One has brown hair, the other a thinning combover. One is effortlessly bilingual, the other horrifies editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. One openly calls himself a feminist, the other boasts about grabbing female genitals. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes for a tempting contrast with President Trump. He seems like the picture of serene and right-thinking liberal mindedness compared with all of the United States’ most cartoonishly boorish elements.
As a Canadian, I’m not surprised that the American news media and the Internet are saturated by swooning profiles. The Rolling Stone cover story “Why Can’t He Be Our President” was only the most recent example. Shortly after Trudeau was elected, Vogue fawned: “The New Young Face of Canadian Politics.” Business Insider noted that he looked like a “Disney prince.” Vanity Fair seems to have a Trudeau vertical. US Weekly: “Canada’s New Prime Minister is Super Hot.” He even inspired the quintessential BuzzFeed piece: “Literally Just 27 Really Hot Photos of Justin Trudeau.” CNN’s headline sums up the trend: “Justin Trudeau, ‘the anti-Trump,’ shows U.S. Canada’s progressive, diverse face,” which was a particularly impressive take, considering Trudeau is a white man and the son of a previous Canadian prime minister — making him pretty close to the embodiment of a nascent hereditary political establishment in Canada.
Although Trudeau has proved to be a powerful public relations coup for my country, the political erotica now streaming from the southern border is embarrassing, shallow and largely misses the mark. Trudeau is not the blue-eyed lefty Jesus, and the global affection for him — and for the progressive politics that he and this country seem to represent — presents a puerile and distorted vision of Canada and its political culture. Worse, the uncritical puffery that is passing for political journalism only makes it harder to hold the man to account.
Canada is, indeed, the land of progressive benefits and left-leaning victories. We take no small pride in our universal health care, maternity leave and strict gun control. More controversially, we are expanding safe injection sites and access to doctor-assisted suicide.
But all of the things that make Canada such a liberal exemplar predate Trudeau by generations. Many of them have their roots in a Westminster parliamentary system and political culture that demands compromise and conciliation and time, rather than benevolent leadership. Further, they are far from perfect, and they come with higher taxes and a greater curtailment of personal freedoms. There are no free lunches in Canada. (There aren’t even any food stamps.)
Take universal health care, for example. The fight for the system Canadians have today began in Saskatchewan in the 1960s; it was virulently opposed by doctors’ groups at the time and expanded, over decades, to become a federal priority. Even today, it’s a mishmash by province, and the strains of the system are evident in months- to years-long waits for low-priority treatments such as back surgeries and hip replacements. Wealthy Canadians can, and do, travel to the United States to receive these treatments. And they pay for what they get locally, too, in taxes: The nation spends an average of $5,000 per person on health care each year.
Health care was a battle that spanned generations, and continues today. A 2005 court challenge made it legal to purchase private health insurance in Quebec, for example, which some advocates feared would undermine the government monopoly on health care. As baby boomers age, the economic viability of universal health care is ever more in question, leading some provinces to experiment with private delivery of high-demand services such as cataract surgery.
On the flashier issues that have garnered Trudeau the international limelight, his record is actually pretty spotty. Take Canada’s vaunted refugee program; Trudeau has made great show of glad handing refugees at airports and tweeting encouraging bromides. Although these acts have symbolic value in a world where anti-Muslim rhetoric has grown increasingly vitriolic, those who have faced punishing winter conditions to risk crossing the Canadian border found this country was not the free-for-all Trudeau would suggest.
More than one-third of the 40,081 refugees who have been resettled in Canada since Trudeau took office have been privately sponsored, brought over by thousands of acts of private charity. And sponsoring a refugee family isn’t cheap; sponsors need to front the cost for a full year of income and resettlement. Further, this private program was scaled back for 2017 thanks to a backlog of applications and administrative hurdles.
By comparison, Trudeau’s expanded government-sponsored refugee targets — announced at a pivotal point in the last election campaign — proved to be hasty, with the government missing its own timelines and housing refugees in last-ditch hotels. At the nadir of this program, the government frantically upgraded military barracks to house the influx of people; ultimately, they were not used. This is not a model of technocratic competence.
And Canada’s laudable efforts demand a little perspective. Its targets pale in comparison to those of Germany, which had accepted 890,000 as of last year, and other European nations. (Although Germany’s success in resettling those refugees remains debatable.)
We may be taking in more people than the United States, which set a goal of only 10,000 during the Obama administration. But 40,000 refugees is hardly an expansive target for one of the least populous countries relative to land mass. In the 1970s, when Canada had many fewer people, it welcomed about 60,000 Vietnamese refugees. The current global refugee crisis is now immeasurably worse.
Canadians maintain an uncritical faith in international institutions such as the United Nations, and one of our prevailing national mythologies is that peacekeeping remains one of our greatest contributions to the world. Canadians — unlike Americans, ahem — are considered “honest brokers” in international conflicts. The gradual decline in our peacekeeping efforts over the past several decades, along with our loss of a seat at the U.N. Security Council, were blows to the national ego.
Shortly after he was elected, Trudeau made much show of his recommitment to the United Nations, and, in particular, to its flawed peacekeeping program — much of which was intended to relive the nostalgia and international prestige of generations past, in which the Liberal Party dominated the ballot box.
The reality of the efficacy of peacekeeping and our military role in the world are considerably short of what most Canadians imagine. Our government has recently pledged to increase military spending — after the next election — and although the Liberals enjoy much smug bragging about Canada ostensibly peace-loving role the world, our actual commitments have proved, yet again, to be largely symbolic. According to the latest data from the United Nations, Canada contributes 20 troops, 58 police officers and 10 military experts to peacekeeping efforts for a total of 88 personnel. This is somewhat short of earlier Liberal pledges to commit 600 troops and 150 police officers to such efforts. Canada has about 68,000 active personnel in the military. By comparison, the United States has almost 1.3 million.
And Canada’s continued failure on first nation issues warrants a library unto itself. Trudeau promised an impossible-to-deliver veto to indigenous people over energy projects. Although the prime minister deserves credit for trying to involve First Nation communities and restore the credibility of national regulators in the face of vigorous protests over pipeline projects, that veto quickly fell to the wayside after he approved the controversial domestic Trans Mountain line between Alberta and British Columbia.
He established a commission to examine this country’s history of missing and murdered indigenous women — a commission that now appears to be collapsing amid calls by First Nation people for mass resignations. Families of murdered women are complaining of lack of communication, and the commission seems to have accomplished very little beyond the expansion of a sclerotic bureaucracy. Meanwhile, remote reserves are no closer to enjoying economic sustainability, reduced child poverty or improved potable drinking water than they were two years ago. Reconciliation with our First Nation people remains as fraught as ever.
The most stinging truth about Trudeau is that he hasn’t done much at all. He came into power an avatar of youthful Canadian optimism and has squandered one of the most extraordinary honeymoon periods any politician has had in recent memory. The best that can be said of his accomplishments is that he has tripled his promised deficits, promised deferred tax increases on the wealthy and almost legalized marijuana — although it will be up to the provinces to sort out that mess.
Trudeau promised Camelot and delivered, well, Ottawa.
Ottawa is okay. It’s better than some places and worse than others. Next to the swamp of Washington, the Rideau Canal is idyllic. But let’s not valorize the man who happens to preside over it during a time of national embarrassment for the United States. Canadians have rewarded Trudeau with mediocre poll numbers, typically hovering at between a 50 percent and 60 percent approval rating.
Yes, he’s the poster boy for Brand Canada, and a good one. Perhaps someone who is charming and affable is precisely what Canada needs as key alliances and treaties such as NATO and NAFTA come under threat. But his real talent lies not in government but in showmanship. At least on that front, that Trump and Trudeau have something in common.