It can’t happen here, eh

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [Photo by Alex Gulbord, Creative Commons]

by Tom Regan

When Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, a semi-satirical novel about a dictator defeating FDR and taking over the United States, it was generally assumed that he was writing about what would happen if Louisiana politician Huey Long became president of the United States. Fortunately for the United States, and unfortunately for Mr. Long, it didn’t happen. Long was assassinated in 1936.

An American political novel from the 30s about the threat of democratically elected dictatorship may not seem relevant to Canada today. Many Canadians, particularly those in the middle and on the left, clearly think that the kind of right-wing, populist, anti-governmental wave that swept Donald Trump into power in the United States could never happen in a liberal and progressive country like Canada.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but it certainly could.

Sobering evidence that this could indeed happen in the great White North was revealed yesterday. For the past 15 years, the international public relations firm Edelman has issued an international “trust index” that basically measures the amount of trust that citizens of a variety of countries have for institutions like the media, non-governmental organizations, business and the government. On Tuesday they released the latest information on Canada and what it showed was disturbing – that basically Canada is poised for the same kind of populist “eruption” that recently brought Donald Trump to power in the United States.

Edelman executives who released the report called its findings “dramatic” and said that the same kind of wave of ingredients that fueled populist uprisings in the United States and Britain are coalescing in Canada. Confidence in the government of Justin Trudeau for instance, has dropped dramatically. While some drop-off is to be anticipated after a year in government, it was much more than expected, from about 55% to 45%. Meanwhile, a staggering 80% of Canadians said they thought that the county’s “elites” were out of touch with ordinary citizens. Almost 2/3 said they didn’t have faith in the country’s leaders to effectively tackle the issues facing the nation. And 50% of Canadians said that they felt immigrants were damaging the country’s culture and economy.

On the one hand, it’s been quite the year in international politics and it would be foolish to assume that Canada would be totally passed over by the nativist wave that swept through the United States and much of Europe. On the surface a 45% approval rate is not disastrous for Trudeau. On the other hand, it would be sheer folly to ignore what this report demonstrates: That government is not connecting with ordinary Canadians, that the government is not doing its job in helping Canadians understand the benefits that immigrants bring to the country, and that the government has ignored the consequences of globalization on the lives of many of its citizens.

There is some evidence that Trudeau may understand what’s happening. His recent decision to skip the summit of world leaders in Davos and instead embark on a cross-country series of town hall meetings would seem to indicate that he senses the political peril of ignoring the common folk to hang out with global elites.

There is little doubt that Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, however, sees the political opportunity of this populist moment. She has seized on the fact that many Canadians are unhappy with the status quo, and hopes to use that populist sentiment to capture the leadership of her party and ultimately 24 Sussex Dr.

Fortunately, Trudeau has at least two years before he has to call another federal general election. It is quite possible that the populist wave will ebb first. The tumultuous first few weeks of the Trump administration in the United States has already dampened the enthusiasm of many for that kind of government, including among a good number of those who voted in. But Donald Trump is an odd and unpredictable fish, and if you’re counting on his erratic behavior to make your argument for progressive policies, then you’re just throwing a Hail Mary pass and hoping for the best.

If Canada wants to avoid the same kind of populist eruption that’s happening in much of the rest of the world, there’s real, hard work to be done to repair the trust between Canadians and their government. And it needs to start right now. Slick, “sunny” PR opportunities are not going to change a thing.

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Canada prepares for ‘war’ with US

By Tom Regan

Is Canada going to war with the United States? No, not really. But you might say that some elements of the Canadian government are being put on a political ‘wartime’ footing.

Montana/Canada USA Border boundary crossing north of Eureka on Highway 93. (Photo by Spend a Day Touring LLC, Creative Commons)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made some questionable decisions lately, including the sudden decision to drop the plan to change the way Canadians elect members of Parliament. While there are some good reasons for his decision to do so, his way of dealing with the matter shows that over a year into his term he still having some problems figuring out the right way to do things.
One of the things that he has figured out the right way to deal with, however, is the Canadian relationship with the United States. Canada’s relationship with the United States is, at the moment, the most important economic one it has. (Ask me which one is the most important 10 years from now and I might say China.) While that relationship has had its ups and downs, particularly over issues like softwood lumber and cultural issues, it has been dependable and stable for decades.

That was then. This is now.

And now comes in the form of Pres. Donald Trump, a man whose ideas on how to effectively govern the most powerful nation on the planet could be written down on the back of a matchbook cover. Perhaps the most accurate description to be seen so far of Mr. Trump’s governing style was put forward by former liberal staffer Warren Kinsella who described Mr. Trump as a “monkey with a machine gun.” Trump’s habit of tweeting out policy at 3 AM in the morning when he’s restless and bored means anyone dealing with his administration needs to be nimble and one step ahead of the game.

And this is where Canada has perhaps shown the way for other nations in how to deal with Mr. Trump by creating a “war room” in Mr. Trudeau’s riding office in Papineau Québec. The office, headed by liberal political veteran Brian Clow, is designed to help coordinate the Trudeau government’s response to Mr. Trump’s unpredictable whims and fancies. As described in The Hill, which covers government and political issues emanating from Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the office will seek to ensure “integrated outreach across government, so that any projects or talks already underway continue to be worked on.”

Perhaps the most accurate description to be seen so far of Mr. Trump’s governing style was put forward by former liberal staffer Warren Kinsella who described Mr. Trump as a “monkey with a machine gun.”

The genius in this idea is that it will prevent the Trudeau government from “fighting the last war” – in other words move it away from conducting negotiations and outreach in the bureaucratic ways that used to work in the past, but are quite irrelevant in the age of social media and Mr. Trump’s ‘in the moment’ bulldozer style of public policy. Making sure that all government departments are coordinated and singing from the same hymnbook in their dealings with the Trump administration is also key. If you want to see how chaotic mixed messages can be, take a look at what’s happening south of the border right now, where government departments are sometimes called upon to respond to initiatives they didn’t even know were happening.

Another smart thing the Trudeau government did is make former Lieut. Gen., now Liberal MP, Andrew Leslie (Orléans, Ont.), parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs minister, focused on Canada-U.S. relations. The Canadian-American military relationship is important one, and Mr. Leslie’s time working with the Americans, especially in Afghanistan, will serve him well. (There are already signs that the US military is not happy with Pres. Trump – witness the recent leak by three different officials at the Pentagon about how poorly planned the recent raid on Yemen was.) Considering the number of former military people now serving the Trump administration, having a solid relationship with them can only benefit Canada in the long run.

There will be pressure on Trudeau to not be too chummy with Trump, or face the kind of public backlash that greeted British Prime Minister Theresa Mays’ public relationship with The Donald. On the other hand, however, Trudeau cannot afford to be too standoffish or else he risks the wrath of a man known for his childish vengeful attacks on those he sees his opponents. Creating a war room to deal with the US and its new administration is one way of ensuring that Canada’s best interests will be looked after.

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