Explaining the Democrats’ strange hold on Canadians

Scott Gilmore on why Canadians give U.S. Democrats like Obama and Clinton a unique type of devotion, unseen in church, concert halls or even hockey arenas
President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, stand for the playing of national anthems during an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, stand for the playing of national anthems during an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

If you’ve never watched a leader of the American Democratic Party speak to a Canadian audience, you should add it to your bucket list. I know that sounds strange, but there is really nothing like it—not because of what happens on stage, but because of what happens in the audience.

I was in Toronto today as a guest of the think tank Canada 2020, to attend their luncheon featuring former U.S. president Barack Obama. It was not an intimate affair. There were ministers federal and provincial, a premier, a smattering of lieutenant governors, and about 3,000 others who had paid for the pleasure of witnessing an ex-politician speak.

I am struggling to describe the atmosphere and tone of the event, because as I said, there is really nothing comparable. The short introductory speeches were giddy, the crowd was eager and responsive, even the worst jokes got belly laughs. A video of the president’s “most iconic moments” was then played, to cheers. When they got to the clip of Obama singing Amazing Grace, I looked around to see more than one person at my table crying.

When the president strode on to the stage, he was greeted with a special type of applause, more of a fervent offering than adoring clapping. It was not a partisan roar, but something more earnest and personal. It was not religious, but it was not far off. They wanted Obama to feel their admiration. I’ve only ever seen the same thing when other Democrats have come to Canada, like Al Gore, or the Clintons.

And, when the president was speaking, I turned around to see 3,000 rapt faces. No one murmured. No one checked their phones. There was no fidgeting. Everyone watched in engrossed silence. During one of his characteristic pauses, I could hear, far in the back of the convention centre, a busboy drop an empty pop can.

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Unless you’ve witnessed this, it’s difficult to understand how unusual (and even unsettling) it is to see people pay attention like this in the 21st century. We don’t do it in church, at the hockey arena, or at a concert, and definitely don’t do it at political rallies. So, my question is why? Why do Canadians give Democratic politicians this unique type of devotion?

It can’t be because of what they say. The substance of Obama’s speech and the on-stage interview he gave afterward, seemed grand but when you actually parsed it, there wasn’t a lot there. There was even less that was specifically for Canadians—although he made a few references to the recent heat wave and said some kind words about our health care system. Like Hillary Clinton, who spoke in Toronto yesterday, and I am sure Bill Clinton when he comes to town later this week, he did not say anything we had not heard before. He did not risk any jabs at the new president, he didn’t even offer up any specific policy ideas.

It could be the way they talk. Democrats, even Hillary in her better moments, can make empty sentences sway and dance. You can hear in their voices the cadence and tone of southern Baptist preachers. Our attention is held not by what they say, but by the way it sounds. By contrast, Canadian politicians seem to mimic high school debaters. And the childish point scoring in Parliament, which they engage in with self-important relish, makes it hard to take any of them seriously. Imagine Obama jumping to his feet to accuse his Republican counterpart of “hating farmers” while his colleagues loudly “ooh and aww” as though it was an Oscar Wilde worthy retort.

It is true Obama, and (to a lesser extent) Gore and the Clintons, are more charismatic than any Canadian politician of the last 30 years. He was introduced as the “coolest guy on the planet”, and his calm swagger made that believable. Our current Prime Minister can make some Canadians swoon, but far more roll their eyes at his socks and his carefully staged “impromptu” photo bombs.

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Here is my theory why Canadians are so devoted to Democratic leaders: it is because they speak so often about the idea that progress comes from building a community.

Canadians believe in community. We like the idea that we’re stronger together—it runs through every aspect of this country, its economy and its politics. And it is a notion that for the most part transcends the left right partisan divides. Jason Kenney is just as passionate a believer in the importance of communities as Thomas Mulcair. And the Democrats simply do a far better job extolling this important idea than Canadian politicians.

The people who lined up for Hillary and Obama this week are there because consciously or otherwise they see these people as tangible defenders of the idea our society is greater than the sum of its members. We see them as champions of “us”, the group, the community, the country, the world.

This idea, which was threaded explicitly or implicitly through Obama’s entire speech, is profoundly comforting to Canadians—the notion that we are going to get through this, together. “This” being all our fears; economic slumps, climate change, trade wars, pipelines, and water crises, and anything else that keeps us up at night. It’s a message that waxes and wanes among Americans, but has always resonated consistently in Canada.

I predict that if one of our leaders ever figures out how to talk like a Democrat, it will electrify the country. If a politician stopped telling us the other guy is killing Canada, and instead talked about how we’re going to get through “this”, make our country stronger, and better for everyone, people would pay attention. They might even listen, faces turned spellbound, like they did to Obama today.