As Canada prepares to go to the polls next Monday, many Canadians find themselves poles apart.
It is tempting to dismiss the 2021 federal election as a pointless exercise — called for no reason, with no defining issue, and with little change, so far, to the Liberal-Conservative stalemate that defined our politics in 2019.
But if the campaign has changed little in voters’ preferences, it may reveal a lot about the state of the nation. Likewise, how the party leaders spend the final days — and how we respond — will tell us much about ourselves.
Elections are rarely decided on issues; they usually turn on themes and emotions: Hope. Fear. Unity. Division. Trust. Change.
Hope, unity and trust are in short supply. Still, no major party is fundamentally challenging the country’s direction, and there is no consensus about the change Canadians want or need.
The main question is whether we emerge from the election more divided — not just politically but also socially and culturally — and whether our leaders act to prevent the perils of this path.
This risk is particularly high at an anxious time when we are information-rich and attention-poor, with citizens’ voices amplified through social media and journalists’ voices diminished by media cutbacks. As a result, the stakes are higher, and trust is lower.
In the crucible of social media, the parties’ worst tendencies emerge with passionate intensity. Liberals can come across as a personality cult, convinced of their own leader’s unassailable virtue and the mortal peril of a Conservative government. Conservatives can act as members of a warlike clan with a near-pathological hatred of Justin Trudeau. New Democrats can show up like a revolutionary guard, obsessed with overturning systems of privilege and power.
These are caricatures, but ones that are familiar — and alienating — to any undecided voter on Facebook or Twitter.
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The perils of polarization
The leaders, fortunately, are rarely called upon to do the dirty work. However, with no one’s core voter base large enough for a majority, the campaign’s final week finds the parties fighting for every inch on the playing field.
As a result, we see the leaders playing to voters’ negative motivations: telling us what — and whom — they are against and urging strategic voting in their favour.
They are targeting their political opponents and putting “black hats” on various segments of society — the media, the elites, the affluent, the big banks and tech companies, foreign investors, or those who oppose vaccination mandates.
If there’s one polarizing force that should give these leaders pause, it is the party the others rarely name.
Before the campaign, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada was going nowhere. While he may yet end up there, the campaign has given him an unexpected advantage: when politics becomes polarized, extreme voices thrive.
Alone among the leaders, Bernier proudly declared that he would not be vaccinated. Instead, he re-cast anti-vaxxers as freedom fighters. He called the Liberal leader a “fascist psychopath.” “When tyranny becomes law,” he frequently intones, “revolution becomes our duty.”
Angry words beget angry actions. So no one should be surprised that it was a People’s Party official — now removed from his position — who threw gravel at the Liberal leader at a recent event.
It was a dark moment in the campaign — arguably an assault not just on a political leader but on our democracy. In one small way, on one short day, it gave us a glimpse of politics across our southern border. To their credit, the leaders didn’t like what they saw. They united against it — and then returned to their polarizing ways.
This does not bode well for a nation that needs to bridge and heal divides that have become wider during the pandemic and achieve the public health and economic imperative of near-universal vaccination. Will the election campaign help? Or, as now seems the case, will it make people angrier, more polarized, and less likely to comply with public health guidance and regulations?
The final days: Strategic choices for each leader
That brings us back to the leaders’ choices, and ours, in the campaign’s final days.
It would be unrealistic to expect them not to highlight their opponents’ flaws. The question is whether there’s a place for a more hopeful, less cynical message. Arguably, the major party leaders each have something to gain.
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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau — once known for his “sunny ways” — has become a polarizing persona. He now casts himself as a righteous defender of the pro-vaccination majority against those who oppose vaccination mandates. While his outrage — reasonably — was directed against the unconscionable acts of harassing health workers and blocking access to hospitals, being too sweeping could alienate those who are not anti-vaccination but simply vaccine-hesitant.
The opportunity: Can Trudeau make the final week less about him and more about his agenda — which a plurality of Canadians support? Can he show genuine empathy for those who are hesitant?
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Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, whose default campaign presence has been genial and positive, heads a polarizing party. He won’t be allowed to forget that he earned his party’s leadership by promising to “take back Canada” from the “elites,” the public broadcaster, the forces of political correctness, social justice warriors and a host of other enemies.
The opportunity: Can O’Toole reinforce his claim to be a new type of Conservative, and counter the Liberal caricature of him and his party, by framing his economic recovery message as a positive choice?
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NDP leader Jagmeet Singh — at his best an authentic voice for respect and reconciliation — has a polarizing agenda. He has run his entire campaign on the mantra of “making the rich pay,” including the “big corporations.” He knows talking about income inequality is dull. Having a bona fide enemy to vilify is more persuasive — even if there are not enough affluent people and businesses to pay the bills for the NDP’s promises.
The opportunity: Can Singh speak about his vision for Canada — and his deep, sincere commitment to it — with the same passion he brings to the topic of who should pay for it?
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Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet depends on polarization for his party’s political survival. Last week, he eagerly sought to persuade Quebecers that a debate moderator’s legitimate question about laws that discriminate against religious minorities is an “insult to Quebec” — and that the rest of Canada believes Quebec is a racist society. As a result, he was rewarded with an uptick in the polls. However, it’s unlikely that there is significantly more to gain; he now needs to persuade undecided voters considering federalist parties.
The opportunity: Can Blanchet speak about what the Bloc can do to serve Quebec’s interests without vilifying the motives of other leaders or other Canadians?
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Green Party leader Annamie Paul, while sharply critical of Trudeau in particular, has been a lone voice for a different type of politics. Her party, however, is struggling for survival, without the resources to claim a loud voice in the final week.
The opportunity: Can Paul speak to the Parliament Canada needs, a place that’s less polarized, more inclusive, and more focused on positive outcomes than negative theatre? Can she show the value of the Green Party as a voice in that Parliament?
There remains an opportunity for a leader to emerge as a voice of hope and unity when it is sorely needed. Will someone seize this opportunity? Or will they continue to accuse one another of many sins, hoping Canadians reward those who cast the rhetorical stones?
The answer will define our political climate for years to come.
Daniel Tisch is the CEO of Argyle, one of Canada’s largest public engagement and communications consulting firms. He has advised a long list of private and public sector leaders, including cabinet ministers and heads of government representing all major parties.