April 30th, 2015: Bernie Sanders started his campaign speaking to a few members of the media and from what I can tell zero supporters at an event that was rushed as he needed to head inside for a Senate vote. The idea that the 74 year old rumpled socialist from Vermont could be anything but a fringe candidate was far from anyone’s mind. This campaign was going to a coronation for Hillary Clinton and she was going to brush him off as if he was an annoying mosquito.
Fast forward a few months and Sanders began to regularly fill up huge stadiums who passionately cling to every word that leaves his mouth. Sanders is not an electrifying speaker – his speeches aren’t filled with uplifting rhetoric and folksy anecdotes. What Sanders has in spades is authenticity. Politics has not changed him but he has certainly aimed to change politics. The message of an American “political revolution” that seemed so antithetical to American political culture has struck a chord and, win or lose, will long outlive this campaign.
Is Canada ready for its Bernie Sanders moment?
The Obama Dream
A young, charismatic politician who was long on rhetoric and short on experience relieved a country from eight years of conservatism with authoritarian roots. Change appeared to have arrived.
In 2008, the United States of America was completely enraptured by the young, well-spoken first term Senator named Barack Obama. War weary and facing rapidly collapsing economy, Americans were looking for something vastly different from the Bush/Cheney era. This young Senator seemed to be it. He offered hope to a country that had been beaten down by war and cynicism and made Americans believe that change was indeed possible.
Obama’s presidency certainly has had some significant progressive successes – movement on the fight against climate change, increasing the numbers of people with health care insurance, and LGBTQ+ rights. However, his considerable progressive successes are obscured by the fact America is just as (or probably even more so) divided economically and politically than they have been before his inauguration. The Wall Street bailout proved to many that the needs of the 1% of the American society trump those of everybody else – even if the decisions by the 1% were the ones that led to the financial collapse. The recovery from the 2008 financial collapse has been far more tangible to the people at the top than it has been for the vast majority of Americans. Middle class American jobs are still being outsourced (likely even more will be with the Trans Pacific Partnership that he signed onto), students are still leaving schools completely buried in student debt, infrastructure has continued to decline, partisan rancour and African American children still face a much bleaker future than their white friends. Americans are realizing that the “American Dream” is dead or, even worse, was a myth that was never really attainable in the first place.
The fact that the 2016 reality was so far from the dreams of 2008 has created a deep sense of disillusionment and anger in the American electorate (particularly with young people who face a bleaker future than their parents did) that Sanders and his campaign team has been able to tap into.
In 2015, Canadians were seeking change much like Americans were in 2008 – after a decade under Stephen Harper’s government where ideology and partisanship became embedded in every single government decision. Justin Trudeau, with a reed-thin political resume but with a fresh face, a great smile, and an uncanny ability to turn a glib remark into a viral message, offered Canadians a choice for “Real Change.” The juxtaposition between Harper and Trudeau could not have been more stark.
Trudeau has spent the first 8 months of his government gliding fairly comfortably with an official opposition without a permanent leader and the third party having decided to remove their leader.
Trudeau has made some good decisions:
- setting up inquiry around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
- signing UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People
- passing legislation banning discrimination against Canadians for gender expression
- bringing back the long form census
Recently, we have seen a side of Trudeau and his government that doesn’t seem to jive with the “Real Change” that he promised to Canadians.
Motion 6 would have stripped his parliamentary opposition of many of their options to delay or stall legislation that the opposition sees as problematic. At the best of times, in a majority government situation, there is very little that an opposition can do to slow legislation. Inevitably, the governing party gets its way based on sheer numbers. When the NDP and Conservatives made a small gesture (slowing down the Conservative Whip’s trip to his seat) to temporarily delay the vote, Trudeau impetuously crossed the aisle and physically moved the whip and guided him to his seat. This was an unprecedented act by a Canadian Prime Minister in the House of Commons.
We’ve also seen a Liberal stacking of the committee that would determine changes to our electoral system. It seems to be a blatant conflict of interest for a government to be choosing the electoral system that would be used for their re-election (or defeat). There are concerns that the Liberal government would settle on a system that best suits their partisan interests instead of the best interests of the electorate.
Over the remainder of Trudeau’s four year mandate, inevitably things will get tougher. There will be mistakes and there will be unexpected challenges. Whether Trudeau sticks to “Sunny Ways” or resorts to ham-fisted approaches – such as Motion 6 – when times get tough will essentially determine his fate in future elections.
When frustrated with a Liberal government, Canadians have always chosen the Conservative Party to replace them and vice-versa. We have always trusted that change can come from within the two traditional governing parties. However, the kind of political revolution promised by Sanders has never happened. The two institutional political parties have “tinkered around the edges” in terms of making change but have we ever had real change? Have we ever seen a government that is genuinely committed to putting the needs of the average Canadians ahead of massive profit? Have we ever seen a government that committed to substantially reducing the inequality in our society?
Jack Layton’s NDP threatened the two party duopoly in 2011 and consigned the Liberal Party to third place. Layton offered Canadians an “orange door” as a legitimate option alongside the “red” and “blue” doors that Canadians have always chosen. In the 2015 election campaign, the NDP’s platform was undoubtedly progressive but the campaign was hindered by strategic mistakes and a leader who sometimes seemed closer to Stephen Harper’s demeanour than to Jack Layton’s.
Like the United States, Canada has some serious issues that have not been dealt with effectively by governments of either of party. We are a deeply unequal country. We are a deeply indebted country – to credit card companies, to the government through student loans, and to banks through mortgages. We are a country in which the younger generations will have to bear a heavy burden of an aging population. We are a country with a relationship with indigenous peoples that is scarred by colonialism and remains deeply broken. We are a country that cannot afford to avoid tackling one of the most pressing issues of our time – climate change.
Although Canada’s federal electoral system has always handed either the Liberals or Conservatives the keys to government, a Sanders-esque candidate is far more likely to be successful in the Canadian electoral system than in the American system. The American system is heavily rigged towards the ultra-wealthy – especially after Citizens United. For an insurgent candidate like Sanders to have done as well as he has in that system is astounding. In Canada, there is a much more level playing field – corporate and union donations are banned and personal contributions are significantly capped.
Will the heady dreams of real change that were promised by Justin Trudeau in 2015 be nothing more than a faded memory in 2019 or 2023? If so, Canada may be ready for its Bernie Sanders moment. At that point, Canadians may be ready for someone who doesn’t speak in platitudes about real change; they might look for the real thing. The Canadian version of Bernie Sanders will almost certainly look very different and probably sound very different from the 74 year old socialist from Vermont. If the message of a genuine and authentic politician dovetails with the zeitgeist of the country, history will be made.
“It’s the story of a place called Mouseland. Mouseland was a place where all the little mice lived and played, were born and died. And they lived much the same as you and I do.
They even had a Parliament. And every four years they had an election. Used to walk to the polls and cast their ballots. Some of them even got a ride to the polls. And got a ride for the next four years afterwards too. Just like you and me. And every time on election day all the little mice used to go to the ballot box and they used to elect a government. A government made up of big, fat, black cats.
Now if you think it strange that mice should elect a government made up of cats, you just look at the history of Canada for last 90 years and maybe you’ll see that they weren’t any stupider than we are.
Now I’m not saying anything against the cats. They were nice fellows. They conducted their government with dignity. They passed good laws–that is, laws that were good for cats. But the laws that were good for cats weren’t very good for mice. One of the laws said that mouseholes had to be big enough so a cat could get his paw in. Another law said that mice could only travel at certain speeds–so that a cat could get his breakfast without too much effort.
All the laws were good laws. For cats. But, oh, they were hard on the mice. And life was getting harder and harder. And when the mice couldn’t put up with it any more, they decided something had to be done about it. So they went en masse to the polls. They voted the black cats out. They put in the white cats.
Now the white cats had put up a terrific campaign. They said: “All that Mouseland needs is more vision.” They said: “The trouble with Mouseland is those round mouseholes we got. If you put us in we’ll establish square mouseholes.” And they did. And the square mouseholes were twice as big as the round mouseholes, and now the cat could get both his paws in. And life was tougher than ever.
And when they couldn’t take that anymore, they voted the white cats out and put the black ones in again. Then they went back to the white cats. Then to the black cats. They even tried half black cats and half white cats. And they called that coalition. They even got one government made up of cats with spots on them: they were cats that tried to make a noise like a mouse but ate like a cat.
You see, my friends, the trouble wasn’t with the colour of the cat. The trouble was that they were cats. And because they were cats, they naturally looked after cats instead of mice.
Presently there came along one little mouse who had an idea. My friends, watch out for the little fellow with an idea. And he said to the other mice, “Look fellows, why do we keep on electing a government made up of cats? Why don’t we elect a government made up of mice?” “Oh,” they said, “he’s a Bolshevik. Lock him up!” So they put him in jail.
But I want to remind you: that you can lock up a mouse or a man but you can’t lock up an idea.” Clarence Gillis as told by Tommy Douglas.