On the Trudeau dream & the role of social movements

The polls suggest we have a very popular prime minister. On Friday, the Calgary Herald reported, "One poll released this week found 67 per cent of Canadians would consider voting for Trudeau’s Liberals." It seems that Canadians have been captured by his dynamism and accessibility, and because he appears sincere in his desire to do the right thing. It may also explain why he now has 1.98 million followers on Twitter.

And while there are emerging narratives that Trudeau deftly uses his image, social media and personal appearances as a way to advance his political agenda, this concerns very few at this point, with most people most likely still wanting to enjoy the ride after ten years of a prime minister who was seen to be unfeeling and who instinctively distanced himself from people and the media. Canadians are generally warmed by photos of Trudeau embracing people, and are still left cold by the memory of Stephen Harper shaking hands with his children as he dropped them off at school more than a decade ago.

But while it's okay to want 'sunny ways' in our political life, that should not distract from real discussions about the hard-decisions any federal government is going to make, and the real-life implications those decisions have on people, communities, the environment, the economy, and rights and obligations.

Yes, Trudeau made good on his promise to withdraw CF-18s from bombing missions over Iraq and Syria, but how much debate has there been on his government tripling the number of special forces in that region, and deploying military aircraft to both refuel and help locate targets for American and British bombers?

Yes, Trudeau has promised and been emotive about the need to establish a new nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations in Canada, but where's the widespread concern that just nine months after taking office his government issued Fisheries Act permits for the construction of the Site C dam in Treaty 8 territory without the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations?

Yes, we may have felt a thaw during his first month in office when Trudeau told global audiences that "Canada is back", but did we not also feel an unease when he told us this May that Canada "sticks to its word" when he both defended and facilitated the sale of $15 billion of combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a royal government with an abysmal human rights record against its own people?

Yes, we thought it was common sense when Trudeau promised to hold a national inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (after years of intransigence against this by the Harper government), but did we hear the deep despair from many Indigenous women disheartened by the limited terms of the inquiry, namely that the inquiry will not have the authority to make findings of police misconduct?

And yes, after years of the Harper government championing Canada as an "energy superpower" we welcomed Trudeau's stated commitment to the environment, but has there been sufficient attention to his government's approval of the Woodfibre LNG terminal, its tax cut to encourage the emission-heavy LNG industry, and its claim that now is not the time to cut subsidies to the fossil fuel industry?

Over the past ten months, numerous voices have been raising these concerns, as well as other public policy issues such as:

  • the Trudeau government's failure to abrogate Harper's funding formula for health care transfer payments to the provinces (that will drain more than $36 billion from public health spending over the coming ten years);
  • their continued championing of the "oil to tidewater" argument (and that myth that if this is done "responsibly" it can somehow be compatible with limiting the global disaster of climate change);
  • their pushing to have 90 per cent of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement implemented by early 2017 (despite the special court system it gives to transnational corporations to sue governments, massive opposition in Europe, and the likely illegality of provisional application); and
  • their refusal to immediately restore water protections gutted from the Navigable Waters Protection Act (which means that more than 31,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers are currently without the federal protection they could easily be afforded).

The list could go on:

  • Why the unwillingness to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law?
  • Why is it so hard for Canada to reflect the international norm and limit the imprisonment of immigrant detainees to 90 days rather than indefinitely?
  • Why has there been silence from the Trudeau government over the US approval to divert 31 million litres of water a day from the Great Lakes?
  • Why has Canada pressured India to support 'investment protection' in 'free trade' agreements when that provision is so skewed to favour transnational corporations over the public interest?
  • What has the government done to defend the right to water for Shawnigan Lake residents whose drinking water is being put at risk by the dumping of tons of tainted soil coming from a Canadian Forces base?

The average 'political honeymoon' for Canadian governments elected post-1979 has been about 16 months. That would take Trudeau to about February 2017, though it could be even longer than that given the opposition parties are in disarray (the Conservatives won't choose a new leader until May 2017 and the New Democrats won't replace Thomas Mulcair until October 2017). It could also be prolonged by the numerous public consultations that are underway (though there is uncertainty if the government will actually hear what people are saying, or if this just an exercise to make people feel like they've been heard).

But is the point to end the dream, to return to the routine of an unpopular government? Our task could equally be to turn mythology into reality. The public wants a Canada that respects Indigenous rights, that expands public health care, that has sustainable and fair trade with the rest of the world, that protects water, that has a 100 per cent clean energy future, and that has a democratic electoral system. That has always been the core vision of The Council of Canadians. Let us hold onto this dream of transformation by asking the hard questions to get us there, mobilizing for better, and demanding systemic change.

Political honeymoons are ephemeral, but movements have always been the real catalyst for social justice.