Mr. Trudeau Goes to Washington

Mr. Trudeau Goes to Washington

America can learn a lot from the battles along Canada's left-right political divide.


Canadians, by nature a self-effacing lot, find themselves bemused by America’s obsession with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The New York Times, Vogue, 60 Minutes and now a state dinner at the White House. We’re so sorry.

Trudeau has spent much of his first four months offshore, wowing the world from APEC to Davos to Washington. But Canada’s twenty-third prime minister faces mountainous challenges: a turbulent economy, rising regional tensions and a plethora of election promises that he plans to keep by upsetting the balanced federal budget. Once the party ends in D.C., the prime minister needs to come home and get to work on something more substantial than photo ops with heads of state and pandas.


The Liberals returned to power after ten years of the most conservative government in Canada’s history. Stephen Harper lacked charisma, and then some, but he cut taxes so aggressively and generally disturbed, dismantled and disengaged on so many fronts that the federal government’s fiscal footprint today is back to where it was fifty years ago.

The Conservatives adopted a more muscular foreign policy, toughened the criminal justice system, curtailed federal interference in provincial jurisdictions and clamped down on fraudulent refugee claims. They did not, however, cut the flow of immigrants into Canada; in fact they increased that flow, to 285,000 a year. (Think of the United States, which has about ten times Canada’s population, bringing in nearly three million legal immigrants annually.)

Today, 21 percent of Canadians, including half of the people living in Greater Toronto—by far Canada’s largest city—were not born in Canada. Most of them come from Asian and Pacific nations, and they tend to be more socially and economically conservative than native-born Canadians. Harper forged a conservative coalition of suburban voters—including immigrant voters—and voters in the traditionally conservative Western provinces, before the inevitable accumulation of arrogance, complacency and scandal broke that coalition apart.

In the October 19 federal election, Trudeau won those suburban Toronto voters back. But now he must keep them satisfied. He must also deal with an economic crisis in Western Canada, which is reeling from the decline in the price of petroleum and other natural resources. Will he ignore their plight? If he does, what will be the cost? Liberals, whose native habitat is affluent downtown neighborhoods in Ontario and Quebec, have neither understood nor cared much about the West, and have taken the immigrant vote for granted. But that miscalculation cost them a decade in the wilderness. Have they learned their lesson?

One core Liberal commitment is to spend $125 billion over ten years (that would be $1.25 trillion, if Washington did the same thing) to renew urban infrastructure. That commitment will throw a federal budget that has been balanced—apart from the financial emergency of 2008 and its aftermath—for two decades into deficit. The Liberals argue that record low interest rates and a low debt-to-GDP ratio (currently 35 percent) justify the investment. Will flinty suburban voters agree?

A second core Liberal commitment is to get serious about fighting climate change, an issue the Conservatives cared little about. To that end, Trudeau met with the provincial premiers last week—something Harper studiously avoided—to craft a pan-Canadian approach to reducing emissions. In the end, the first ministers agreed to study the issue and meet again in the fall. The real question is whether Justin Trudeau will impose a national carbon price if Ottawa and the provinces fail to reach consensus. The last prime minister to attempt something that Draconian was Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, who introduced the National Energy Program in 1980. Westerners spit his name to this day.

On foreign policy, Trudeau is seeking to replace Harper’s more aggressive approach with a return to the Canadian tradition of peacekeeping. So Canada is ending its combat mission in Iraq and Syria, transitioning instead to training and aid. As for Canada-U.S. relations, Trudeau and Obama will promise new initiatives to ease border congestion and will issue a meaningless communiqué on fighting global warming. (When Congress and the premiers sign on, get back to us.) This fall, most Canadians will be cheering on presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. Ted Cruz? He’s no Canadian. And the thought of Donald Trump as president might tempt us to say something rude. Trudeau has already joked about how welcoming Canada would be to Americans seeking a lifestyle change.

After a decade of surly Conservative governance, there is much goodwill toward Canada’s new prime minister, here as well as abroad. The government won near-universal praise for a heroic effort that brought 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada in less than four months (again, think of 250,000 of them coming into the States), with another 25,000 expected by year’s-end. The Syrian refugee airlift is Canada at its very best: A successful, can-do effort by a confident, tolerant, diverse and welcoming society to help people in desperate need. Trudeau met the first planeload at Toronto’s airport. “You are home,” he told them. “Welcome home.”

That grand gesture will go down as the first of the Trudeau government’s real achievements. How many will follow? We’ll find out after he finally gets back to work.

John Ibbitson is Writer at Large for the Globe and Mail. He is also the author of a biography of Stephen Harper.

Image: Minister of Canada