When Maxime Bernier launched a new political party in September fueled by resentment of immigration, few backers of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed worried. It is an article of faith among Canadian progressives that campaigning against diversity doesn’t work in Canada, a country said to be at peace with its multicultural identity.
Yet even if Bernier’s quixotic bid to be prime minister fizzles, prolonged Liberal rule does not mean racial and cultural tensions will be absent from Canadian political life. Trudeau’s party is buoyed by a diverse coalition of voters with conflicting interests and priorities, and its ability to retain cohesion beyond next year’s general election can’t be taken for granted. It’s a situation comparable to the state of the Democratic Party in the United States, which, as the Atlantic’s Reihan Salam recently documented, relies on a similarly uneasy coalition whose triumphalist rhetoric masks fragility. Canada’s progressive coalition looks even shakier, given its reliance on a more explicit hierarchy of peoples.
At the top of the Canadian progressive pyramid remains a white elite pulled from the affluent and proximate urban centers of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. This group considers itself the most aware of Canadian history, law, economics and political institutions, and thus the natural holders of the country’s leadership positions, which they disproportionately occupy. This elite is “bicultural” — equally comfortable around Canada’s so-called two founding peoples, the French and English. Fluency in both languages, a rare skill that’s often the byproduct of a bicultural upbringing or a privileged education, is their exclusionary standard for upward mobility.
Below are monocultural French Canadians, the understood first-among-equals in Canada’s multicultural mosaic. The notion that accommodating the distinctions of the French Canadians should be Canada’s essential demonstration of liberal tolerance stretches back centuries. Liberals erected much of Canada’s modern political architecture around the goal of French Canadian accommodation, including the aforementioned bilingual, bicultural ruling class. Correspondingly, every Liberal administration since Confederation has had a large Quebec parliamentary delegation as its backbone.
A tier lower are Canada’s indigenous peoples, whose importance to Canadian liberalism has grown rapidly in recent decades.
While the prime minister’s father once preached that aboriginal ambitions were best realized through an inclusive Canadian citizenship, his successors champion a less integrationist ideal. Under a new postcolonial frame, aboriginals are not considered subjects of the Canadian state but a community equal to it — “a nation-to-nation relationship,” as Trudeau often quips. Born from contemporary progressive consensus that the establishment of Canada on occupied land was the country’s defining crime, restorative justice for Canada’s more than 1.6 million indigenous residents has become a moral priority.
Last in formal importance are immigrants of color and their descendants, the faction of the Canadian progressive coalition that’s more often seen than heard. Immigrant communities are useful for Liberals to mobilize in the context of the Canadian electoral system, which relies on mass recruitment of party members to nominate candidates and features numerous minority-majority parliamentary districts. The result has been a rise in minority and immigrant members of Parliament, more than 80 percent of whom are Liberals. Yet the lack of power ordinary MPs enjoy means many of these politicians serve their party primarily as diversity symbols or get-out-the-vote strategists. They remain largely shut out from more authoritative positions, such as the Canadian Supreme Court, which has never had a nonwhite member.
As with all hierarchies, the rainbow coalition of Canadian liberalism can work only so long as there exists internal agreement on the wisdom of its power imbalances.
Pro-diversity progressives must learn to rationalize that their coalition’s goal of encouraging French Canadian distinctiveness often means enabling Quebec chauvinism, for instance. At a time when white progressives in the English provinces are removing statues and renaming buildings in the name of inclusivity, Quebec just concluded an election in which all parties supported the idea that immigrants should face more pressure to speak French and that those receiving public services be less “ostentatiously religious” in dress. Quebecker opinions on social welfare may be left of the Canadian norm, but when it comes to preserving their European identity, the French Canadian center sits in a place that liberals elsewhere in the country would not hesitate to decry as racist and xenophobic. As tensions rise between Quebec’s Francophone-dominated government and growing immigrant population, so too will national progressive anxieties about whether Quebec’s cultural empowerment remains a worthy objective.
Indigenous Canadians similarly expect to preserve their cultural cohesion amid Canada’s growing diversity. This can take the form of policing who is or isn’t a “true” aboriginal, given that aboriginal self-identification has been rising rapidly, and official “Indian” status remains a gateway to sovereignty from the state. An exclusionary indigenous nationalist movement with an objective of self-governance and sequestration from the Canadian mainstream clashes uncomfortably with Trudeau’s stated dream of a “postnational” country.
Danger looms that Canadian immigrants will resent liberalism’s preoccupation with indigenous concerns. Like appeasement of French Canadians, aboriginal reconciliation takes for granted that Ottawa should spend a lot of time adjudicating disputes between descendants of peoples that inhabited Canada centuries ago. The result is that Canadians of color find their own substantial, historically rooted desires for social justice subordinate to this dated schedule of priorities. Efforts to entrench the hierarchy of grievance, such as the Trudeau government’s proposal to make new Canadians swear allegiance to Indian treaties, feel counterproductive in their bluntness.
Amid these fault lines, Canadian liberalism’s greatest compensating asset is confidence. In contrast to the American left, which is increasingly prone to self-pity, the leaders of Canada’s progressive coalition are skilled at asserting that their politics of ordered multiculturalism simply work, and will continue to, so long as trust remains.
Much is riding on the persuasiveness of that claim.