It is fitting, perhaps to the point of a soon-to-be overused cliche, that Canadian politics enters 2020 in a quest for vision — not perfect vision, but something that pulls the country together.
In the wake of a year that drove huge political wedges into the nation, the challenge for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to find what unites the country in his second term in power, particularly because his first term failed to do that very thing.
This isn’t just Trudeau’s problem, though. It is high on the agenda of all those who are keen to replace him as well.
The Conservative leadership race, bound to be one of the main events of the political year ahead, will turn on who is best placed to unite all the regional and other factions within the party. Who has the 2020 vision to create a pan-Canadian conservative coalition?
All prime ministers, going back at least a generation, have wrestled with the national-unity conundrum.
Trudeau’s father and Brian Mulroney invested their efforts into long-running constitutional odysseys from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
Jean Chretien tried to unite Canada with low-key management, as well as a federal sponsorship program that didn’t end well. Stephen Harper gave us national unity in the form of corporate-style marketing and branding: a Canada united under Tim Hortons, hockey, the military and the Olympics.
But even those all-Canadian symbols of the Harper era have eroded in their capacity to unite since he left power four years ago. Tim Hortons has lost a lot of its patriotic lustre, the Olympics aren’t coming to Canada anytime soon, and even hockey has seen some fractures in its function as a Canadian institution.
In 2019, we’ll note, Don Cherry became a polarizing figure between the old and the new Canada, and the Raptors gave Canadians, new and old, an entirely different sport to whip up their national pride.
David Coletto, head of the Abacus polling firm, admits that he’s been struggling to come up with uniting Canadian symbols as he sifts through the research on this country at the end of a decade.
Demographic diversity is a hallmark of Canadian identity as it heads into 2020, and technology, especially social media, has amplified rather than smoothed over differences among us, Coletto says.
“When you look at those two big drivers, I do think that they reflect a reality that it’s going to be harder for us to find those unifying symbols,” he says.
National unity doesn’t need to be found in a cup of coffee or a hockey rink, though. Canadians have always tried to weave a united country through three kinds of threads: symbols, values and policy.
Of the three, values are the most knotted thread. Take, for instance, this idea that Canada is a country open to newcomers.
Quebec’s new secularism law, banning outward displays of religion in public places, is a case in point. While Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada didn’t do all that well in this year’s election, there is still a considerable audience for any anti-immigration talk in Canada, Coletto says.
According to Abacus’s research, a full 40 per cent of Canadians have a not-quite-open view of immigration, seeing it as a drain on Canada.
Trudeau came to power in 2015 with a throne speech laden with outward-looking talk of Canada’s place in the world and welcoming messages for Syrian refugees. Liberals simply assumed four years ago that these were baseline values for Canadians.
In 2019, Trudeau’s second throne speech talked more of protecting Canada from negative forces outside its borders. In 2020, Canada is not currently expected to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
When it comes to building national unity from the outside in, the United States — and the current president, in particular — has re-emerged as a uniting force for Canada.
If Canadians have historically had a hard time figuring out who they are, they have had less trouble uniting around what they’re not: Americans. So Donald Trump’s impeachment drama and his bid for re-election in 2020 could knit the country together, even as the U.S. is more deeply polarizing around those big political events.
Coletto says that roughly 80 per cent of Canadians express some kind of antipathy toward Trump, so American politics could bring a measure of unity to Canadians in 2020.
Forget the Constitution, in other words — just put Canadians in front of the TV and show them American election news.
You can’t turn that into a policy, though. Anti-Americanism, even anti-Trumpism, is not really an option for a country so economically tied to the United States and ratification of the new Canada-U.S.-Mexico free trade deal will be high on Trudeau’s agenda in the new year.
Finding policy that unites Canadians across the provinces and territories is the primary purpose of the first ministers’ meeting scheduled to be held sometime in the first couple of months of 2020.
If there’s a preoccupation with health care, that’s not an accident. Coletto says that people still point to this policy as quintessentially Canadian: something that distinguishes us from Americans and makes us feel lucky to live here. It’s actually a value, a policy and a symbol all wrapped in one.
Pharmacare, now dangling as a promise from the Liberals and a deal-breaking demand from the New Democrats in Parliament, could be a route to building national unity on a policy plane. But that terrain is fraught and there’s no guarantee.
Climate change and resource development are policies that sow divisions rather than unity in Canada in 2020, but they will figure largely on the agenda of Trudeau’s minority government and the Conservative leadership race.
Meanwhile, Canada’s wealthy people won’t be happy to hear this, but Coletto says that taxing the rich is definitely a unifying policy in Canada in 2020, one of those rare policies capable of drawing support from the left and the right of the political spectrum.
It is true: on any given day in question period, over the past couple of years, it often seemed that all the parties were in competition to denounce millionaires and corporate giants.
This is the temper of the uncertain economic times, it seems: if you want to marshal the support of 99 per cent of Canadians, rail against the one per cent. Class warfare is not normally a unity-building exercise, but in an era of deep income inequality, anything that looks like “making the rich pay” could be a policy winner.
But just as it’s difficult to make anti-Trumpism a national-unity policy, so is it potentially reckless to rally a divided nation around businesses — oil or telecom — that also provide much-needed jobs and income to Canadians.
Sometimes prime ministers build national unity by deciding not to talk about things that divide Canadians. Chretien promised never to talk about the Constitution. Harper declared that issues of social conservatism — same-sex marriage, abortion — were a no-go zone for his government.
Trudeau, who said that the 2019 election gave him a lot to think about, appears to have adopted a resolution to talk a lot less, too. That could well turn out to be his first foray into unity-building as he heads into 2020.
Hopes for perfect vision — from any politician — are not exactly high after a political year that often made people want to avert their eyes from the political fray.
But that bruising 2019 has left partisans of all stripes talking about the need to set their sights on national unity next year. Ratcheting down the noise and drama may be a step in the right direction: politics with 2020 vision presumably doesn’t require spectacles.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.