst regarding reports of corruption within the unions/construction industry that is tainting the governing Liberals. Such reports have combined with voters’ anger over a budget that will include user fees on provincial health services, both an overall annual fee (CN$ 200) for access to the system and a $25 fee for each visit to a doctor. The duality has driven Quebec Prime Minister Jean Charest to minus seventy percent unpopularity-the lowest level ever for a sitting premier. Some of the frustration also arises from the perception that Charest called a snap election in December 2008 prior to official announcement of massive losses in the management of provincial bank/retirement funds-losses significantly higher than those suffered by comparable Ontario funds. The election was a stunning success; Charest moved from a minority government to a solid majority and also eliminated a moderate centrist alternative (Action démocratique du Québec -ADQ) which looked to be heading toward political power following the 2007 election.

Although Charest has been the epitome of the survivor throughout his political career, most observers believe that having won three victories (unique in recent Quebec history), he has worn out his popular welcome. Most don’t consider him personally corrupt but simply willing to “go along” with previous practices. The most capable and popular of his cabinet ministers in his earlier mandates have departed. Charest is depicted as “lazy” and, having obtained a majority, shifted from “getting up at 10 a.m. to getting up at 11 a.m.”-not the preferred approach for keeping careful watch on a caucus and administration.


Unsurprisingly, Charest’s travails are music to Parti Quebecois (PQ) ears. For them, it is only a matter of waiting until an election in 2012 returns them to power. After consecutive Liberal mandates, a change of government would be predictable; however, the combination of higher taxes and corruption appear lethal. The PQ historically has emphasized, with considerable success, its reputation as an honest party and will be playing the “clean up” theme vigorously throughout the rest of the Charest/Liberals’ mandate.

Nevertheless, the PQ has liabilities of its own. Its leader, Pauline Marois, has the virtues (and demerits) of long political experience. Being female is not an advantage in Quebec; she is the first woman to head a major Quebec political party and lives in considerable luxury, making it difficult to demonstrate a “common touch.” Her feeble English (in contrast to previous PQ leaders) also suggests that as Quebec’s leader she would have difficulty communicating with much of the population, let alone the Rest of Canada.


Always looming over Quebec politics is the prospect of another referendum on sovereignty. First, the prospects are nil. Charest’s Liberals current mandate runs until December 2012. Even if the PQ were victorious, a referendum would take at least a year to prepare. And therein lies the rub. How to keep the PQ’s sovereignist core committed and engaged while still struggling through the out-of- power “wilderness?” Every PQ leader has faced the same challenge: you don’t want to call a referendum that you will not win, so you must temporize. Former premier Lucien Bouchard suggested “winning conditions” and his successor Bernard Landry “as soon as possible.” Reportedly, in the next PQ platform, due to be produced in June 2011 after consultation with party militants, PQ leader Marois will not commit to a specific date but re-emphasize the PQ commitment to Quebec sovereignty and seek authority to leave the call for a referendum at an appropriate time to the discretion of the party leader.

The polls remain ambiguous. Quebec sovereignists appear to hold a bloc of approximately forty percent of the electorate; federalists also hold forty percent. The youth vote that the PQ anticipated would bring victory in the next referendum continues to support sovereignty but lacks the passion of previous efforts. This relative apathy is a combination of sovereignty being an older generation’s cause, with appreciation that Francophones have won effective control over Quebec, and “sovereignty” would be nice to have but isn’t vital either for personal or provincial empowerment. One straw in the wind is the audience for Montreal Canadians hockey games, which now rises to sing “Oh Canada” while previously standing silently or not rising at all.

PQ militants believe that an appropriately designed call for a referendum with a vigorous campaign to energize youth, especially university students, would result in victory. They argue that the federalist teams of the past (Trudeau, Chretien, Charest, Bourassa, Johnson, etc) were stronger than current advocates of federalism (Harper, Ignatieff, Charest). Others note critically that the PQ’s heavy recent focus on defining “reasonable accommodation” for immigrants is a codeword for implicit racism against non Francophones (and really anyone not born outside Montreal)-and decidedly not attractive to sophisticated metropolitan/Montreal youth.

However, many sovereignists have concluded that “It isn’t going to happen.” Most dramatic among these was former BQ and PQ leader, Quebec premier, and sovereignty icon, Lucien Bouchard who announced in February that he didn’t expect Quebec sovereignty to be achieved in his lifetime (he was born in December 1938). Bouchard’s announcement clearly disconcerted sovereignists who took scant comfort from his continued support for sovereignty-even as it retreated for him into the never/never.

At the same time, irritation over Quebec’s holding the rest of Canada hostage has eroded support for continued sacrifices to maintain national unity. Federal equalization payments go disproportionately to Quebec-and provide a regular flash point for the irritation of other provinces (Quebeckers deny they get back more than they send to Ottawa). A logical argument can be made for the “It’s Time to Say Goodbye” position as beneficial for both Quebec and the rest of Canada and such could emerge more strongly should there be another referendum, let alone one with a victory for “yes.”


Hovering on the outskirts of Quebec politics since 1994, the ADQ was co-founded and led by Mario Dumont, who for years was its only representative in the National Assembly. Slowly Dumont positioned the party as a moderate conservative force, attractive to young professionals tired of taxes and statist economics. In the 2007 election, Dumont surged to second place when the PQ was headed by a Montreal “metrosexual” unacceptable to many traditional Pequists and the Liberals had failed to honor campaign commitments, e.g., tax reform/reduction. After initial success, however, Dumont failed to take advantage of ADQ’s gains. The 41 ADQ National Assembly members were largely inexperienced and out maneuvered in opposition both by Charest’s minority government and the then third-party PQ. Consequently, the refocused PQ with Marois as leader and the Liberals with a revived Charest virtually annihilated the ADQ in the December 2008 election, reducing it to seven Assembly members. Dumont surrendered to political reality and resigned to become a (reportedly not particularly popular) talk show host.

The remnant shard of the ADQ has lost more Assembly members and with no recognizable leadership appears unable to recover politically. The elimination of this potential “third force” in Quebec politics returns the province to a two party, separatist versus federalist, regime.


The political fact in Quebec federal politics since 1993 has been the domination of the Bloc Quebecois. It has consistently held a majority of Quebec’s seventy-five seats (currently with forty-eight MPs), and this reality makes it extremely difficult for Tories or Liberals to fashion a national majority government–and the growth of the NDP makes majority government even harder. BQ leader, Gilles Duceppe, is competent and effective for promoting Quebec interests in Ottawa; he has a disciplined, “clean,” well-prepared caucus, but has no obvious successor within the Bloc’s MP ranks.

The Liberals remain damaged by memories of the “Adscam” sponsorship scandal and are largely restricted to Anglophone ridings in Montreal and across the Ottawa River from the capital. The Tories campaigned hard in Quebec, attempting to benefit from Liberal disarray and were surprisingly successful in the 2006 election, picking up ten seats on their way to forming a minority government. In power, they sought to expand this bridgehead with various financial and psychic incentives (more funding and describing Quebec as a “nation” albeit within Canada); however, they mangled the opportunity during the 2008 election when initiatives designed to appeal to the rest of Canada (tougher laws on juvenile offenders; cuts in arts/cultural funding) backfired in Quebec and the Tories didn’t gain seats. Subsequently, in December 2008, during the effort to deflect the emerging Liberal-NDP-BQ Coalition, Harper beat so hard on the BQ’s unacceptability, that he reportedly damaged further Tory chances for increasing seats in Quebec. Thus the literary account of the 2007 election described in Chantal Heber’s French Kiss could be redone for the 2008 election as One Night Stand. Although none of the Tory seats can be regarded as “safe,” their electoral position in the province is relatively secure.


It is neither the best nor the worst of times for the two nations’ relationship, which could be depicted as the Chinese blessing, “May you live in dull times.” Thus when the U.S. embassy opens its doors in the morning, it doesn’t have to shovel away (figuratively) the horse manure. That is, the Tory government doesn’t perform gratuitous insults. No “rogue” MPs jump up and down on U.S. action figures for the TV cameras; no ad hominem insults directed at U.S. leaders; no surprise decisions designed to disconcert. When Canada and the United States have substantive differences, the Canadian government communicates them professionally.

There are two obvious reasons for this tranquility: First, the U.S. government is overwhelmed with problems both long term (the economy; energy/environment; security against terrorism; immigration reform; Iran/Iraq/Afghanistan/North Korea; the Middle East; a revanchist Russia; and a muscle-flexing Beijing) and short term (Gulf oil spill; mid-term elections). It has no interest in creating more problems than it has.

The second reason is equally obvious: President Obama has provided an antacid to calm Canadian bile roiled for eight years by “Dubya.” Many Canadians do not understand how a gun-toting, gospel shouting, racist United States could elect an elegant, liberal, intellectual minority person when Canada is still led by “white bread” Caucasian males. There is more than a bit of continuing Obama envy. The president gained credibility by his brief February 2009 visit to Ottawa. The “Obama cookie” (a large sugar cookie with a red maple leaf that he purchased during the visit) is still selling vigorously in the Byward Market. It is judged not for its culinary merits but for its symbolic effect. That the president is now less popular in his own country than in Canada is as irrelevant as the taste of the cookie.

Consequently, Canada and the United States have an opportunity to address what can be managed by professionals without requiring intense political engagement. The nations may, for example, be able to conduct a bilateral military-to-military relationship, even including Afghanistan and expansion of NORAD responsibilities, without it becoming an ideological football. They may be able to manage border security issues without encountering charges that we are paranoids. If the two sides cannot “reset” to pre-9/11, they can focus on issue management and resolve what is resolvable on bilateral issues.

Mr. Jones is a retired career diplomat. He served as minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy at Ottawa during the mid-1990s and has kept a close interest in Canadian politics. He coauthored Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs–a study of U.S.-Canada relations.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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