If you had to single out just one Liberal MP for being tuned in to the dangers of his party coming off as too big-city, sometimes a little elitist, Marc Serré would be a likely pick.
Not only does Serré chair the party’s rural caucus—yes, the Liberals have a rural caucus—he boasts a family political history that features a rebellious stand against the Liberal establishment on arguably the most polarizing issue of recent times.
Serré entered federal politics by winning the northern Ontario riding of Nickel Belt in the 2015 election. His uncle, Benoît Serré, was the MP for a neighbouring riding from 1993 to 2004, and a highlight of his career was standing tall among nine Liberal MPs who defied then-prime minister Jean Chrétien by voting against mandatory registration of rifles and shotguns in 1995.
How popular was breaking partisan ranks over the long-gun registry in the mining, logging, hunting and fishing country north of Sudbury, Ont.? “My uncle would have been elected for the next hundred years because he voted against the government,” says Serré. “If there was another gun registry submitted, I’d do the same thing.”
Of course, that’s not going to happen. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government dismantled the long-gun registry in 2012. But Justin Trudeau’s Liberals know resentment of it lingers in rural and small-town Canada. Indeed, the split over the registry ranks among the clearest examples in recent history of Canadian politics being seized by us vs. them, double-double vs. double latte, identity-defining polarization. It was the kind of politics Canadians often congratulate themselves by describing as “American-style.”
For Serré, though, that sort of division is an all-too-Canadian preoccupation, especially as a Liberal whose riding isn’t much like, say, Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver—the densely populated urban seats that often vote Liberal or NDP by the biggest margins. So while there’s no risk of a bid to restore the registry, his rural caucus has been cautioning Toronto MP Bill Blair, former chief of police in Canada’s biggest city, against proposing any new gun control measures that would again rile up Canadians beyond the cosmopolitan centres.
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Blair has been assigned by Trudeau to examine ways to curb gun violence. Serré says his caucus of more than 50 rural and partly rural Liberal MPs recognizes the difficult balancing act Blair must execute. In Toronto and Vancouver, an outright handgun ban might sound sensible; in Timmins, Ont., or Campbell River, B.C., not so much. “We have to let Bill do his job. He’s consulting with both sides,” Serré says, then adds for clarity’s sake: “He’s not having both sides at one meeting, because it’s emotional.”
Bringing the pro-gun and anti-gun lobbies together in the same room would be inviting trouble. And it’s far from the only issue where Canadians sort themselves into mutually hostile camps. Perhaps the prime example these days is what to do about the steady trickle of asylum seekers crossing into Canada from the U.S.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer pushes a red-hot button by calling the situation “Justin Trudeau’s border crisis.” Then again, Ahmed Hussen, Trudeau’s immigration minister, was equally polarizing when he used the phrase “not Canadian” to dismiss Tory claims that the border-crossers are gaming the refugee system. Even senior Liberals admit privately that Hussen crossed a line.
Or consider another telling episode: the Liberals’ controversial move last year to require groups applying for federal Canada Summer Jobs (CSJ) funding to attest that they “respect” certain rights, including “reproductive rights.” Anti-abortion faith groups, including the major Catholic and evangelical lobbies, howled over being asked by the government about what they do or don’t respect, just to qualify for money to pay students to, say, work at summer camps. It was a problem for Serré, since Catholic groups are prominent in his northern Ontario riding.
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After months of acrimony, the Liberals staged a strategic retreat, adjusting the application for next summer’s CSJ grants to no longer ask about any group’s core convictions, while still making hiring youth for anti-abortion campaigns ineligible. But the summer jobs uproar confirmed the suspicions of some religious groups that the Liberals just don’t respect them at a deep level.
The CSJ issue had real policy implications. But sometimes Canada’s left-right schism—playing out mostly between Liberals and Conservatives just now, with the NDP struggling to elbow its way into the argument—reveals itself with Liberal messages that simply annoy Canadians who don’t self-identify as “progressive.” Trudeau rubbed many the wrong way when he took to Twitter late last year to pledge $50 million to a global children’s education charity—and addressed the commitment personally to Trevor Noah. (The actual decision had been made three weeks earlier, said a department spokesman later.) No doubt, the comedian and talk show host has loads of fans on the left of the political spectrum. But Scheer’s reaction that Trudeau is too concerned about being “popular with celebrities” was a sure winner with his Conservative base.
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Policy tensions over guns and border security, culture clashes over faith and showbiz liberalism—all these examples suggest surprisingly close parallels between the left-right fault lines running through Trudeau’s Canada and Trump’s America. Canadian Liberals historically tried to straddle the centre. The deficit-cutting that largely defined Chrétien’s government, for instance, couldn’t be seen as left-wing, and Chrétien himself was no hipster.
But Trudeau’s core policy concern is inequality, not fiscal discipline, and his persona is urban wokeness. So whether he’s bonding with celebrities, or his government is feuding with faith-based groups, or one of his ministers is pronouncing on what’s un-Canadian, Trudeau’s image makes his brand of Liberalism an easy target for critics on the right who portray him as arrogantly out of touch with anyone outside his progressive base.
Canadians often assume that their stereotypical politeness and centrist instincts inoculate them against the extremes of the U.S.’s notoriously rabid red-state-blue-state standoff. The Liberal party at its most successful—when it splits the difference between the Conservatives on the right and the NDP on the left—casts itself as the natural vehicle for that distinctively Canadian, and frankly un-American, middle ground. Yet academic researchers and pollsters tend not to describe underlying Canadian attitudes as nearly so reliably moderate.
University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston, one of the foremost experts on political parties and elections in both Canada and the U.S., says social-science data show surprisingly little difference between the two countries on some of the most polarizing themes. “On the diversity stuff—support for multiculturalism, support for immigration—it’s very hard to see the 49th parallel,” Johnston says.
Other experts agree. University of Toronto political science professor Michael Donnelly analyzed polling data and found Canadians aren’t much different from Europeans or Americans when it comes to the generosity of their attitudes toward immigrants. “Whatever is driving Canada’s exceptionally positive history of immigration and integration over the past half-century,” Donnelly says, “it does not appear to be an exceptionally tolerant public.”
And yet Canada does stand apart in North America. Johnston argues the key reason is the difference between how Canadians and Americans elect governments. In Canada, parties gain power by electing the most MPs, and prime ministers sit in Parliament among them. As a result, local candidates in Canada generally can’t afford to run strictly on messages that sell in their ridings. They need to fall in line with the national platform and messaging of their leaders, which in turn must be designed to appeal to widely varying voters: urban, suburban and rural.
Candidates for the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives run at a distance from their party’s presidential aspirations. Thus they can tailor a message to a much narrower local audience—in some cases, right-wing rural or left-wing urban. In fact, to be their party’s candidate, they need to first win a primary, which generally means winning over the most engaged partisans in their district or state. That’s a prescription for sharp-edged, geographically focused partisanship. The incentive for centrist messaging, Johnston says, is far stronger for presidential candidates. (He stresses that Trump is the glaring exception to this rule.)
That’s not how Canadian politics works. The fates of MPs are typically closely tied to their leaders’ popularity, which in turn dictates the chances of their party taking or holding power. It cuts both ways. Federal leaders trying to set a tone that’s saleable across Canada try to discipline their sitting MPs or candidates against blurting out some extreme view that might work locally but hurt nationally.
Another crucial factor is the way dozens of suburban ridings, many with large immigrant populations, factor heavily in winning Canada-wide. “Lots of Conservative supporters are just as anti-immigrant and anti-multicultural as their Republican counterparts,” Johnston says, “but they can’t afford to indulge themselves—not so long as the suburbs of Vancouver and Toronto constitute the veto power in Canadian politics.”
All this has tended to tug Canadian parties toward the middle. For Liberals, that often meant capturing a solid share of the centre-right. Chrétien and Paul Martin, his finance minister, not only balanced the books, they followed up by broadly cutting taxes. By contrast, Trudeau’s policy playbook has featured plunging back into deficit while boosting payments to parents, enriching future Canada Pension Plan benefits and hiking the top tax rate.
This apparent leftward shift is a direct result of the critique Trudeau-era Liberal strategists apply to what happened when centre-left parties governed in Canada, and beyond, during the 1990s. In different ways during that decade, U.S. president Bill Clinton, British prime minister Tony Blair and, of course, Chrétien, constrained spending, negotiated trade deals, trimmed taxes and targeted investment toward technology. And it worked—at least sort of. Economic growth through the period was strong.
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But the promise of that era’s centre-left bargain was that everybody would benefit. Today’s most influential Liberal tacticians contend that the gains under Chrétien, Clinton and Blair flowed far too much to the rich, while average earners felt growing anxiety. “You can argue that the wild spike in income inequality is a result of that,” says David Herle, a top Trudeau adviser during the 2015 campaign. “And I think you can ultimately argue that the anger you find in populations is a result of effectively having two conservative parties for a period of time, and having parties that drove a market-driven agenda that did not yield results for average people.”
Although Herle worked on Trudeau’s 2015 triumph, he is best known as a top architect of former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s winning Liberal campaign in 2014, and then her shattering defeat in the 2018 provincial election. If the Liberals had the economic interests of the neglected middle class figured out, what went wrong? Wynne points to how increasingly polarized and angry debate made it hard for her to put across that centrist vision in a way that resonated with enough voters.
In an interview, the former premier sketched a chain reaction driven by Trump-style populism—she labels it “hard-right populism”—being imported into Ontario by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. “What that has done,” Wynne says, “is push on the continuum of opinion and push it to the left. It’s sort of the hard right and everybody else. It worries me a lot. It’s created a very harsh tone.”
The platform and record Wynne ran on in her losing campaign last spring featured landmark public prescription-drug insurance, ending tuition fees for many college and university students, fully subsidizing daycare and hiking the minimum wage. Asked if all that doesn’t add up to her own polarizing lurch to the left, she argues the policy mix was all about responding to inequality. “The policies that we brought in that are referred to as ‘left’—daycare, free tuition, pharmacare—those are the policies that are needed in this global economy to mitigate the gap between the wealthy and not-wealthy,” Wynne says.
Put another way, today’s Canadian Liberal vision, largely shared by Trudeau and Wynne, is that the populist right’s rise is a reaction to fears about globalization and resentment over inequality—and so is their own updated version of Liberalism. What’s missing from this mostly economic perspective, though, is a take on the factors often lumped together as “identity politics.”
Voters don’t respond only, or perhaps even mainly, to pocketbook policies. They want to feel something in common with the politicians they support. University of Saskatchewan political studies professor David McGrane says today’s left-right confrontation isn’t over yesterday’s concerns. “Those older issues about wealth redistribution and state intervention in the economy really were the staples of 20th-century politics,” he says. “Rather, the polarization now is more around 21st-century issues that have to do with identity, things like gay rights, women’s rights, even the environment.”
McGrane and two co-authors published a paper in the Journal of Urban Affairs in 2017 called “Moving beyond the urban/rural cleavage.” They asked large samples of Canadians 10 questions about policy and 10 about values. They found, not surprisingly, that inner-city dwellers are far more left-wing on most issues than residents of suburbs, small cities, small towns or farms.
But there were telling points of consensus. Notably, McGrane says, even right-leaning Canadians outside big cities have come to support robust government spending on public health and education. That old partisan and ideological litmus test is largely defunct. Similarly, polls show that left-of-centre Canadians are, by and large, no longer skeptical about free trade—eliminating another formerly reliable marker of the leftish instincts.
But less polarization on these historically important questions about the role of government and what creates prosperity coincides with deepening divisions in several emotionally charged areas. McGrane’s findings say identity issues pit big-city voters against all the rest: “Inner-city residents are much more likely to report the existence of systemic racism and patriarchy, display higher levels of environmentalism and display considerably less social conservatism than Canadians living in other residential zones.”
That view of polarization is reflected in the 2015 election results. Tallies of which ridings count as rural vary, but Maclean’s analysis (counting all ridings with fewer than 150 people per square kilometre) shows the losing Tories won 46 per cent of those seats, including 54 per cent outside of Atlantic Canada. In their sweep of Atlantic Canada, the Liberals took 24 rural seats, but only a quarter of all those in the rest of the country, including a mere four west of Ontario. The NDP captured just 13 per cent of rural Canada.
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Trudeau’s progressive patter can undercut Liberal efforts to connect beyond the big cities, especially in the West. His government spent $4.5 billion to take over Kinder Morgan’s stalled Trans Mountain pipeline project, and put up $1.6 billion to support the struggling oil patch. But he also mused aloud at the G20 summit in Argentina about a sort of feminist critique of infrastructure projects like “this new highway or this new pipeline or something.” He elaborated: “Well, you know, there are gender impacts when you bring construction workers into a rural area. There are social impacts because they’re mostly male construction workers.” Sara Wheale of Benton, Alta., summed up the dumbfounded reaction in places like her hometown by resigning from Trudeau’s Youth Council over the remarks.
Of course, the majority of ridings aren’t rural; the majority are urban or suburban. So a plausible response to that numbers game would be for Liberals to simply ignore hinterland conservatism. The problem is that McGrane finds suburbanites leaning rightward, too, in many of their values. And history shows they’re apt to switch between Liberals and Conservatives, particularly in those prized swing seats around Toronto and Vancouver.
A senior Liberal strategist, speaking on condition he not be named, said the key to Trudeau holding the burbs in 2019 won’t have much to do with the polarizing debates around, say, feminism or Indigenous issues. He pointed instead to the Prime Minister’s successful defence of Canadian free trade with the U.S.—which polls show is widely admired—along with measures like a modest middle-bracket tax cut and a big boost in the Canada Child Benefit. “All those things are what we’ve spent 90 per cent of our time on,” he said.
That version of what matters most in Trudeau’s track record shows how Liberals hope to frame a non-polarizing narrative about economic well-being, especially for suburban swing voters. The question is whether that pragmatic message will be heard over the din of super-polarized debate about Liberal policies like taxing carbon and defending due process for border-crossing migrants. They’re up against Conservatives who paint Trudeau as the worst kind of out-of-touch elitist. “To Justin Trudeau,” Scheer has said, “you are the enemy: the commuter, the office worker, the hockey mom, the retired senior.”
Liberals fire back by casting Scheer as a superficial player of Trump cards. Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau’s deputy communications director, accuses him of sidestepping real debate “because it’s easier to jump on the populist bandwagon and shout about the dangers of migrants.” Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary and alter ego, says of right-wing populists: “They promise government for the people and deliver benefits for the wealthy.”
That sort of counterpunching energizes pumped-up core supporters and donors. According to Abacus Data, though, fewer of Trudeau’s likely voters than Scheer’s are fiercely partisan. Based on the combined findings of six online surveys last fall, for which more than 8,600 Canadians were interviewed, Abacus found that 31 per cent will only consider voting for one party. That leaves more than two-thirds of Canadians open to persuasion. Of those now inclined to vote Conservative, 47 per cent said that’s the sole choice they’d consider, compared to 30 per cent of Liberal supporters who don’t see any other option, and 21 per cent of NDP voters who won’t consider another party. “That means there’s a lot more fluidity on the centre-left than on the right,” says Abacus CEO David Coletto.
For Trudeau, a fluid middle-of-the-road vote up for grabs presents a clear incentive for finding a way to sound moderate. From her vanquished perspective, though, Wynne worries that the old Liberal strategy—telling Canadians what the centre is then efficiently occupying it—has become harder to execute. “I believe in the activist centre, but I think we’re going to have to work hard to redefine it, because there’s a lot more contrast between the hard-left and the hard-right,” she says, posing what might be the most pressing question of all in these polarized times: “Where is the centre now?”
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