Trudeau stakes claim to Tory ground on liberty
Monday evening in Toronto, Justin Trudeau delivered a 40-minute speech in which he attempted to provide a coherent, internally consistent philosophical frame for all his future policies and decisions. It was, essentially, a manifesto. It’s fair to say that no Canadian politician has delivered a speech quite like this, in recent memory.
De facto, Trudeau is attempting to relieve the Conservative party of what remains of its intellectual high ground. In the process of calling out the Harper government for what he flatly termed anti-Muslim fear-mongering, the Liberal leader provided the most complete account yet of his political aspirations and motivation. Conservative partisans should not be surprised to discover that, once again, he has an eye to grabbing their lunch money; this time, the ideal of individual liberty itself.
First point: this is classically Trudeauvian (Trudeauesque? Trudeauish?) thinking, hearkening back to an era that long predates Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 16 years as prime minister. PET, the rabble-rousing young essayist, set the enhancement of individual liberty above every other political good, a passion that would eventually find expression in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in 1982.
But Trudeau the Younger’s manifesto is also a naked political gambit. It re-stakes a claim to territory the Liberal party began to lose to the Tories a decade ago, especially in the vote-rich Toronto hinterland. Pluralism, in Trudeau’s view, is the soul of Canada and the essence of what makes it work. The trick, he says, is striking just the right balance between “individual liberty and collective identity.”
He then explores the practical effect in Canadian society of steadily expanding individual liberty from language rights, to women’s rights, to minority rights across the board. Here the right to choose to wear the Muslim niqab or veil, becomes his rallying point. “You can dislike the niqab. You can hold it up as a symbol of oppression. You can try to convince your fellow citizens that it is a choice they ought not to make. This is a free country. Those are your rights. But those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn.”
This flows directly into the bits in the speech that have drawn headlines. First, Trudeau’s observation that state-sanctioned fear of “the other” is nothing new in Canada: “the Chinese head tax, the internment of Japanese and Italian Canadians during the Second World War, our turning away boats of Jewish or Punjabi refugees, our own history of slavery. No Irish need apply. We don’t speak French here, so speak white. The discrimination faced by Greek and Portuguese Canadians in this very city.”
Next, the link he draws between these historical abuses and the Harper government’s recent monomaniacal focus on combating Islamism, even as it pointedly battles a court order striking down a ban on wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, even where identity is not at issue. “Across Canada, and especially in my home province, Canadians are being encouraged by their government to be fearful of one another,” Trudeau asserted in the speech. “For me, this is both unconscionable and a real threat to Canadian liberty.”
The leader of a liberal democracy, the Liberal leader continued, “ought not to be in the business of telling women what they can wear on their head during public ceremonies.” He’s right in that, most good libertarians would have to agree. It’s to his considerable credit that he’s saying so clearly, even knowing the public mood, especially in Quebec, may be against him.
What’s most novel about Trudeau’s thesis, at root, is the claim it lays to upholding individual freedom against the encroachments of the state. It’s intellectual ground the Harper Conservatives have been pleased to occupy, virtually without competition, since their Reform Party days in the early 1990s.
Most curious of all: Monday’s speech and the strategy underlying it have been in the works for months, according to Liberal party sources. But the hook was a series of recent Conservative missteps, from a Facebook post caterwauling about a non-existent imminent attack on the West Edmonton Mall, to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s conflation of the hijab (head scarf) and the niqab, to Conservative MP John Williamson’s facepalm-inducing recent musings about “whities” and “brown people” that together convey the impression that, contrary to all its careful messaging of the past two decades, this Conservative party may not be friendly to minorities, after all.
Clearly, the PMO now perceives some peril here: late Monday, staffers sent out an email reiterating past assertions by Jason Kenney and by the PM of warm support for Canada’s million-strong Muslim community.
The question is whether it will be enough. Intolerance of minorities is a 35-yearold chink in the Western conservative movement’s armour, which long held it back in Ontario. It’s odd indeed to see this dialectic re-emerge now, long past the time when most had thought it dead and gone.