Canadian Parliament with flagsMajor changes in the Canadian Parliament [Photo: iStock]

Canadians opted overwhelmingly for regime change at their general elections, sweeping Stephen Harper out of power after nearly a decade of Conservative Party rule. In what the BBC called a ‘stunning turnaround’, the Liberal Party leader, Justin Trudeau, stormed from third place in the polls to a commanding victory.

At 43, the same age as John F Kennedy when the US president was inaugurated, Trudeau is the second-youngest Canadian prime minister. Justin, as he likes to be called, has similarly boyish looks and, like JFK, the advantage of being the son and grandson of politicians (his father, Pierre, served four terms as prime minister, while his mother’s father, Jimmy Sinclair, was a Vancouver MP for 20 years).

He was written off by many commentators as a ‘conspicuous lightweight’ (as he was before winning a charity boxing match in 2012) when he was just running for the leadership of the Liberal Party, and for much of the federal election campaign. But Trudeau eventually led the Liberals to a famous victory, winning 54.4% of the vote—184 ‘ridings’, or seats—on a respectable turnout of 68.5%, according to Elections Canada. The Conservatives won 99 seats (29.3%), the New Democratic Party (NDP) won 44 seats (13%), the Bloc Québécois took 10 (3%) and the Green Party was left with just one seat on 0.3% of the ballots.

It was a wildly fluctuating run-up to the election. In June, Global News suggested: ‘Prime Minister Tom Mulcair? New seat projections, poll show NDP surging across Canada.’ This was based on research by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, which only picked up the late run by the Liberals in October. On the eve of election day, the Election Prediction Project forecast a narrow but messy win for the Liberals with a majority of only eight seats over the Tories (Liberals 128, Conservatives 120, NDP 83, Bloc Québécois five and Greens on two). In the end, it made the right call in only 77% of the 338 ridings.

The new prime minister was quick to make his mark. Following his father’s example of more inclusive appointments (Pierre Trudeau appointed the first indigenous Canadian, Leonard Marchand, to a full ministerial role in 1977), four Sikhs were appointed to cabinet (Harjit Sajjan as defence minister, Navdeep Bains as innovation, science and economic development minister, Bardish Chagger became tourism minister and Amarjeet Sohi infrastructure minister), and two indigenous Canadians (Jody Wilson-Raybould as justice minister and Hunter Tootoo as fisheries minister). Maryam Monsef, who fled Afghanistan as a refugee 20 years ago, will oversee the democratic reform portfolio.

Above all, though, the new Liberal cabinet was hailed as the first to be gender-equal. Asked why he was appointing 15 men and 15 women, Trudeau replied with a much-quoted line: ‘Because it’s 2015’. As the Toronto Star marvelled: ‘Not many federal cabinets have attracted global attention like the diverse one named by Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau.’

‘Canada is finally ending its war on science,’ health writer Julia Belluz observed in Vox, noting that while Harper had abolished the role of science adviser, Trudeau had appointed two ministers for science (Kirsty Duncan as minister of science and Navdeep Bains as minister of science and innovation), had stopped forcing scientists to seek approval before talking to the media, and had restored the mandatory long-form census (abolished by Harper in favour of a shorter, voluntary version that was both more expensive to administer and less informative).

Trudeau was equally emphatic about a subject that many politicians shy away from: abortion rights. In contrast to Canada’s big neighbour, where politicians are reluctant to defend hard-won abortion rights that are literally under attack, Trudeau is unequivocally pro-choice. In 2014 he said: ‘Women’s rights, like the decision to end a pregnancy, can’t be taken away by a House of Commons and Senate made up of mostly male legislators.’ He also declared that prospective Liberal candidates need not apply if they were against abortion rights. When he was criticised as undemocratic by seven former Liberal MPs, he tweeted: ‘The days when old men get to decide what a woman does with her body are long gone.’

As the dust settled, commentators tried to explain Trudeau’ startling win. To William Macdonald in the Globe and Mail: ‘It was an election about the kind of country Canadians want. A vast swath of voters was determined to hold on to the Canada they have come to love and not to lose it to divisive themes.’ He noted that it also drew a line under the separatist tendencies that have long made Quebec a semi-detached province, with 80% of its voters backing a federalist party. Although Canada came out relatively unscathed from the 2008 financial crash and was boosted by the Albertan tar-sands bonanza, Macdonald concluded that ‘Harper did not do well on the economy’, pointing out that Canada had the highest ratio of consumer debt to income among G7 nations and C$400bn ($300bn) of borrowing from abroad to fund consumption.

To John Cruickshank in the Star, Trudeau won by redefining good government: ‘When he used “good” as in “good government”, Trudeau often wasn’t speaking merely of skillfulness or efficiency. He meant morally good. Virtuous.’

One spectator at the swearing-in of Trudeau and his ministers told the New York Times: ‘It’s been a long time since you’ve heard a crowd cheering that way in Ottawa for something other than a sports team.’ Her friend said: ‘It’s been a depressing 10 years for a lot of Canadians, it’s been very divisive.’ This sense of a country divided was tackled head-on by Trudeau in his first speech after winning the election, promising to unite Canadians. As CBC noted, in his memoir, Common Ground, Trudeau had said of his predecessor: ‘One of the Harper years’ most pernicious developments is a rabid form of partisanship, the idea that politics is warfare.’

On the thorny seven-year controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline (to take crude from Canadian tar sands for refining and shipment in the US), which Harper had been pushing Washington hard on, Trudeau expressed disappointment when Obama finally rejected the project but showed a shift in priorities by pledging to fight climate change. Trudeau said: ‘Canadians want a government they can trust to protect the environment and grow the economy.’

Obama’s decision neatly removed for Trudeau one big obstacle to better US-Canadian relations. Foreign policy is an area that will test Canada’s new prime minister—and allow to him to make his mark quickly. He will attend four international summits in his first month: a G20 summit in Turkey that is likely to focus on the war in Syria and the refugee crisis, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Philippines, at which the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is likely to dominate, the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Malta, and the high-stakes UN climate change conference in Paris. He has set a more collegial tone by inviting provincial premiers and the Green leader to join him in Paris.

Harper was, according to the International Business Times, ‘a quintessential neo-con in the model of George W Bush’. Mulcair said in 2014: ‘Once again Stephen Harper is staining Canada’s reputation abroad.’ At the final leaders’ debate in October, Harper defended his foreign policy record—including a controversial C$15bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia—but Mulcair called it ‘10 years of darkness’. Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois, said there had been ‘a total break’ in foreign policy. Trudeau, by contrast, made clear his multilateralist outlook: ‘Canada must be fully and firmly committed on the international stage, not only for our own success, but also for the success of others around the world.’

And in contrast to the Harper government, which imposed strict ‘message control’ on Canada’s diplomats (demanding that speeches be vetted by Ottawa), Trudeau has given his ambassadors far more autonomy: ‘Today begins a new era in Canadian international engagement … I will be relying on your judgment, insights, discretion, and work ethic in advancing our interests.’ One delighted Canadian diplomat told the Canadian Press: ‘It’s a breath of fresh air and a completely new style—an inspiring expression of trust and confidence in us.’

The Harper government snubbed the UN, which the foreign minister, John Baird, called a ‘debating club for dictators’. As the Globe and Mail reported in 2012, Harper dismissed ‘trying to court every dictator with a vote at the United Nations or just going along with every emerging international consensus, no matter how self-evidently wrong-headed.’ Baird also denounced the UN for ‘endless, fruitless inward-looking exercises’, for ‘preoccupation with procedure and process’ instead of ‘substance and results’. Describing how low Canada’s stock had fallen at the world body, Ian Smilie, who chairs the Diamond Development Initiative, said: ‘Canada couldn’t get elected dogcatcher at the United Nations today.’

Trudeau’s speeches emphasising hope and change echo another telegenic young leader in the White House seven years ago but in many ways, Matthew Bondy argued in Foreign Policy, Trudeau’s idea of Canada’s place in the world is not too dissimilar from that of his predecessor, favouring free trade agreements such as the TPP and with a moral perspective on how countries should behave rather than cynical realpolitik.

In March Trudeau outlined his stance on Canada’s use of ‘hard power’ by laying out four principles: that Canada had a role to play in confronting global humanitarian crises; that there must be a clear mission before deploying armed forces; that the case for deploying forces must be made openly and transparently, based on clear, reliable facts, and that Canada’s role must reflect the broad scope of the country’s capabilities and ‘how best we can help’.

As Bondy suggests, Canada is likely to play as prominent a role as before in the international arena but we can expect less support for US military campaigns (Canadian warplanes have been pulled out of Iraq and Syria) and more for UN peacekeeping efforts. One can also expect a more subtle and emollient approach to the Commonwealth in contrast to Harper’s attack on the organisation when he announced that Canada was boycotting the 2013 heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka.

Diplomats in chancelleries around the world might be hurriedly reading Trudeau’s memoir Common Ground to gain an idea of Canada’s new leader. Trudeau went public on many aspects of his private life in the book (which, appropriately for a country that almost fragmented over the language question, he wrote in French and English), the Ottawa Citizen reported.

With a hippie mother half his intellectual father’s age, he grew up in the spotlight as his parents’ marriage collapsed (not helped by incidents in the 1970s such as when Canada’s first lady gave a speech in Venezuela while on the hallucinogen peyote). He is frank about his mother’s mental health problems, his parents’ divorce and difficulties in his own marriage to Sophie Grégoire, a TV presenter.

Pierre Trudeau, who did much to cement Canada’s reputation as a bastion of human rights and progressive policies, sought to give his three sons (Michel died in an avalanche in 1998) as normal a life as a prime minister could, so Justin went to a state school on the school bus. He went on to become a teacher but was also a bouncer. Drawing lessons for his new job from this unlikely apprenticeship, he told the Citizen: ‘It’s about being diplomatic and unintimidatable. And also confident enough … The point of politics is not to score points against the other guy. The point of politics is to serve our country, to build a better future.’

There is a level of honesty and sincerity that perhaps reflects his relative inexperience as a politician (he has only been an MP since 2007). For instance, he avoided politicians’ usual obfuscation when asked whether they have tried recreational drugs (‘I had a youth in university, so I tried different things but it just never stuck with me’) and is candid about the sense of privilege and responsibility he feels as the son of a former prime minister.

He uses the issue of legalising marijuana as an example of his attitude to politics: ‘This has become a really important proxy for how you make good public policy. Do you do it on a knee-jerk ideological, emotional level? Or do you actually look at what’s going to be best for our society?’ And in a nice demonstration of how the times are a-changing, Trudeau and his cabinet passed up on the customary black limousines and arrived at their inauguration by bus.