The Canadian election is turning into a comedy of cringe

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

Next week my compatriots will cast their votes in what has arguably been the worst Canadian election ever. By ‘worst’ I don’t mean allegations of voter fraud or political corruption or scenes of civil unrest but a collective release of hot prairie wind followed by a vague sinking sensation — the feeling of a prosperous nation of decent people settling into a new low of political disillusionment.

The campaign kicked off with a bang, as Time, a US magazine, humiliated the Canadian press by breaking the story of the year: yearbook images of our dreamboat PM — the thinking non-gender-binary person’s gluten–free crumpet — cavorting in blackface back when he was teacher at a private Vancouver high school. Since then the spiral has continued. Readers of this magazine may have missed the news what with all the buzz over… stuff, but allow me to enlighten you — Brits aren’t the only ones who know how to paralyse a country with a hurricane of political pointlessness. If the recent election is anything to judge by, Canada seems bent on joining its first- and third-largest trading partners — the US and UK — in the tribal dance around the bin fire of unreason. We’re team players if nothing else.

Social media has gone predictably haywire in the most un-Canadian way — fake attack ads (mostly from the hard right, featuring Justin-Trudeau-as-closet-jihadi/crack-legalisation–enthusiast and up-skirted cellulite shots of his foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland) are popping up everywhere, in English and other languages, targeting specific communities, distorting public opinion and highlighting Canada’s woefully outdated data regulation. (We are pathetically behind on this stuff — just ask the UK’s formidable Canadian-born data commissioner, Elizabeth Denham.)

The liberal establishment is also to blame. Earlier this month multiple Canadian media outlets, including the CBC, spent weeks chasing down false leads of Russian and Chinese interference leaked to them by Trudeau gov-ernment aides in the wake of brownface-gate. This in itself is not surprising. Chasing false leads is normal for reporters; what’s not normal is publishing the confusing and irrelevant non-story that results from such goose chases. Why did so many mainstream Canadian media outlets choose to do this? Why — to counter the widespread false rumours of foreign interference sweeping Canadian liberal social media of course! Confused? Bored? I thought so. Join the entirety of the Canadian voting public.

So what’s been the Big Story in this terribly modern meta-election of white noise, rabbit holes and media obfuscation? It’s been… any story that seems like a story but actually probably isn’t. Serious political journalists are writing lengthy pieces about the fact that Trudeau is not paying off a sexually assaulted former student at the Vancouver private school where he taught (but definitely did wear brownface — counter to widely circulated rumours that the authentic photos were faked). This week, when it emerged that Trudeau had taken the unprecedented step of wearing a bulletproof vest to a public event, there was serious media discussion over whether he did it for sympathy… really Canada? Who even are you?

Admittedly, the past few weeks on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill have been ludicrous and dreary by turns — a comedy of embarrassment, Canadian-style. Some days it feels as though the two major parties are engaged in a grudge match to see who can bore the voting populace to death without ever communicating a clear point of policy. Is it possible to be unswervingly on message, robotically dull and yet utterly devoid of substance? It’s a question Justin Trudeau and his lesser-known Tory rival Andrew Scheer seem determined to probe. After polls showed most Canadians had shrugged off Trudeau’s apparent liquid-foundation fetish, Sheer attempted to one-up his nemesis on the cringe-o-meter by admitting that yes, OK, he may have sorta misrepresented his job as a certified insurance broker back in his twenties in Regina, Saskatchewan (think Fargo without the suspense). After several days of press conference squirming and mealy-mouthed obfuscations, Canadians shrugged yet again. Once the obligatory punfest had fizzled on Twitter, voters had variable rates of interest in the ‘scandal’. With the two candidates still polling neck and neck, the lesson was clear: if you ain’t a broker, don’t try to fix it.

Scheer is a man known for his plodding, ham-headed persistence and he wasn’t done attempting political suicide by a thousand paper cuts. This is a guy who holds the impressive and much-coveted title of blandest Canadian politician — a man so dull his answer to the question ‘What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?’ is ‘I pretended to be an actuary in the Prairies’. But earlier this month he outdid himself by failing to raise the pulse of the nation when a media report revealed he had dual US citizenship, sneakily obtained by way of his American-born father and hitherto undisclosed because, as he explained with grin: ‘No one’s ever asked me before.’

Unlike Trudeau’s awful Aladdin turn, Scheer’s pratfalls weren’t beamed around the world — a place where people apparently have important stuff to worry about like the security of Rebekah Vardy’s Instagram account. But they were instructive to those of us who lie awake worrying about the fate of a country which many view as the last politically stable, rules-based democracy on earth. If these were the issues being seriously discussed in a Canadian election, is there really hope for any of us? Admittedly we’ll be the ones sitting pretty once the fresh water dries up and mass global migration begins (around 2050 at the last estimate) but until then the world needs inspiring leaders. Which brings me to the Green party.

Britons enjoyed a rare chuckle at the news earlier this month when footage revealed Boris Johnson’s aide grabbing a disposable cup from his hand like an admonishing nursemaid, but you know who wasn’t laughing? The Canadian Green party leader, Elizabeth May. An environmental hunger-strike-enthusiast with what she herself describes as a ‘mixed and nuanced’ position on abortion, May is a polarising figure in Ottawa, with a strong platform on climate change — a high-minded challenge to Trudeau’s major policy weak point. So what’s been May’s defining moment in the past few weeks? Ah yes, that would be the revelation — widely circulated with photographic proof on social media — that her staff had doctored a photo to make it look like she was holding a reusable cup in place of a disposable one. The cover-up, as the old saying goes, is invariably worse than the crime.

In truth, it’s all a bit heartbreaking to watch — this gradual hobbling of Canadian progressive smugness. Even my most high-minded British friends, the ones who use beeswax wraps instead of plastic and wholeheartedly approve of Meghan Markle, refuse to believe me when I explain to them what Canada is actually like.

We never say immigrant, I tell them. It’s true! ‘Foreigner’ is unthinkable, a flat-out racist swear. Instead, we say ‘new Canadian’. Instead of black, we say ‘people of colour’ or ‘racialised Canadians’. Secular state schools don’t have trees covered in ornaments or nativity plays or choirs singing ‘Oh Holy Night’, but seasonal decorations and winter pageants and Justin Bieber’s ‘Under the Mistletoe’. Unless you happen to be sitting in a church pew or perched on Santa’s knee, ‘Merry Christmas’ is anathema. Instead we say ‘Season’s greetings’ without a whiff of irony.

My British friends — even the ones who compost and worry about their micro-biome — think this is all pretty hilarious. That the bromides of political correctness have been adopted as common cultural etiquette by a diverse, decentralised, geographically sprawling nation seems almost too good to be true. And it sort of was for a while, until eventually it wasn’t. Trudeau will likely win a minority in the end, but his show-pony act has worn perilously thin. Too many times over the past four years, the future of his project has looked like it might be sacrificed on the sprawling altar of his ego.

In truth, the cult of Trudeau was a shaky proposition to begin with, one that was destined to be smoked out. As the writer Stephen Marche recently wrote of the PM in the Atlantic, the woke are destined to disappoint. ‘If people want to sell you morality, of any kind, they always have something to hide.’ Soft despots and strongmen have it easy compared with the wide-eyed dreamboats like our Trudeau. No one can call you a phony, after all, if you never pretended to care.

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