Is Canada Heading Into A Nasty Election Year? Trudeau, Scheer, Singh And May Reveal What’s Ahead

Misogyny in politics, universal pharmacare, flexible parental leave and the carbon-tax debate: Katrina Onstad covers a huge amount of ground in her interviews with Canada’s federal leaders about the upcoming election year.

by
Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May, Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer

Clockwise from top left: Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May, Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer.

In the 2015 election, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau branded himself as Canada’s #FeministPM to stunning success, turfing Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party from power and leading the Liberals to a majority. But over the past three years, the political landscape has been completely reshaped, with two new party leaders under 40 and the #MeToo movement forcing the issue of gender equality back on to the national stage. Katrina Onstad talked to the four federal leaders about what we can expect heading into a campaign year.

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau revived the corpse of the Liberal Party and swept to power in 2015, all while proudly wearing the feminist hat. Three years later, women’s issues are front and centre, and it’s (pink) feminist hats all around. In this new climate, Trudeau, now 46, is no longer the upstart, and his feminist track record in office will be closely scrutinized by opponents and voters alike. With the Liberals recently losing elections in Ontario and Quebec to populist Conservative platforms, Trudeau’s “sunny ways” are already being tested. We asked the Prime Minister about the dark divisiveness of contemporary politics, his own #MeToo moment and why Canada still doesn’t have a universal childcare program.

The conversation around women’s issues has changed dramatically since last election. How has this feminist moment reshaped the political landscape?
I think there’s an increasing awareness by many, if not by all, that women’s issues are everyone’s issues because they are, fundamentally, not just moral issues but also issues of economic growth, inclusion and opportunity. You can change society in positive, increased-prosperity ways if you reduce barriers to women’s success.

Justin Trudeau Canadian election 2019

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

In light of this moment, presumably every candidate will lay claim to being a feminist this election, whereas four years ago, that identity was a differentiator for you. How will that change the way you campaign?
I’m delighted if that’s the new baseline. But now, perhaps that it’s a given, people are saying “Okay, it’s great that you’re a feminist now, but what does that mean? How does it change your policies, your actions and your outlook?” I might be a little skeptical that everyone will start off as feminists, but I think it would be a great thing. It might make it easier for us to not have to explain at great length that including women is, fundamentally, an economic argument as much as anything else.

Politics today seems a little more partisan and a lot meaner than it was four years ago. How do you campaign in this negative climate?
I told myself in 2015 that, if we pull this off, we’ll change politics. If we run a positive campaign that doesn’t feature attack ads and polarization and that brings people together to counter things that were being said in the last election — either the personal attacks or the snitch lines — and if we prove that we can go from a distant third place to winning government, then people will see that you can’t politic the way you used to anymore. And I realize now, I was wrong. People are doubling down on some very nasty, divisive politics. We will be using the exact same approach as last time: no personal attacks, no politics of division, respect for our opponents and a sharp differentiation on policy. But I do think we’re seeing an even more potentially nasty and divisive federal election coming up.

Yours is the first government to apply a gender-based analysis to the budget. What did you learn from that process that surprised you?
One of the commitments we made in the past election campaign was to increase the guaranteed income supplement for our most vulnerable seniors by 10 percent, and that was one of the very first things we did in our first budget. It was $1,000 more each year for single elderly people who had very low incomes. What we realized only after we had done this was that if you applied a gender lens, you’d know that the vast majority of vulnerable seniors are single women. We had a good policy, but if we had applied a more vigorous gender lens from the very beginning, we would have understood how it actually fit into achieving equality and making opportunities for women.

Childcare costs continue to rise exponentially for Canadian families. Your party’s new strategy provides child-care funding to the provinces over 10 years, but to anyone participating in the system, the crisis hardly feels resolved. So what about a universal daycare program?
There is a division of responsibilities in our Constitution that states that social programs like health care, K-12 education and child care are provincial jurisdictions. To get away from the dry constitutional argument, Quebec moved forward with a significant child care program with minimal support, encouragement and participation from the federal government.

Yes, but what about the rest of the country? Is a federal universal child care program modelled on health care impossible?
No, I don’t think it’s impossible, and that’s why we invested seven billion dollars with the provinces, which is more than the historic Ken Dryden approach to childcare that the Liberal Party put forward in 2005 that got cancelled when the NDP brought down the government. To point to another example of where the federal government is trying to create better support for families with kids, we are moving forward on paternal, or second parent, leave to make sure that there are more opportunities for shared, or equal, parenting.

A story surfaced this year about an incident in 2000 where a community paper in B.C. ran an unsigned editorial reporting that you had allegedly groped a reporter at a music festival. Do you have any regrets about how you handled your response? [Trudeau’s initial statement was “I am confident that I did not act appropriately.”]
Well, listen, regrets? No. We have to recognize that we are all in an evolving context. We are figuring out how to deal with these things in new and better ways than we were ever able to in the past. I am very aware that I am part of a larger conversation that really isn’t easy. From the very beginning, in dealing with this, I wanted to make sure that I left room in the conversation to not shut down or diminish what the woman in this situation had experienced and recognize that people can experience the same interaction very differently and legitimately. I’m obviously thinking very deeply about how we continue to model both support and respect for people who come forward and share their stories while being thoughtful about how we move forward as individuals and lessons learned.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada has been critical of your government’s inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a campaign promise in the last election. What would you say to Indigenous women about what went wrong with the inquiry and what they can expect from their government?
There was always an understanding that this was going to be an extremely difficult process. To get justice for the victims and healing for the families and put an end to this horrible ongoing national tragedy is a big challenge that will take more than just an inquiry. We’re not going to wait for the outcome of the inquiry to move forward in real and concrete ways on addressing the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, whether it’s making improvements around the Highway of Tears in B.C., whether it’s a gender-based violence strategy that we put forward, whether it’s investment in Indigenous communities. We are pleased to be a government that is taking this seriously even though there remains a lot more work to do.

Jagmeet Singh Canadian election 2019

Photo by Vince Talotta/Getty Images.

Jagmeet Singh

When Jagmeet Singh was elected leader of the NDP in the fall of 2017, the Ontario criminal defence lawyer seemed poised to provide a much-needed shot of outsider energy to the party. But without a seat in Parliament (which may be rectified if he wins an upcoming by-election in Burnaby, B.C.), Singh has been a faint figure in Ottawa, and the NDP continues to struggle with fundraising and election losses. Singh’s challenges are to reboot the party and reclaim the progressive identity that Trudeau parlayed into victory in 2015. The battle could be won: Standing firmly to the left of the Liberals helped install NDP governments in both B.C. and Alberta. We talked to Singh, 39, about free contraception, redemption for men and the problem with dressing sharp.

Has Justin Trudeau kept his promise of being Canada’s “feminist PM”? How will the NDP plan to take back that mantle in the upcoming campaign?
Justin Trudeau has talked a lot about important issues, but I’d say to women now: “Has your life improved? Has the Liberal government delivered?” If we talk about wage discrimination, no. There have been no concrete steps to eliminate wage discrimination. Making sure that everyone has access to affordable child care hasn’t been done either. Concrete steps like universal daycare would have a positive and meaningful impact on the lives of women.

One criticism levelled at the NDP is that it’s the party that can make big promises because it will never have to pay for them. Are proposed policies like universal daycare and pharmacare actually fiscally viable?
One of our member’s bills focuses on making sure that prescribed contraceptives are free for women. Beyond that, we’re actually proposing universal pharmacare. We’re the only country in the world with universal health care that doesn’t also have a form of universal medication coverage. It’s an investment, for sure, but the parliamentary budget office did the breakdown and we would save four billion dollars if we implemented it. We can’t afford not to act.

You’re entering your first federal race at a time when politics feels nastier and more entrenched than ever. How does this current tone affect how you campaign?
The rhetoric of the right uses fairness as a weapon to pit people against one another. That’s a scary thing. I want to use fairness as a way to bring people together. People like U.S. President Donald Trump, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier are using this kind of discourse of division. What that means is, I have to double down on my politics of love and courage and the politics of bringing people together and having the courage to find commonalities. We are connected. We can lift one another up.

There’s been criticism from within your own party of your decision not to allow Regina MP Erin Weir to return to caucus after a third-party investigation sustained complaints of harassment and sexual harassment. Why are you so steadfast on this decision?
I have a whole team behind me, and I have a responsibility to that team. Part of my commitment is to do anything I can to build a safer workplace — one where women won’t feel afraid and can come forward with complaints. The repercussions to a political party, or maybe the political impact of coming forward, has heightened this culture of just remaining quiet or being silent. I want to break that culture.

A year into the #MeToo movement, one of the questions we’re grappling with now is “What becomes of men who have been called out?” Is there anything Weir could have done or could do that would change your stance?
I strongly believe in the path of redemption. If we want to change culture, we need to have the willingness to learn, change, acknowledge and accept a mistake and then work to prevent it from ever happening again. The problem with this case is that a path was provided — a path was committed to — and Weir broke with that path. [Weir reportedly completed sensitivity training. The investigation, which sustained one count of harassment and three counts of sexual harassment, remains confidential.] In doing so, he betrayed the caucus and betrayed his commitment. That’s why we couldn’t go forward: He rejected a path of redemption.

In the past election, then-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair pulled out of a proposed national debate on women’s issues because Stephen Harper wouldn’t participate, essentially killing the debate — not great optics for the NDP. What do you think of Mulcair’s decision? Would you participate in a debate around women’s issues this time around?
I think it’s important to show up. I can understand how a decision to not show up to a debate could be perceived as not caring about that issue. I don’t know the specifics, so I can’t weigh in on a past leader’s decision, but I see the importance of my presence at a debate and conveying what I believe in. I’m committed to that.

You’ve said that your commitment to a more socialized form of government comes from personal experience. Can you elaborate?
I’ve come through some struggles in my life: ups and downs and financial difficulties in my family. When I was down and out, social programs like the health care system stepped up to take care of my knee, which I injured pretty badly. Programs that invested in post-secondary education meant that law school was actually an option for me when I didn’t have a lot of resources. The fact that I’m here today isn’t because I did it on my own but because people and social programs lifted me up.

You are still unknown to many Canadians. What should women voters know about you?
I was getting a lot of criticism about the way I dress— style versus substance kinds of discussions. As a racialized person, I always have to worry about the way I present myself because of stereotypes of substance or capacity or whether I belong, so I was always taught to carry myself in a professional way. Dressing sharp was part of deconstructing some of the prejudice that might exist. I was talking about this with my colleague and she laughed and said, “Welcome to the world of women: Our clothing is always scrutinized,” and I said, “Wow, you’re right.” I would never want your readers to interpret that as “I understand all the complexities of being a woman,” but, in some ways, the heightened attention to appearance is what many people face: other people, racialized people and women.

Andrew Scheer Canadian election 2019

Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./Getty Images.

Andrew Scheer

After defeat in the past election and Stephen Harper’s swift exit, the Conservatives chose a youthful, less robotic leader in Andrew Scheer. The affable 39-year-old father of five and former Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons was tagged “Harper with a smile,” but he’s since proven to be serious about shoring up his social conservative bona fides: He is a gun owner supported by the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights and hailed by anti-abortion organizations. The Conservatives have been making gains in provincial elections and raising more funds than the Liberals. If Canada swings right, Scheer will finally be a known quantity, presumably smiling even bigger. We talked to him about identifying as a feminist, the environmental crisis and what’s wrong with a gender-balanced cabinet.

Last year, you did an interview with Chatelaine where you said you were a feminist and it generated some blowback. Are you still a feminist, and what does that word mean to you?
Sure. Conservatives absolutely believe that there should equal opportunities, that there should be no artificial barriers to prevent women from succeeding in life and that we should work together to overcome them. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a diversity of opinions on issues and how to get there.

I understand that you’re a pro-life Catholic in your private life, but you said that your party won’t reopen the abortion debate in Canada if elected. Is that still where you stand?
I’ve made it very clear that, under my leadership, a Conservative government in 2019 will not reopen this debate. There is a wide variety of views in the general public and within our party, and I believe my job as leader is to work on things where we share common ground.

As you may have heard, the Liberals were the first government to achieve a gender-balanced cabinet. Would the PCs do that, too?
That goes back to the definition of feminism. I can tell you that in my shadow cabinet, [women] are there because of merit — because they’ve gone through the exact same process [as men]. They win a nomination, get elected and demonstrate their skills, experience and expertise. The women I’ve talked to indicate that it’s rather insulting to say to a group of people that the only way you can get a seat at a table with the same role as a man is because there is some quota that needs to be filled. I think that is actually very offensive to women.

You’re entering an election cycle where politics feels nastier and more entrenched than four years ago.
When I was Speaker of the House of Commons, I learned an invaluable lesson about my fellow parliamentarians: Every single MP who gets on a plane and flies to Ottawa is doing so because they are motivated by a real desire to make Canada a better place. I may disagree with their ideas in terms of political parties, but I don’t doubt their sincerity. I learned to respect that and realize that we can approach these things from different perspectives if we treat one another with respect, and Canadians want to see more of that.

In 2015, the negative tone of the PC campaign may have cost your party the election. Will it be tonally different this time?
You may have heard me saying throughout the leadership campaign that what was missing was positive stories of Conservative principles. Free market, free enterprise and individual liberties are what we believe in and what has lifted literally billions of people into a better quality of life around the world. It is precisely the Liberal approach, with bigger government and more control of the economy, that has led to more misery.

The UN just released an alarming report about the devastating effects of accelerating climate change. We’ve heard an anti-carbon tax rallying cry from Conservatives, but what will your party do to meet our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
I absolutely believe Canada needs to play a real role in reducing global emissions. The reason why I don’t believe in a carbon tax is because it’s been shown that it doesn’t actually have a direct effect on greenhouse gas reduction. Those advocating for it are abandoning their responsibility to take meaningful action. Our comprehensive plan will include a number of principles, and we will be unveiling our environmental approach in the near future. It will be based on promoting incentives, not punishments, and working with large emitters to reduce their emissions. It’s worth noting that the Liberals have granted huge exemptions to big emitters and big corporations.

I want to push back on the statement that carbon taxes don’t work because many would disagree, including the Ecofiscal Commission, a consortium of Canadian economists, which has said that, in fact, a carbon tax is the most effective way to reduce emissions.
I don’t believe that just because a group of economists has the same beliefs, that it outweighs those who have advocated against it or those who have studied the evidence and come to [a different] conclusion. We approach our solutions to these issues within a Conservative perspective, and I can show you links to articles and scholarly journals that show the opposite.

What do you think the key issues are for women going into the 2019 election? How is your party going to tackle them?
My mom was born into a very low-income family in rural Ontario and there were nine kids in a two-bedroom house. She went to nursing school and was able to afford a better house than she had, and the expectation was that there would be a constant progression. I think there are a lot of people coming out of school who don’t have that confidence. I meet with people who say “I want to be able to have a career and feel like I’ve got a better future than my parents had.” When it comes to balancing personal and professional lives, there are extra challenges. That’s why we’re advocating for flexible parental leave (to make it easier for men to share in those critical first few months) and why I proposed my own private member’s bill to make those benefits tax-free (to ensure that there are more viable choices and opportunities).

Elizabeth May Canadian election 2019

Photo by Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images.

Elizabeth May

Gone are the days when casting a ballot for the Green Party might have felt like wasting a vote. Early polls show that the Greens have record-level support among Canadians, and the party’s environmentalist lens resonates particularly with millennials, who are now the single largest voting block in the country. Provincially, the Greens have made significant advances, holding the balance of power in B.C. and nabbing three seats in New Brunswick. So leader Elizabeth May, the party’s sole MP, might get some company in Ottawa in 2019. At 64, May is the veteran on the Hill in a field of Gen X party leaders — and, once again, the only woman. We talked to her about social media attacks, the link between caregiving and climate change, and citizen power.

Since the past election, we’ve seen a real reckoning around women’s issues like #MeToo and pay equity. How has the political landscape changed with these shifts?
Previous efforts of feminism were largely on the structural side: Women have a right to be in the workplace, a right to access abortion, a right to our own bodies. But what we didn’t really get until now is that men don’t have a right to misogyny. Sexual assault was never acceptable, but the #MeToo movement has opened up a whole different conversation about what kind of male behaviour is acceptable. We are able to really clearly say to male colleagues, male friends and particularly male bullies in positions of power, “This is over. We’re not putting up with it anymore. Your conduct is unacceptable.” That’s a big change.

As the sole female federal leader, do you see those shifts in your own life?
The culture in which I live and work hasn’t changed yet. I am assaulted daily with misogynistic messages tinged with violence through social media, and I don’t think I should have to see that. Social media platforms have to do a better job at regulating and policing themselves. Anonymity is how people can be so despicable.

The Green Party is still excluded from many federal leaders’ debates. And in the past campaign, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and PC Prime Minister Stephen Harper both pulled out of a national debate on women’s issues, essentially killing it.

Suddenly, Mulcair decided, “I’m not going if Harper isn’t going,” so it was even more transparent that they didn’t want to debate on a platform where they were on the same stage as a woman leader. If I wasn’t such a good debater, maybe they wouldn’t have had to collude to shut down the debate. But Canadian voters have a right and an expectation to observe and form their opinions [of all parties].

Powerful voices in Washington won’t even acknowledge climate change. As Canadians, how do we continue to protect our environment, considering what’s going on with our neighbour to the south?
We can’t pretend that Canada is currently a global leader on climate because we are laggers. We are only leaders compared to Donald Trump. It’s important to face the fact of the climate crisis and talk to Canadians about it as a serious crisis, not as a political wedge issue. We don’t get second chances on this. We are in peril of losing human civilization — and before the end of this century. The science is very clear. It’s like getting a medical diagnosis that you don’t want to hear: “You’re going to get through this, but you’re going to have to stop smoking, eat a better diet and exercise.” That’s where we’re at as a species right now.

It’s often said that women are disproportionately affected by climate change. Can you paint a picture of that reality?
Women make up the bulk of displaced persons, and we are going to see a huge increase in climate refugees. Women bear the brunt of caregiving, and the climate crisis increases caregiving. Across Canada, we have an epidemic of Lyme disease. For much of this summer, Victoria had days where its air quality was the same as that of Beijing. Climate change is a health issue.

The Green Party’s opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline has been echoed in the Federal Court of Appeal. But what do you say to voters who argue that jobs are worth the environmental risk?
There is no economic case for the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Shipping out raw bitumen to refineries in other countries means shipping out jobs with the raw bitumen. Why don’t we create more jobs for every barrel of bitumen produced by upgrading it and refining it in Alberta? If so, we could use it across Canada and stop importing foreign oil to the East Coast. There are solutions and compromises here, but we are in this binary winner-loser gladiatorial contest. What’s the energy policy that meets the needs of all Canadians, all provinces, all parts and regions of this country? Is there a solution at hand? I submit there is, but we’ve never had a serious conversation about it.

What’s the most important issue facing women voters in this election?
I think it’s important to recognize that citizens have power and to re-establish the link between citizens and government — and this is true for men and women voters alike. MPs like me are public servants. We are not elevated celebrities; we are workers. The voter is the boss. Citizens need to believe it and live it so that our government once again becomes an extension of our citizen power doing what we need and want. That means running balanced budgets and doing the sorts of things we expect of our own households. Government is not external to us; government is us. We need to reclaim it.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

This story has been updated to clarify that Elizabeth May has been excluded from many federal leader’s debates, but not consortium debates.