Our elections should be more like this, eh?

Canada is a great place to be LGBT. And it may have just gotten better.

Two days before Canada’s national election, it is Happy Hour at the Lookout Bar in Ottawa. I’m sitting in one of the capital city’s most popular gay establishments, located in the trendy Byward Market (Ottawa’s answer to DuPont Circle). Parliament Hill is a block away, and the Prime Minister’s Official Residence at 24 Sussex Dr. is just down the street. You’d think it would be a good place to catch up on the latest political talk. Especially on the eve of an election that, according to the polls, has three parties competing in a close race, with no one knowing how it will shake out.

But on this day, there is a more compelling subject at hand. Everyone is clustered around the bigscreen, intently watching commentary on the Toronto Blue Jays matchup with the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series. The show goes to commercials and the first is a campaign ad featuring the familiar, gray-haired face of Canada’s prime minister. Several of the men at the bar shrug as if to say, “Oh yeah, him.” The next ad features the prime minister’s leading opponent, a younger, dark-haired, very telegenic fellow. I ask the man sitting next to me what he thinks of him, and he says, “Oh, I like him. He’s got some vision. But you know who I really like? That young guy you have in the States, I think his name is Rubio.” Then SportsCenter came back on.

Well, it’s only a bar, after all. You can only expect so much serious conversation. But I got the sense that, at least in this LGBT venue, everyone seemed to be out at the ballpark. There is an atmosphere of complacency, a feeling that things are likely to be OK whichever party wins at the polls.

Maybe, but political junkies like me enjoy looking deeper into who is running, and what can be expected from them. So here goes the lineup:

The Players

The Conservatives. Also known as the Tories, they are the current governing party. Going into this election, they had a small majority of 159 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons. They are led by Stephen Harper, who has been prime minister since 2006 and party leader since 2002. Harper is a longtime member of Parliament, representing a district (in Canada, they call them “ridings”) in Calgary, Alberta, the center of the rapidly growing oil and gas industry and the Tories’ political heartland.

Historically, the Tories have been a center-right mix of fiscal and social conservatives. They include corporate leaders and suburbanites in the Toronto area, as well as the more socially minded rural and evangelical voters (Mormons, Baptists, Lutherans, etc.) in the Western provinces. They also have a following among the fast-growing Asian immigrant communities (from China and India) in the Vancouver area, who like their appeal to traditional family values.

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Since 2006, the Conservatives have governed a center-left country by generally maintaining the status quo. While they still officially claim they want a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, no one really expects that to happen; because the public has accepted it. And luckily for the Tories, they have been helped greatly in the past few years by a partisan split on the Left.

The Liberals. On the center-left, the Liberal Party governed Canada throughout most of the Twentieth Century. For many years, they had a solid base of votes in the two largest provinces, Quebec and Ontario, but after their defeat in 2006 the party went through a couple of short-lived, weak leaders who never caught fire with the public. They went into this election with only 36 seats in the Commons, an all-time low.

So, the Liberals chose a leader whose name recalls better days. Justin Trudeau is the son of Pierre Trudeau, who served as prime minister almost continuously from 1968 to 1984 and who is still revered in Liberal circles as Canada’s greatest intellectual statesman. Pierre Trudeau became known for social liberalism early in his political career. In 1967, as federal minister of justice, he enacted a statute to de-criminalize gay sex acts between consenting adults, famously declaring, “There is no place for the State in the bedrooms of the nation.”

The elder Trudeau always had a flair for political controversy, which extended into his own bedroom. In 1971, the 51-year-old prime minister married Margaret Sinclair, his 22-year-old flower child bride. Ten months later, their son Justin was born, followed soon after by two younger brothers, Sacha and Michel. The Canadian public was more intrigued than shocked, and they developed great affection for the prime minister’s young family (sometimes more than for him). Naturally, Justin has spent his entire life in the public eye, enduring a lot of turmoil along with the fame, including his parents’ highly publicized divorce, his mother’s struggles with mental illness, and the death of his brother Michel in a 1998 skiing accident.

Like his father, Justin Trudeau is a dedicated social progressive, and he has committed to expanding legal protections for all LGBT, including the transgender community. But predictably, he has faced detractors who claim he is just a legacy, an inexperienced rich kid who is unqualified to lead a nation. It is true that he is relatively young at 43 (and most people think he looks 10 years younger), and his only professional experience prior to entering politics was as a high school teacher. Snide comparisons with Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake have been heard frequently.

The New Democrats. Further to the left is the moderately socialist (at least, historically) New Democratic Party (NDP). It began as a labor and agrarian movement in the Prairie provinces during the Great Depression, where they campaigned hard for public health care and public ownership of utilities and won some provincial races. Later, in the 1960s, the New Democrats provided the ruling Liberals with the votes they needed to pass federal universal health care.

All along, the NDP has usually played second fiddle to the Liberals. But the 2011 election delivered a shock: the Liberals actually finished third, behind the NDP. Consequently, the NDP entered this election with 95 seats to the Liberals 36, and the NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, has been the official Opposition Leader in the House of Commons.

Canadian Parliament. House of Commons

Canadian Parliament. House of Commons

The LGBT Angle

Where do LGBT issues come into play in this race? Prior to Election Day, I posed that question to Jillian Page, a Copy Editor for The Montreal Gazette, who also runs a blog commenting on all aspects of LGBT culture at lgbtperspectives.com. Her impression is that LGBT concerns “have barely been discussed by the main parties, except during Pride events when some of the leaders put in their obligatory appearances.”

Of course it is a positive sign that issues like same-sex marriage are no longer front-and-center. It is a sign of success. At least 17 openly LGBT candidates ran for House of Commons seats this year. Marriage equality has been codified into federal law since 2005. Same-sex adoption is legal in all of the provinces. The federal government, as well as all of the provinces, have statutes that specifically forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, public services, and public and private-sector employment. Compare that with the patchwork of protections (and non-protections) that exist under state laws in the U.S.

However, that’s not to say that there is no work left to be done, and this campaign has provided a few examples. In June, members of the Conservative Party of Ontario marched in the Toronto Pride Parade, carrying a banner emblazoned with their new community outreach website, LGBTory.ca. Of course, we know the “T” in LGBT does not stand for “Tory,” and the Party took some heat for that from members of the local transgender community. The incident reveals a tendency common to both Canada and the U.S. Awareness of gender identity tends to lag behind awareness of orientation.

Case in point: In February of this year, Parliament considered Bill C-279, which would have added gender identity provisions to the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act, essentially banning discrimination based upon gender identity as well as orientation. The bill passed in the Commons, but stalled in the Senate, when Tory senators attached unfriendly amendments which would have exempted places such as prisons, crisis centers and public washrooms from its provisions. Transgender activists balked at the amendments, calling them “transphobic,” and the bill died. [By the way, does this sound familiar to anyone in Charlotte, N.C.?]

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For their part, Trudeau and Mulcair each pledged to reintroduce C-279 if they won this election. And yet, it may be a moot point. The provinces are picking up where the federal government has failed to act. Almost all of them have adopted new policies that a transgender person may declare (and alter) their gender on government-issued ID (whether they have had gender reassignment surgery or not), and then use the public facility corresponding to that gender. As many commentators noted, C-279 then becomes irrelevant. A person may declare their gender and then be protected on the basis of that gender under existing law, regardless of their physical anatomy. It’s very different from anything found in most U.S. states.

At any rate, is it possible to imagine the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress even discussing legislation to prohibit anti-trans discrimination? Heck no, it would not even reach the floor.

Canadian Parliament. Senate

Canadian Parliament. Senate

 

The Election Result

So, Canada went to the polls on Oct. 19, and the outcome was not as close as many had expected. The Liberals won 184 of 338 seats in the newly-expanded House of Commons, giving them a clear-cut majority. They received 39.47 percent of the total popular vote, while the Tories fell to 31.89 percent of the vote and 99 seats, while the NDP received 19.71 percent of the vote and 44 seats.

The Liberal sweep started in the East and swept across most of the country. They won every single riding in the Atlantic provinces. In Quebec, they won back most of their traditional ridings from the NDP, and in Ontario they won most of the suburban Toronto ridings (where the real balance of power lies).  The Tories held on to almost all of the Prairies and Alberta, and much of British Columbia, although the Liberals picked up several ridings in the Vancouver area (making serious inroads with the Asian immigrants, who had been trending Tory, but who also benefited from pro-immigration policies enacted in the 1970s by Pierre Trudeau). The NDP did worse than expected and have fallen back to their usual third-party status.

The Takeaway

Most commentators have found the result to be fairly routine, and not hard to explain. In a parliamentary system, every government fails eventually. No matter how much a government may accomplish, the voters reach a point where they look for change, and Harper’s Tories had been in power for more than nine years. The voters wanted a change of pace, and Trudeau, with his youthful vigor, optimism, and language of inclusiveness, fit the bill. The LGBT community, in particular, found him to be very receptive, and they have reason to be optimistic about his government.

How will the Conservative Party react to this defeat? Will the decimated party drift further right, like the Tea Party Republicans? That remains to be seen, but consider the experience of John Baird, who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2011 until he resigned in February 2015. He was one of the few Tories to speak out in favor of the transgender protections in Bill C-279, and he was vocal in criticizing anti-gay policies in places like Russia and Uganda. Baird left office without official explanation, but amid online rumors about his own sexual orientation. If the party chooses to drive away LGBT-friendly members, it is not a good sign for anyone.

And finally, here is a thought about the campaign process itself (credit to Doyle McManus, who wrote an excellent commentary about this for The Los Angeles Times). This Canadian campaign lasted for exactly 78 days, from the day the election was announced until polling day. Compare that with the 24/7 election cycle in the US, where presidential aspirants begin campaigning up to four years in advance. There are no superpacs in Canada; the closest thing they have are “independent campaign committees” which function as contribution bundlers, but are limited to spending only $206,000.00 on advertising. Individuals may only contribute up to $1,500.00 to a candidate or a party.

Result: While approximately $7 billion was spent on the U.S. presidential campaign in 2012, approximately $40 million was spent on this Canadian election which was far more civil and more issue-oriented.

Yes, in the humble opinion of this observer, we Americans would be better off if our elections were more like this.

[Ed. Note: Justin Trudeau did, indeed, win the election when the final tallies were done.]

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One Reply to “Our elections should be more like this, eh?”

  1. I just finished reading Charles Oldham’s article on Canadian politics and was blown away. It’s so insightful, heartful, snappy, informed. His is a voice with authenticity–he’s done his homework, and I look forward to more of his articles.

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