Of the seats his party won, however, 77 were in Ontario, and none were in Alberta or Saskatchewan. The map of the country, while warped by distortions from the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system, shows regional divides. A Liberal Atlantic Canada. A divided Ontario. A nationalist Quebec. A Conservative prairie and Western Canada abutted at the Pacific end, in British Columbia, by a mix of centrists, progressives and conservatives. It’s hard to draw any message from this other than Canada remains Canada — on balance, centrist-progressive, but regionally divided, alienated and difficult to govern.
Now, a fractured House of Commons awaits its 338 members, who’ll be expected to work together. Since the 1960s, minority governments in Canada have lasted about two years. They’ve delivered the goods, too. Among the successes of minority governments are health care, the auto-pact, the flag (adopting the maple leaf was controversial in the 1960s), official bilingualism, pensions and same-sex marriage legislation. The question is: Is Trudeau built to navigate such fraught terrain? And can he build the relationships necessary to govern a divided country?
The past four years suggest it will be difficult for him but not impossible. In 2015, Trudeau won a healthy majority, and he governed as though he’d secured an immortal one. For a few years, that worked. Canada was back, at home and abroad.
But, like his father — who won a majority as prime minister in 1968 but was reduced to a minority government in 1972 — Trudeau soon learned that Canada is a fickle country. He also learned that governing means choosing, and choosing means always upsetting someone, somewhere. The scandals (for instance, the SNC-Lavalin affair), broken promises (for instance, abandoning electoral reform) and hypocrisy (for instance, championing human rights while selling weapons to a thug regime in Saudi Arabia) added up. And here we are. As I’ve written before, the country has gone from Trudeaumania to Trudea-meh-nia. But there’s opportunity in the “meh.”
In the aftermath of the election, Canada is divided. But it has always been divided: between East and West; English-speaking and French-speaking; urban and rural; indigenous peoples and settler allies and colonists; wealthy and poor; and so on. Can a minority Liberal government manage these divisions? One hopes. It would be good for the country — and necessary, given that 4 in 5 Canadians didn’t vote Liberal.
Despite a challenging Parliament, Trudeau has the advantage of enough seats to shop around, case-by-case, to sell his agenda to opposition parties. He also has the incentive to cooperate that comes with needing support. The New Democratic Party will probably support him on a progressive budget and a robust climate plan. The Conservatives will likely support him on the Trans Mountain Pipeline twinning project. No one wants an election any time soon — including the parties that just slogged through an expensive campaign. So, the opposition parties will do their job and oppose, while also pursuing their interests. And there’s the philosopher’s stone of Canadian politics: the process by which bickering and self-interested parties end up representing more of the country together than one majority governing party would alone.
Canadians can now expect a precarious but viable minority government in a fractious Parliament. That might prove to be a boon to a country that has seen more than enough arrogant majority governments in its time. But only if Trudeau can, in spite of himself, build relationships across parties and regions — a task that will involve disappointing everyone at some point but may also prove to be in the long-term interest of a state built on compromise. Canadians should expect and demand as much.