The Fragility of Democracy: Canada Edition

If Canada eventually falls in line with the increasingly large group of countries that are abandoning pluralism and simple decency, will it be because of a strong local proto-fascist movement or a weak defense of an open and welcoming society?  At this point, the answer looks more like the latter.  Either way, however, how likely is that very bad outcome?

Six weeks ago, the headline of one of my Dorf on Law columns asked somewhat cheekily: Is Politeness a Reliable Defense Against Fascism?  My focus there was on the danger that US-like reactionary grievance politics would take hold in Canada, where I have now been living for almost ten months (and will continue to live for at least the next year and a half).  There and in a column from 2022, I noted that there is a core of hard-right political operatives/trolls here who mirror -- and seem to actively collaborate (or collude) with -- Americans of the "anti-woke" subspecies.

As I noted in last month's column, most Canadians with whom I have engaged on these issues insist that things like the 2022 "antivax trucker protest" that all but shut down the national capital of Ottawa are fringe events that are not indicative of larger cracks in Canada's broadly inclusive society.  And I believe them -- or at least, I believe that they believe what they are saying.  Just as many Americans were long in denial about the dangerous currents in their country's politics, however, it is possible that there is a similar resistance up north to seeing clearly where things are headed.  Indeed, because of what appears to be a broadly shared desire on Canadians' part to think the best of other people, that resistance might approach willful blindness.

Even though I have lived here for what in some ways feels like a long time -- that is, I am at the very least not drawing broad conclusions from quick (and possibly invented) conversations with the infamous "young, French-speaking African" cab driver in Paris -- I make no claim that I am able to draw nuanced and independent judgments about what is happening here in Toronto and across the country.  My media diet is still very much US-centered (or possibly US-centred, but maybe not), and the political scene here is certainly complicated enough to suggest caution on the part of outsiders.

Yes, there are similarities between the political cultures in the two countries.  For example, the ruling Liberal Party's newly revealed budget proposal laudably includes an indirect increase in taxes on the wealthiest fraction of the top one percent of Canadians -- which is, revealingly, simply a plan to roll back (but only in part) the exemption from taxation of one half of all capital gains income -- yet one of the top national news anchors decided to ask the Deputy Prime Minister why the Liberals want to inflict "punishment" on rich people.  So the usual neoconservative nonsense is alive and well on this side of the border.

Even so, it has been notable that my Canadian law students (at two different universities), acquaintances, and news sources seem to be infused with a sense of negativism that borders on fatalism.  News sources and YouTube are filled with stories claiming that "no one wants to live in Canada" (which is obviously false), and my students were especially excited when they could tell me that they had received job offers in the US.  Some of this is driven by the sense of modesty that people who live in non-superpowers feel about themselves -- a feeling that I felt internally in the US by having grown up not in a power center but in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio -- but some of it seems to be edging toward self-flagellation, based on a belief that Canada is in a uniquely bad way.

Consider the problem of homelessness.  When I spent a month in Vancouver in 2022, I wrote a column noting in passing that, "[a]s many good things as there are to say about this city, province, and country[,] I am sad to report that the homelessness crisis is as bad here as I have seen in any American city.  This is not a uniquely American problem."  And based on what I now see every day, Toronto's homelessness problem is at least as bad as Vancouver's.  Yet many (perhaps most?) Canadians seem to think that the homelessness problem is specific to this country, just as they think that "the inflation problem" is somehow tied to what their own government is doing or failing to do.  This is similar to Americans' blaming the President for everything, but it makes even less sense in a country that is more exposed to global trends and problems.

That is not to say that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should get a free pass on issues of housing and the unhoused.  Indeed, when I saw the extent of the problem in Vancouver two years ago, I expressed shock to my American friends precisely because housing is such a local issue and could be addressed by local, provincial, and national governments.  If I recall correctly, I think I said something like this to a friend at the time: "I never imagined that Canada -- which has all of the problems that any modern society has -- would not be doing a better job at dealing with this problem than a dysfunctional country like the US."

And the US is very much the opposite of a model in this regard.  The Supreme Court seems poised to allow local governments to penalize people for being homeless, even when those people have nowhere else to go.  That'll solve the problem!  Interestingly, MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show had a segment this morning in which the hard-right-but-anti-Trump host Joe Scarborough began an interview with two US mayors by saying that what the Supreme Court seems poised to do should be good news to local leaders.  To my pleasant surprise, the response was emphatic and bipartisan: both the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles and the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City said in no uncertain terms that such cruelty would solve nothing, arguing instead for a broader approach to solving the underlying problems that push people into homelessness in the first place -- not only lack of affordable housing itself but mental health issues that have been largely untreated, with the rest of society blaming the victims.

Why is Canada not doing better?  In part, it is because Canadians are just as easy to scare as everyone else.  A close friend here works in the mental health field, specifically with the population of unhoused people who are struggling with psychosis and other problems, which means that she spends time trying to help such people and get them off the street.  Where will those people be able to live, if not on the street?  If you guessed homeless shelters and halfway houses, you have not met that most cross-cultural of all social creatures -- the nimby (or, as a satirically awful activist fashions himself, the apian Nimbee).  And sure enough, my friend recounted only one of many examples of how local neighbourhood groups had opposed and stalled a very promising local housing plan to the point that its finances dried up by the time the project was ultimately approved.

But the larger part of the problem goes back to neoliberalism.  Even the two non-conservative political parties here are not especially left-leaning, at least by the standards of Canada's non-US peer countries.  The whining from the Conservatives about the Liberals' budget has been deafening, and the Liberals are having a difficult time finding a politically resonant response.  And when anti-tax dogma prevents a country's governments from raising enough money to solve social problems, the problems fester.  The festering problems then undermine the public's support for the government, and the political situation spirals downward.

All of which brings me back to the question of whether Canada's increasingly sour mood is a portent of something very bad to come.  In an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, Canadian author Stephen Marche warned that the Trudeau-led government's increasingly dismal political prospects are caused not only by things beyond its control but by unforced errors.  Marche, whom I discussed in the 2022 Dorf on Law column that I cited above, has been warning Canadians that the US republic is doomed.  In his column yesterday, he addressed the consequences of Trudeau's weak responses to political challenges, and the picture is not pretty.

Remember those anti-vax truckers?  Some of my students had told me that the inexplicable aspect of that whole situation was that the caravan of trucks took days to arrive in the city and had been well advertised in advance, yet somehow the government did nothing to stop them from doing what they had said quite clearly that they planned to do.  Marche agrees:

The first evidence of the prime minister’s weakness in the face of Canada’s growing polarization was the government response to the so-called Freedom Convoy in 2022, in which anti-vaccine demonstrators held Ottawa hostage for a month. His government decided to take a bureaucratic approach to the disruption, dithering while the truckers entrenched themselves in the city, then using the Emergencies Act to seize several of their bank accounts. A January federal decision found that Mr. Trudeau’s invocation of the act was “not justified.”

Marche notes that other Trudeau actions and inactions are based on a "fear of confrontation — which, to be fair to Mr. Trudeau, afflicts the entirety of Canadian culture and politics."  Marche also argues that Trudeau and the Liberals seem to be incapable of finding a way to deal even with pressing issues, falling back on platitudes: 'This is not who we are as Canadians.'"  Marche adds ominously:

[Trudeau] seems to believe that telling people to be nice to one another will do. This weakness not only threatens the multicultural society his father founded; it threatens progressive values around the world. For many, Canada seemed a lone candle alight for the values of pluralism and liberalism as they have been extinguished elsewhere in the world.

To be clear, I do not know Marche, and there is a reason even within his column to be a bit leery.  He all but worships Trudeau's father Pierre (calling him "tough as hell"), who as Prime Minister in the 1970's "famously invoked the War Measures Act against separatist terrorists in 1970, suspending civil liberties and bringing in the military. When asked by journalists how far he was willing to go, he said, 'Just watch me.'  Pierre Trudeau knew that the liberal order demands forceful and practical — and occasionally ugly — defense."  Whoa.  I will not comment here on the separatist terrorists and whether the elder Trudeau's response was justified, but cheering a more general whatever-it-takes approach that is "occasionally ugly" is beyond a red flag.  In 2022, it was not even arguably necessary to suspend civil liberties.  It only required the willingness to enforce the law in the first place (especially with weeks of advance notice).

Even so, the larger point is that Canada truly has been a beacon of openness and multiculturalism, and the Conservative government that would replace Trudeau's is riding a wave of reactionary populism that includes (among other things) efforts to undermine environmental measures to which the country has rightly committed itself.  Nothing that the Conservatives have proposed has even a remote chance of solving Canada's problems.  Indeed, they all could have been proposed by someone who deliberately wants to see those problems get worse.

Canada, like all countries, faces threats from without and within.  If the US goes where I think it will go, it is possible that nothing Canadians could do would save them from being swamped by the behemoth across the border.  Even so, it is disheartening to see that those who should be the internal bulwark against this threat are doing such a poor job of pushing back against their homegrown reactionaries.  I suspect that the 2025 elections will turn out much better for Trudeau than people are currently predicting, but that is speculation at best.  There is a long distance between mewling that "This is not who we are" and darkly warning: "Just watch me."  Trudeau the younger needs to find a better approach, for everyone's sake.