Montreal led big Canadian cities in 2018 with economic growth of almost 3 per cent, while its real estate market outperformed Toronto and Vancouver’s for the

Do you think Justin Trudeau will change Canada for good?

Any Prime Minister is likely to change Canada somewhat. But, Justin Trudeau has only been Prime Minister since October of 2015. Three years isn’t much time in terms of making changes to Canada. It is the long-serving, multi-term Prime Ministers that tend to have a strong effect. These would be John. A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfred Laurier, Mackenzie King and Pierre Trudeau in particular. In fact, it almost seems to be a feature of federal political history that Canada has a few “super-Prime Ministers” combined with mostly less memorable ones, who, in retrospective, don’t appear to have changed Canada very much, or, have almost dropped out of historic memory.

Wikipedia provides this list of Canadian Prime Ministers:…

It is striking how many of them didn’t last very long. There are a few who were, what you might call “mid-range”, maybe Sir Robert Borden, Louis St. Laurent, and Brian Mulroney. But, what did they achieve that was really Canada-changing? It is a little early, but, historically, did Stephen Harper? Did he make any large-scale, enduring changes to Canada’s systems of social welfare, national defence, tax policies, foreign policy, international trade, or federal-provincial relations?

Do Canadian Prime Ministers Surf On The Waves Of Their Times?

I think that, part of the time, they do. Canada isn’t a world power. It gets influenced a lot by what happens elsewhere, and isn’t in a position to influence back very much. Prime Ministers don’t have dictatorial powers, so there is a limited field of actions that they can take, in an attempt to hold back the more general flow of international history. Canada being what it is, our Prime Ministers often have to be in response and mitigation mode. In addition, economic and technological factors drive a lot of Canadian change. Much of these are foreign-originated. If Canadian inventors aren’t allowed to innovate from within Canada, they can take their invention elsewhere or sell the patent to a foreign party.

New, affordable, farm technology, and responding to world markets, drove the post-war Prairies along. The post-war growth in Central Canadian manufacturing had a lot to do with American investment. Louis St. Laurent and John Diefenbaker did not have much they could do about post-war Canada experiencing rural depopulation, rapid expansion of urban-based manufacturing, and rapid urban growth. What policies could they have have succeeded in enacting? Could they have imposed taxes to provide heavy, ongoing subsidies to smaller Prairie farmers, or imposed stringent bars on the growth of urban-located manufacturing, and forced redistribution of the population away from the metropolitan areas of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, so as to avoid the growing dominance of the three big cities? (For example, you are not going to live in Mississauga, we require you to live in Lethbridge!) There was nothing they could effectively do. The bigger metropolitan areas continued to grow quite rapidly, which meant that many more Canadians were living city and suburban lifestyles, and were living increasingly with a strongly consumerist emphasis. Manufacturers required labour beyond what the Canadian labour force could supply, so immigration became a compulsory part of federal economic policy.

The cities allowed minorities to congregate in sufficient numbers so that they could “shelter” and start to exert some influence. The growth in the manufacturing base, and in the urban consumer class, caused a growth in service industries, drawing women into the labour market. And, so what is now modern Canada came into being. (Imagine if Louis St. Laurent and John Diefenbaker had said, “No! A woman’s place is in the home. Instead, we will recruit and admit even more immigrant men, to fill all these new positions, save the Canadian traditional family, and put a stop to workplace immorality!”)

John Diefenbaker couldn’t do much about the cultural influence on Canada of John F. Kennedy’s new America. I suppose he could have attempted to ban rooftop antennas and cable TV, so as to reduce the growth of American-originated broadcasting in Canada, but he might have had difficulty creating and and passing a bill, (They didn’t use emotive legislative titles back then, but, in modern terms, it would have been a “Save Canada from Hollywood Act”.) and it is possible that John F. Kennedy might have taken notice and gotten annoyed.

It is almost as if Canada is a tree, swaying back and forth in the face of political, military, economic and cultural winds, much of them from other places, and our Prime Ministers must work to keep the branches from snapping or the whole tree being uprooted. Whatever agenda they have in mind takes a back seat. So do their personalities.

The Great Canadian Constitutional, Political and Demographic Lock-Up

I believe that, what any given Canadian Prime Minister can do, is subject to a squeeze that has always been there, intentionally. But, the squeeze has grown quite a bit.

What The Provinces Say, Largely Goes

The British North America Act assigned a very large role to the provinces. It gave them exclusive powers over a number of important matters. The 1982 Canadian Constitution didn’t change that. It instead introduced the currently somewhat obnoxious notwithstanding clause, so that the provinces could overrule personal rights. It didn’t create anything in the way of a strong “overrule clause”, so that the federal government could stop provincial behaviour they deem obnoxious. A Canadian Prime Minister can’t do anything about that, other than to attempt to “open up” the Constitution. Since the provinces have great control over constitutional amendments, that Prime Minister won’t get anywhere.

What The Supreme Court Says, Goes, Including What The Supreme Court Says About What The Provinces Say

The Supreme Court has the right to rule on constitutional matters, in practise more than the Prime Minister. Stephen Harper found that out, despite his forceful and aggressive manner. The Supreme Court effectively told him that no, you are not permitted to change or eliminate the Senate. Provincial consent is required. As Wikipedia describes the Supreme Court decision at:…

Under s. 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982, any change to “the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators” (which would include consultative elections and senatorial term limits) can only be done under the general amending procedure; and

Under s. 41(e), the abolition of the Senate would require the unanimous consent of the Senate, the House of Commons, and the legislative assemblies of all Canadian provinces, as it would require the removal of the Senate from all aspects of the constitutional amending procedure.

Following the ruling, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that “Significant reform and abolition are off the table,” and many constitutional experts consider abolition to be virtually impossible.

It is possible that Stephen Harper would have considered abolition of the Senate as the cornerstone achievement of his Prime Ministership. But, he couldn’t do a thing about it, other than to show that a Prime Minister has no chance of doing it. Perhaps he changed Canadian politics for good, by proving that Senate abolition was off the table and was going to stay that way.

And, the courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, have had a lot more to say, about various things, including about human rights, how immigration applicants get treated and about aboriginal rights. Once the Supreme Court has pronounced, any given Prime Minister can’t change much at all.

Representation By Population, And The Supreme Court Says It Too

Roughly speaking, the seats in the House of Commons are apportioned by population. Quebec has a big population so gets a lot of seats. Each Western Province gets not so many. Atlantic Canada doesn’t get all that much. And so, a lot of Albertans get very frustrated.

I say “Alberta” deliberately. The western provinces are not of a piece. Manitoba and Saskatchewan are largely free of believing in their federal representational grandeur. British Columbia is determinately a world on its own. The governments of the three provinces tend to focus on fending off the federal government using their substantial constitutional rights. Getting more representation in the House of Commons isn’t that much of a deal.

Section 38.(1) of the 1982 Constitution says that:

38. (1) An amendment to the Constitution of Canada may be made by proclamation issued by the Governor General under the Great Seal of Canada where so authorized by

(a) resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons; and

(b) resolutions of the legislative assemblies of at least two-thirds of the provinces that have, in the aggregate, according to the then latest general census, at least fifty per cent of the population of all the provinces.

This, in particular, grants the Province of Quebec three different clamps on what any Prime Minister thinks they can do.

-Quebec holds a lot of the seats in the House of Commons.

-Quebec, like all the other provinces, has a number of important exclusive powers. As for all provinces, it can access the Supreme Court if it thinks the federal government is transgressing. And, it has the not withstanding clause too.

-Quebec has something in the order of 23% of Canada’s population. Under section 38.(1) it has a very good chance of blocking constitutional changes that any given Prime Minister might like.

And, Justin Trudeau In Particular?

“Sunny ways” was not a prescription for any particular change in legislation, focused economic initiatives, or changes in Canada’s approach to foreign relations. Justin Trudeau didn’t present himself as a great ideologue. His point was that, in his general governmental stance, he was the remedy for an increasingly frustrated, angry, authoritarian and cynical Stephen Harper.

Justin Trudeau’s biggest, specific idea for long-term change, was the change away from the first past the post electoral system. When he didn’t see what he wanted it, he dropped the issue.

Justin Trudeau says he is a strong advocate of feminism. He enacted a policy of having a gender-balanced cabinet. It’s just a policy, not a law. The next Prime Minister could change it.

After that, we will still see if there is anything enduring that Justin Trudeau could or wants to do. Other than dealing with NAFTA, there does not seem to be anything absolutely major and urgent, that he must deal with before the October 2019 federal election. I fact, it might be better not to try anything major until after the election. His major election job, other than presenting any NAFTA deal in a favourable way, is to improve his own image. (Particularly, no more India-visit type silliness, not so much elite hobnobbing, and no scolding people during town halls.) He also has to make sure that no Liberal in the Commons makes an election year mess-up. He can hope that illegal border crossings do not become so problematic that he can’t procrastinate until after the election. And, he can hope that the Conservatives further divide and the NDP retains an ineffective leader.

What if Justin Trudeau becomes a multi-term Prime Minister? He has been notably silent about any Canada-changing initiatives he might make. What he advertises is a style of government that he believes is good, warm, approachable, consultative, respectful of provincial authority, very aware of feminism, and, as he says, always looking for chances to enhance Canada’s middle class and bring more Canadians into it. He doesn’t need much more legislation to do that. He will have to face the Trans-Mountain pipeline issue, but, the courts have asserted superior authority to him and he doesn’t seem to want to challenge them, even if he could.

If he wins a second term, Justin Trudeau will always have to surf on the wave of those foreign influences, whether he wants to or not. They may force him to make long-standing changes he doesn’t even want.

There isn’t tax room for grand new programmes. Justin Trudeau hasn’t proposed any, so he seems to know it.

Justin Trudeau is not going to expose his deepest thoughts and feelings about making long-standing changes. My impression is that he is realistic enough to know better. Possibly, the electoral reform failure taught him a lesson.

Because of all the legal, constitutional, political, economic and foreign constraints, Justin Trudeau has to end up playing defence. A far as we know, he is generally at peace with the long-term trend of Canada becoming a more urban-oriented, more human and group rights oriented, more feminist, more politically-correct country, with a limited, not very emotive, relationship with the United States. He doesn’t have any motivation to compel dramatic new legislation or get into conflict with the courts or any given province. He shows no sign of being a socialist, and in fact seems comfortable with the business community. He doesn’t have any apparent reason, and not a lot of possibilities, to make himself, alone, a long-term change agent. It isn’t clear that he even wants to.

Martin Levine