The stage was set for passionate debates about the long-term outlook of the Canadian economy and the mechanisms the government should prioritize to fast-track our way back to the life we knew.
Unfortunately, yet again, the pandemic forced parliamentarians to focus on the short term.
The resurgence of the virus and the arrival of deadlier new variants, combined with untimely delays in the initial rollout of vaccine doses, heightened the anxiety and frustrations of Canadians (and even garnered headlines in mainstream media sources like CNN).
Consequently, the Liberal government’s popularity took a temporary hit, but the script was flipped once millions of vaccine doses started landing in Canada, which eventually salvaged the domestic vaccination campaign. After lagging behind other countries in the early months of vaccination, Canada is now among the leaders in terms of the percentage of the population vaccinated against COVID-19 with at least one dose.
While COVID-19 remained the foremost issue, the Trudeau government was still able to accomplish significant milestones:
- The tabling of Canada’s first federal budget in over two years: A feminist, green-centric steering plan, with a clear short-term focus (beating the COVID-19 pandemic) while also sketching the foundation of Canada’s economic recovery efforts, which will lean on a strong, centralistic federal government that will continue to leverage billions of dollars to fight climate change and promote segments of the populations that are facing barriers on their way to reaching their full potential via the introduction of pan-Canadian programs.
- After a failed attempt in 2019, the government was finally able to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into Canadian law. This law will give wide-ranging rights to Indigenous communities, including free, prior and informed consent over major development projects.
- The Liberals also tackled the long-awaited reforms of the Broadcasting Act and the Official Languages Act (although the introduction of the latter bill, mere days prior to the summer recess, in a context of the likely prorogation of the House of Commons, was received with much cynicism by opposition parties).
Opposition parties have largely struggled to articulate an alternative vision to Canadians.
- Erin O’Toole’s stint as leader of the Conservative Party has been challenging. His embrace of a carbon price on consumer fuels—a policy articulated to strengthen its main Achille’s heel, its lack of a tangible environmental plan—was met with incredulity by caucus members and lambasted by party faithful, who later voted against a proposal to enshrine in the party’s constitution that climate change is real. Throughout the session, the party appeared off-key: its harsh criticism of the Canada’s vaccine procurement campaign was proven unwarranted; its hopes of yet another Trudeau ethical violations were eventually squashed; and the usual internal skirmishes around social issues that Canadians have no appetite for (its socio-conservative wing yet again attempted to revive the debate on abortion rights) continue to marginalize the CPC vis-à-vis various pockets of voters it desperately needs in its fold to topple the Liberals. That being said, the party still has a strong foundation of supporters and is hovering around 30% of voting intentions. It constitutes Canada’s most potent alternative to the current government.
- The Bloc Québécois continues to carry strong polling numbers in its own province, but safe for its late-session fury on official languages and Quebec’s willingness to unilaterally amend the Canadian Constitution, the sovereigntist party has had a relatively quiet session by its own standards.
- The NDP appears to be on the upswing, according to most polls. It managed to do something it has struggled to accomplish throughout this minority parliament: find a way to present a clear distinction between its proposals and those of the Liberals. However, its current momentum is largely the result of strong performances of its provincial counterparts in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba. A situation eerily similar to that of 2015, which ultimately yielded a bitter defeat. To avoid a repeat situation, the progressive party will have to lean on less artificial circumstances.
- The Green Party lost a third of its caucus and is openly contemplating getting rid of its newly minted leader. Its electoral fortunes moving into a potential fall campaign are decidedly cloudy at best.
Throughout this 43rd Parliament, the elephant in the room has remained the prospect of the Liberals triggering a federal election in the year 2021.
In Ottawa, in spite of the ongoing pandemic context, rumours are at an all-time high. Could Prime Minister Trudeau prepare for a fall election, on the backs of a successful vaccination campaign and with hopes that Canadians remember that the federal government was there for them through thick and thin?
And judging by the performances of incumbent Canadian Premiers (who were able to retain and/or enhance their seat counts during provincial/territorial elections), Team Trudeau likely believes that an election could be a coronation for having steered the ship through troubling waters. They even managed to snatch promising MP Jenica Atwin from the Green Party.
However, the Liberals are not bulletproof, far from it:
- While polls currently favour them to retain power, the Liberals are not treading in majority territory. In fact, a 2021 election could very constitute a repeat of the 2019 exercise. They need to perform strongly in various rural ridings, which is still a tough ordeal.
- Justin Trudeau is no longer a young outsider: he is an older incumbent, whose progressive credentials are increasingly challenged by fellow progressive voices. Fatigue could set in for a lot of voters.
- On issues pertaining to Indigenous rights and sexual misconduct in the military, the Liberals have, at times, appeared passive. This is definitely “off brand” and could alienate the very left-of-centre voters it needs to retain power.
- The depths of the current federal deficit could eventually become a worry for most Canadians who are anticipating a slower return to normal.
- Last but not least: this government has demonstrated many times before an uncanny fondness for self-inflicted wounds.
Will Prime Minister Trudeau resist the urge of calling an election? Likely not. And if Canadians are called to vote, will the management of the pandemic be the lone ballot question? NATIONAL will keep a close eye on what could be a rather eventful summer.
——— Tiéoulé Traoré is a former Director, Government Relations at NATIONAL Public Relations