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January 26, 2006

What's the Matter with Canada?

Canada_flag_1  Oh, Canada The country that prides itself as the social-policy soul-mate of Scandinavia--with universal health care, progressive drug policies, gay marriage, and yes, even legalized swingers’ clubs, of late--has elected as its leader a former oil-and-gas man from Alberta, the Canadian equivalent of Texas. Huh?

On Monday, Canada’s Conservative Party won the majority of seats in parliament, ousting the once-formidable Liberal Party from power for the first time in 13 years. Paul Martin, who became prime minister in 2004, resigned as head of the Liberal Party.

What’s an American Cascadian to think?

Well, Canada has four major political parties (the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois), so what may look like a sudden and unexpected upheaval is actually a more nuanced election than you typically get in the United States. Mix in the biggest political corruption investigation in years (the “sponsorship scandal,” which involved widespread mishandling of a public fund used to promote federalism over separatism in Quebec), and you have a race that the incumbent Liberal government was itching to lose.

Upon closer inspection, the vote was tight, and the Conservatives, or the Tories as they’re known north of the border, are left with a minority government--only 124 out of 308 seats in parliament--which means they have to reach out to other parties and form a coalition to actually govern. In fact, they only received 36.3 percent of the popular vote.

A mandate it ain’t.

And in Canada’s three biggest cities--Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver--it was a shut out. The Conservative Party won zero seats.

In British Columbia, there was a certifiable progressive resurgence. The New Democrat Party (NDP), social democrats to the left of the Liberals, doubled their seats, largely through scrappy, narrow victories in diverse metropolitan neighborhoods like Vancouver’s Kingsway. (This follows strong gains for the NDP in the provincial election last May, when the NDP recovered from the total annihilation of 2001, which left them with a pathetic one seat in BC’s legislative assembly. In the May 2005 provincial election, many voters were reacting to the sweeping government cutbacks provincial leader Gordon Campbell unleashed on the province after he became premier in 2001.)

The Tories lost BC seats, even in rural regions dominated by resource industries. Areas like Northern Vancouver Island, the Southern Interior, and the North all elected NDP candidates.

How will the election affect environmental policy?

Campbell is still the premier of British Columbia, and most land-use planning decisions will be decided on his watch.

But with only 21 more seats than the Liberals, the Conservative party is in no position to throw out Kyoto. Many Canadians are proud of the leadership role their country has played in finding global solutions to climate change, including hosting the Montreal conference last November.

One hot BC issue is the longstanding federal moratorium on oil-and-gas drilling off the BC coast. The NDP incumbent 33-year-old Nathan Cullen, won out over Conservative Party candidate Mike Scott, who was campaigning on the promise to lift the moratorium.

Cullen campaigned to safeguard the coast from drilling, strengthen aboriginal rights and title, and battle the encroachment of fish farms. The area he represents as a member of parliament is no progressive oasis. Stretching from the Queen Charlotte Islands all the way to Fort St. John, it’s full of cash-strapped communities and forests decimated by Asian pine beetles.

Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the Canadian election is the emergence of Liberal star Michael Ignatieff. This ex-pat--a Harvard professor, frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and human rights activist--returned to Ontario at the start of this eight-week campaign to run for office and clean up the Liberals. He won a seat in parliament, and he’s now vying for party leader. Some have crowned him the Liberals’ new philosopher-king, and, perhaps, Canada’s future prime minister.

Posted by Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck | Permalink

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Comments

One correction and a clarification.

In the Vancouver-Kingsway riding, rather than a narrow NDP win, the liberal Candidate beat the NDP candidate by 10% of the vote.

The Conservative party won zero seats in Vancouver proper, but in the metropolitan area, the Conservatives won many seats. This is relevant because if one does not include the metropolitan area, Vancouver is hardly the third largest city in Canada.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Jan 26, 2006 7:09:56 PM

Good point AC.

This is true in America as well, as the conservatives are self-selecting into suburbs and outlying areas (or maybe liberals are self-selecting into cities...). The areas with amenities usu have the liberals. Our last election (where the conservatives won) was won in the suburbs [micropolitan areas], as most of the cities generally voted liberal.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Jan 27, 2006 8:27:30 AM

Thanks for the correction. I should have noted that Vancouver is the third largest metropolitan area in Canada, after Toronto and Montreal, not third-largest city.

I don't want my point about the tight local races to be lost. Mark Hume summarizes the Vancouver-Kingsway squeaker in the Globe and Mail here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20060124/BCKINGSWAY24//?query=kingsway

Posted by: Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck | Jan 27, 2006 6:20:07 PM

The Conservative Party in Canada is generally regarded just right of center. Although Harper does have some personal views that could be interpreted to be further right, the belief seems to be that he will not try to change the vast majority of the liberal social policies in Canada. With that said, environmentally, all should be watching two important issues of the moment. One is the current softwood lumber dispute between Canada and the United States. Harper is expected to be more friendly to the current government in the U.S. and this is a hot button issue for Canadians (unknown to most U.S. citizens). Most environmental groups seem happy with the current dispute. Secondly, Harper is indeed from Alberta and he is not about to be anti-oil industry as a result.

The Economist had a special section dedicated to Canada recently. They stated that if Canadians were U.S. citizens polling would have them as 80% Democrat and 20% Republican. Canadians are not likely to allow the Conservative Party to take them dramatically to the right. The minority government situation will help guarantee that.

Environmentally a Canadian Conservative victory should prove quite minor compared to the previous two conservative victories in the U.S.

Posted by: ethan meginnes | Jan 27, 2006 7:03:11 PM

If canada wants to countinue economic growth and position itself more assertivly among first world nations then developing the vast sand fields that contain tons of oil is not only a prudent step, its a logical step. Kristin I think your article contained way too much political bias than something with NEW's label on it should have. Your article seems to be ranting on conservatives, people NEW must be able to communicate effectivly with in order to be more succesful in the future. There is no proof that Harper and his party will reverse Canada's social policys.

Posted by: Gary Durning | Jan 28, 2006 5:38:31 PM

I am confused by Durning's comment. I thought what this blog is trying to do is raise awareness of Cascadian environmental issues, and in order to do that, don't American enviro's need to be more educated on Canadian politics? As it is, most of them are only barely aware that there was just an election up there. I think the sort of analysis this post provides, by detailing the hotbutton green issues north of the border, is really essential and qualifies as "news that really matters". You take out politics and you'll lose your relevancy. Certainly the issue of drilling off of the coast of BC affects the rest of us along the west coast, right? And by the way, what more "proof" does Durning need that the Conservatives want to undo the social safety net in Canada? They say over and over that the real problem in Canada is taxation and overregulation--shouldn't we take their word for it that that's their goal? There was a time when progressives thought Reagan was harmless down here, too.

Posted by: Bob Downing | Jan 29, 2006 9:49:45 AM

Comparing Harper to Reagan is madness. Everyone knows that Harper isn't considered very far right by American standards. In addition he doesn't have the votes to get a federal moratorium lifted. The article written was blatently bias, and NEW is a better organazation than that. Being an oil and gas man doesn't automatically make a person a bad political figure and being conservative doesn't either.I don't think the blog should be a political commentary page.

Posted by: Gary Durning | Jan 30, 2006 11:24:16 AM

Whew! Who knew Americans could get so fired up about Canada! That's refreshing.

The story about the Canadian election is a fascinating one from an American perspective (especially for one who lived there and observed such a different political culture for four years).

What struck me was the irony of the election. It was widely reported that a dominating concern of the election was not a serious policy issue, it was fear-mongering that a Harper government would remake Canada in the United States' (meaning George W. Bush's) image. Martin ran ads comparing Harper to Dubya.

And recent sentiment in the country, at least from that I read while I was living there through November, was increasingly anti-American. Martin thought he was playing to Canadian fears, and it backfired.

Instead, there are a few (just a few) Bush parallels in Harper (oil background, Alberta = Texas). That really surprised me. Maybe Canadians aren't as discouraged by Red America as I'd been led to believe. Should Tom Frank write a Canadian edition of What's the Matter with Kansas?

Evoking parallels is not the same as bringing a politcal bias. The fact is a man from Alberta who would like to see Canada back away from Kyoto is in power. But like I said, that probably won't happen.

And most enviromental policy decisions in BC are made at the provincial level, under a sometimes controversial Liberal premier.

And, as the BC media reported widely, the CP lost ground in BC and the NDP gained alot of ground. From what I read in the major BC papers, that was the dominating local story out of the election.

Posted by: Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck | Jan 30, 2006 6:11:18 PM