Hope and fear are the most powerful emotions in politics.
Unfortunately, Justin Trudeau hasn’t found himself in a position to dispense much of either through the past few crisis-laden weeks in Canada.
If Canadians are feeling any slivers of hope right now about the state of federal politics, it’s mostly hope of the negative sort — hope for an end to the Indigenous blockades, hope that Canada escapes a global pandemic, hope that the economy and the environment aren’t ravaged by global or domestic threats.
That’s a long way off from the kind of hope that Trudeau promised with all his talk of sunny ways after the 2015 election.
Fear, on the other hand, has never been Trudeau’s forte. But as the blockades have spread throughout Canada for going on three weeks now, the prime minister’s critics are essentially calling on him to be scarier.
“Weak” has become the Conservatives’ new favourite word in the Commons. A rough count through the House transcripts of these first few sitting weeks of 2020 shows that Conservatives have thrown the words “weak” or “weakness” in Trudeau’s direction more than 60 times.
“Does he realize that his weakness has let this situation get out of control?” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said (in French) during question period on Wednesday.
“The prime minister’s feckless leadership has emboldened these radical activists,” added Ed Fast, a B.C. Conservative MP and former minister.
By coincidence, Wednesday was anti-bullying day in Canada and many MPs, including Trudeau, wore pink to mark what’s also known as Pink Shirt Day.
It’s often somewhat jarring to see MPs wearing the anti-bullying brand while heckling and jeering each other in the Commons, but this year, it seemed even more of a bizarre contradiction.
The political fight over the blockades, in particular, is getting distilled to the question of who’s the bigger bully in the whole impasse: the increasingly fearless protesters, or the governments, or even the police.
Trudeau has dealt with accusations of weakness before, of course. He put on boxing gloves in 2013 to get in the ring with Indigenous Sen. Patrick Brazeau, a stunt he could definitely not pull today to show he had the grit to lead.
Three years ago this month, on his first meeting with Donald Trump, Trudeau jumped out of his car in front of the White House and grasped the new president by the shoulder to shake his hand — a very deliberate gesture to avert Trump’s notoriously vigorous and intimidating handshakes with world leaders.
Liberals’ internal opinion tracking showed that the mere visual of that encounter dispelled some fears that the Canadian prime minister wouldn’t stand up to the U.S. president.
Last year at this time, Trudeau was being accused of bullying an Indigenous cabinet minister during the long-running SNC-Lavalin scandal. But he also faced accusations — especially from fellow Liberals — that he didn’t do enough to stand up to Jody Wilson-Raybould’s insurrection against him.
Other prime ministers would have sent her packing sooner, many said.
We’ve been hearing echoes of SNC-Lavalin this week, both from Scheer and even from Wilson-Raybould herself.
Here was Scheer this week, lamenting the decision by Teck Resources to pull out of an oilsands project in Alberta: “The prime minister was willing to break the law, bend the rules and even fire his attorney general when he was trying to do a favour for his corporate friends at SNC-Lavalin, but when thousands of energy sector jobs are at stake, and when dozens of First Nations communities will benefit from these energy projects, the prime minister does literally nothing.”
And here was Wilson-Raybould on the subject of the blockades and reconciliation. “Does the prime minister have the resolve to do what is right and not what partisan advisers tell him is politically expedient?”
There it was again — the not-so-subtle implication that Trudeau is too weak to lead.
Trudeau continues to gamble that he can weather this month’s storm by standing firmly in the middle of it. He rose again and again in the Commons on Wednesday, arguing that his government could balance the environment and the economy, as well as mediate — but not interfere with — the conflict over Indigenous blockades.
It’s a risk. The political middle isn’t comfortable territory amid rolling crises. It sits between good intentions and forceful actions. It looks an awful lot like standing still.
Perhaps worst of all for any politician, the middle doesn’t trade in hope or fear. In that respect, Trudeau probably shares the sentiments of many Canadians — fear that things don’t get any worse, and hope that one of these crises will end someday soon.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist for Torstar Syndication Services.