Quick! Name three Canadian prime ministers.
Bet you can’t.
OK. Name one.
Does Pierre Trudeau ring a bell?
Yes? And that is in big part why the Canadian general election, which takes place Monday, is attracting attention this time around.
With the late premier’s eldest son, Justin, leading the polls, having transformed his Liberal Party from a distant also-ran into something similar to the political force it was under his father, he threatens to prevent the long-reigning Conservative Party of Canada and its leader, Stephen Harper, from winning an unprecedented fourth term in power.
But it is not just Justin that that makes for fascinating politics-watching north of the border. Here, including a possible Trudeau triumph, are three reasons why the Canadian election is interesting this time around.
1: A Trudeau could once again be in the prime minister’s office
He was suave, handsome and married to a woman 30 years his junior. Pierre Trudeau, prime minister from 1968 to 1979, brought a big dose of style to our northern neighbor while at the same time putting Canada more firmly on the world stage.
Just as Jack and Bobby Kennedy had captured the imagination of young Americans in the rock ‘n’ roll Sixties, so did Trudeau with Canadians.
Now we have a second-generation Trudeau. Forty-three-year-old Justin, like his father, has youthful good looks and a charisma rare in Canadian politics and, since being elected his party’s leader in 2008, has taken the Liberals from third place to first in a three-way tussle with Harper’s Conservatives and the New Democratic Party, led by Thomas Mulcair.
It’s similar to the rise of Barack Obama in the U.S. – many Canadians appear hungry for a new direction, and Trudeau’s ads, as pointed out by the Washington Post, have even pushed for “real change” and hope, very much the theme of Obama’s first presidential campaign.
2: The niqab could easily affect the outcome
For much of its existence, Canada was almost wholly white. There was the split between French Canadians and the Anglos and between the more liberal east and the more conservative west, but pretty much everyone was on the same page culturally. Now that has changed – there has been a big influx of Asians, particularly in the West and the nation’s largest city, Toronto, as well as immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Canada now is a truly multicultural society, and with that comes both a breath of fresh air and tensions.
During this election season, these tensions have found their touchstone in the niqab, the head covering worn by many Muslim women. Current Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have moved to ban the niqab during citizenship ceremonies as well as for Muslim women employed by the government, proposals that have resulted in cries of religious discrimination from liberals and civil rights activists.
The Liberal Party’s Arif Virani, a parliamentary candidate from Toronto, told Al Jazeera that Harper is using the issue for political reasons while at the same time trampling over religious freedoms.
“He’s limited the constitutional rights of individuals of a certain faith,” Virani said.
The proposal has potentially changed the outcome of the election. Not only has the nation’s highest court ruled the ban unconstitutional, but the issue also has fired up voters to side with the Liberal Party at the expense of the centrist National Democratic Party, which had been seen as the main threat to the Conservatives.
3: It could deeply affect relations with the U.S.
It is no secret that Prime Minister Harper and President Obama don’t see eye to eye on several issues. The biggest is the Keystone Pipeline, the proposed tube by which Canadian oil, largely extracted from shale by fracking and other methods, would reach the U.S. in large quantities. But that is not all, according to Toronto Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson.
“Mr. Harper, according to individuals who discussed the matter on background, is deeply frustrated with a president who, he believes, is incapable of making a difficult decision,” Ibbitson writes.
“Whether it’s confronting Syrian use of chemical weapons, negotiating trade agreements, defending Israel or, above all, approving Keystone, Mr. Harper has become convinced Mr. Obama is captive to so many special interests that he simply won’t or can’t take a stand.”
Harper, it seems, was much more in favor of President George W. Bush, someone of similar conservative stripe and decision-making style.
A Liberal victory is likely to produce a greater alignment with the Obama administration and a subsequent Democratic president, should he or she be elected. Although Trudeau supports the Keystone pipeline, he says relations should not hinge on the project.
There would be “much more alignment” between U.S. Democrats and a Liberal Canadian government, Elizabeth Roscoe, a public affairs strategist, told The Guardian newspaper, especially as Trudeau and Hillary Clinton “share a lot of advisers, and approach.”
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