July 21st, 2024

As fall elections loom, are fears for the state of democracy in Canada justified?

By Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press on June 29, 2024.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at Juno Beach, Thursday, June 6, 2024 in Courselles-sur-Mer., France., during the Canadian National Ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

At ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day in France a month ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a warning about the state of democracy.

It was, he said on Juno Beach, “still under threat today, “¦ threatened by aggressors who want to redraw borders. It is threatened by demagogy, misinformation, disinformation, foreign interference.”

With Canadians poised to go to the polls in at least three provincial elections this fall, and a federal vote due next year, concerns about the strength of democracy are being raised on multiple fronts.

But is Canada’s democracy truly under threat? Political scientists say while Canadian politics and institutions are facing a myriad of concerns, the situation isn’t dire overall.

“From a comparative standpoint, Canada’s democracy is quite robust, and it’s quite strong from an institutional standpoint, in the sense that our elections are overall perceived as being fair,” said Daniel Béland, director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada.

“But again, it depends on what you’re looking at.”

Some of the most prominent concerns have emerged from allegations of foreign interference.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has accused Trudeau of “acting against Canada’s interest” for his handling of the allegations, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau had sent a message that he is “willing to accept some level of foreign interference,” weakening democracy and undermining the confidence of Canadians.

Trudeau and the NDP, meanwhile, accused the Conservatives of undermining democratic institutions by trying to oust House of Commons Speaker Greg Fergus in May.

There was also an April cybersecurity attack on British Columbia government email addresses, which the province said was likely the work of a “state or state-sponsored” actor.

Premier David Eby asked Trudeau this month for access to information from Canada’s spy agency to help protect the people of the province and its democratic institutions.

B.C. goes to the polls on Oct. 19, while the New Brunswick election is set for two days later and the Saskatchewan election is Oct. 28. In Nova Scotia, Premier Tim Houston has cast doubt on whether he’ll stick with a fixed election date next summer, amid speculation of an early election.

In a 2023 report by democracy watchdog Freedom House, Canada scored a near-perfect 98 out of 100, losing points only for Quebec’s Bill 21 that bans some government employees from wearing religious symbols, and inequalities facing Indigenous and black communities.

The German Sustainable Governance Indicators project ranked Canada’s quality of democracy 10th in the world, again noting inequality with Indigenous communities as well as “cash-for-access” meetings between politicians and donors as areas of concern.

Patrick Fafard, professor of social sciences at the graduate school of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said while the international rankings are encouraging, it is clear there are areas that must be addressed to maintain a high-quality democracy.

Fafard said one of the most visible changes in Canadian politics is the increasing pressure on politicians to engage in “short-term, chase-the-news-cycle” partisan rhetoric, which not only corrodes public trust in government but also can be prone to misinformation.

“I think I can say quite confidently that I’m more concerned now than I would have been, say, 10 or 20 years ago,” Fafard said. “There’s a constant challenge that politicians are tempted to engage in sloganeering and simple solutions, but problems are complex.

“The current controversy over foreign interference is a wonderful example of that,” he said.

The problem “is not one that can be solved by finger-pointing and trying to apportion blame,” he said.

“It requires that politicians think in the medium to long term and ask, ‘what can we do to first address the problem but also maintain the public’s confidence in elections?’

“And that is a different question than, ‘how can I turn this to my short-term advantage?'”

University of Toronto professor emeritus of history Robert Bothwell said angry, almost vitriolic, language in Canadian politics shouldn’t be concerning. It isn’t a new phenomenon, he said, and other periods have experienced even more contentious rhetoric.

“If you look back to First World War, Canadian politics were incredibly confrontational and very nasty,” Bothwell said. “People accusing each other of treason, and cartoons appeared in papers that I think could reasonably be described as racist.”

Fafard agreed that rhetoric and misinformation driven by populism isn’t new – what is new is that it is being “co-ordinated and funded in a way that we’ve never ever seen before.”

Such trends elsewhere – especially November’s U.S. presidential election – are also influencing the Canadian political landscape, he said.

Donald Trump’s bid to return to power has coincided with election denialism in the U.S. Congress.

A new report released last month by States United Action, a group that tracks election deniers, said nearly one-third of the lawmakers in the U.S. Congress supported in some way Trump’s bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election results or otherwise cast doubt on the reliability of elections. Several more are hoping to join them, running for election this year to the house and senate.

“It is an incredibly troubling phenomenon in the U.S. context, “¦ where politicians are going out of their way to raise public doubt about the elections and electoral interference,” Fafard said.

He noted, however, that Canada does not appear to have anywhere near the same level of cynicism about public institutions, and similar strains on democracy shouldn’t appear in the short and medium term.

“In the long term, I’m not sure,” Fafard said. “The more this goes on in the United States, the more influence you will have over time. But at least in the short term, I think we’re somewhat insulated, at least from the extreme argument that says our elections can’t be trusted.”

Fafard said it is important for Canada to address “root causes” of mistrust. He said angry political rhetoric during the First World War and before the Second World War was driven by economic dislocation, and policymakers should address current economic vulnerability felt by many in the country.

Béland said while there are concerns about democracies abroad, solutions may also come from beyond Canada’s borders when it comes to maintaining democracy.

He said compulsory voting in Australia was an example of the type of electoral reform that Canada could examine.

“We should look at the reforms that have been adopted in other countries to address the democratic deficit or the apparent democratic crisis, and see whether these policies are working or not,” Béland said.

“And if they are working, we can look into maybe adapting some of these policies so that we should not really start from the perspective that we are unique and our problems don’t exist elsewhere.”

– With files from The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2024.

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