Trudeau spoke of Camelot but delivered Ottawa.
Canadian journalist Jen Gerson says his record is actually pretty spotty
One has brown hair, the other a thinning combover. One is effortlessly bilingual, the other horrifies editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. One calls himself a feminist, the other boasts about grabbing female genitals. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes for a tempting contrast with President Trump. He seems like the picture of serene and rightthinking liberal-mindedness compared with all of the United States’ most cartoonishly boorish elements.
As a Canadian, I’m not surprised that the American news media and the Internet are saturated by swooning profiles of Trudeau. The Rolling Stone cover story “Why Can’t He Be Our President?” was only the most recent example. Shortly after Trudeau was elected, Vogue fawned over “The New Young Face of Canadian Politics.” Business Insider noted that he looks like a “Disney prince.” Vanity Fair seems to have a Trudeau vertical. US Weekly: “Canada’s New Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Is Super Hot.” He even inspired the quintessential BuzzFeed piece: “Literally Just 27 Really Hot Photos of Justin Trudeau.” A CNN headline sums up the trend: “Justin Trudeau, ‘the anti-Trump,’ shows U.S. Canada’s progressive, diverse face,” which was a particularly impressive take, considering Trudeau is a white man and the son of a previous Canadian prime minister — making him pretty close to the embodiment of a nascent hereditary political establishment in Canada. Please stop. Although Trudeau has proved to be a powerful public relations coup for my country, the political erotica now streaming across the southern border is embarrassing, shallow and largely misses the mark. Trudeau is not the blue-eyed lefty Jesus, and the global affection for him — and for the progressive politics that he and this country seem to represent — reflects a puerile and distorted vision of Canada and its political culture. Worse, the uncritical puffery that is passing for political journalism only makes it harder to hold the man to account.
Canada is, indeed, the land of progressive benefits and left-leaning victories. We take no small pride in our universal health care, paid maternity leave and strict gun control. More controversially, we are expanding safe injection sites for drug users and access to doctor-assisted suicide.
But all of the things that make Canada such a liberal exemplar predate Trudeau by generations. Many of them have their roots in a Westminster parliamentary system and political culture that demand compromise and conciliation and time, rather than benevolent leadership. Further, they are far from perfect, and they come with higher taxes and greater curtailment of personal freedoms. There are no free lunches in Canada. (There aren’t even any food stamps.)
Take universal health care, for example. The fight for the system Canadians have today began in Saskatchewan in the 1960s; it was virulently opposed by doctors’ groups at the time and expanded, over decades, to become a federal priority. Even now, the system is a mishmash by province, and the strains are evident in months- to year-long waits for lowpriority treatments such as back surgeries and hip replacements. Wealthy Canadians can, and do, travel to the United States to get these procedures. And they pay for what they get locally, too, in taxes: The nation spends an average of $5,000 per person on health care each year. As baby boomers age, the economic viability of universal health care is ever more in question, leading some provinces to experiment with private delivery of high-demand services such as cataract surgery.
On the flashier issues that have garnered Trudeau the international limelight, his record is actually pretty spotty. Take Canada’s vaunted refugee program; Trudeau has made a great show of glad-handing refugees at airports and tweeting encouraging bromides. Although these acts have symbolic value in a world where anti-Muslim rhetoric has grown increasingly vitriolic, many migrants have not encountered the free-for-all Trudeau would suggest.
More than one-third of the 40,081 Syrian refugees who have been resettled in Canada since Trudeau took office have been privately sponsored, brought over by thousands of acts of private charity. And sponsoring a refugee family isn’t cheap; sponsors need to front the cost for a full year of income and resettlement. Further, this private effort was scaled back for 2017 because of a backlog of applications and administrative hurdles. Trudeau’s expanded government-sponsored refugee targets — announced at a pivotal point in the last election campaign — also proved to be hasty, with the government missing its timelines and housing refugees in last-ditch hotels. At the nadir of this program, the government frantically upgraded military barracks to house the influx of people; ultimately, they were not used. This is not a model of technocratic competence.
And Canada’s laudable efforts demand a little perspective. Its targets pale in comparison with those of Germany, which accepted 890,000 in 2015, and other European nations. (Although Germany’s success in resettling those refugees remains debatable.)
We may be taking in more people than the United States, which set a goal of only 10,000 Syrian refugees during the Obama administration. But 40,000 is hardly an expansive target for one of the least-populous countries relative to land mass. In the 1970s, when Canada had many fewer people, it welcomed about 60,000 Vietnamese refugees. The current global refugee crisis is now immeasurably worse.
Canadians maintain an uncritical faith in international institutions such as the United Nations, and one of our prevailing national mythologies is that peacekeeping remains one of our greatest contributions to the world. Canadians — unlike Americans, ahem — are considered “honest brokers” in international conflicts. So the gradual decline in our peacekeeping efforts over the past several decades has been a blow to the national ego. Shortly after he was elected, Trudeau noisily recommitted his country to the United Nations and, in particular, to its flawed peacekeeping program.
But our actual commitments — including increased spending, but only after the next election — have proved to be largely symbolic. According to the latest data from the United Nations, Canada contributes 20 troops, 58 police officers and 10 military experts to peacekeeping efforts, for a total of 88 personnel. This is somewhat short of earlier Liberal pledges to commit 600 troops and 150 police officers to such efforts. Canada has about 68,000 active personnel in the military. By comparison, the United States has about 1.3 million.
And Canada’s continued failure on First Nation issues warrants a library unto itself. Trudeau promised an impossible-to-deliver veto to indigenous people over energy projects. Although the prime minister deserves credit for trying to involve First Nation communities and restore the credibility of national regulators in the face of vigorous protests over pipeline projects, that veto quickly fell to the wayside after he approved the controversial Trans Mountain line between Alberta and British Columbia.
He also established a commission to examine this country’s history of missing and murdered indigenous women — a commission that now appears to be collapsing amid calls by First Nation people for mass resignations. Families of murdered women are complaining about a lack of communication, and the commission seems to have accomplished very little beyond the expansion of a sclerotic bureaucracy. Meanwhile, remote reserves are no closer to enjoying economic sustainability, reduced child poverty or improved drinking water than they were two years ago. Reconciliation with our First Nation people remains as fraught as ever.
The most stinging truth about Trudeau is that he hasn’t done much at all. He came to power as an avatar of youthful Canadian optimism and has squandered one of the most extraordinary honeymoon periods any politician has had in recent memory. The best that can be said of his accomplishments is that he has tripled his promised deficits, deferred tax increases on the wealthy and almost legalized marijuana — although it will be up to the provinces to sort out that mess.
Trudeau promised Camelot and delivered, well, Ottawa.
Ottawa is okay. It’s better than some places and worse than others. Next to the swamp of Washington, the Rideau Canal is idyllic. But let’s not valorize the man who happens to preside over it during a time of national embarrassment for the United States. Canadians have rewarded Trudeau with mediocre poll numbers, with his approval rating typically hovering between 50 and 60 percent.
Yes, he’s the poster boy for Brand Canada, and a good one. Perhaps someone who is charming and affable is precisely what Canada needs as key alliances and treaties such as NATO and NAFTA come under threat. But his real talent lies not in government but in showmanship. At least on that front, Trump and Trudeau have something in common.
Jen Gerson is an Alberta-based correspondent for the National Post.