Four years on, frustration and apathy could alienate young people in a campaign marked by sniping, absence of bold policy and the blackface scandal
In an election defined by mudslinging and racist dog-whistling, Justin Trudeau stood apart.
In a country weary of nearly a decade of Conservative rule, Canada’s Liberal leader was a sunny optimist promising change. And his refusal to play dirty politics – in contrast to the veteran politicians he was facing off against – inspired young voters to come out in record numbers.
“We were looking for a leader that would be our person,” said Aisha Pedican, a Toronto-based film-maker who was in her mid-20s the last time Canada went to the polls. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, this guy has a younger voice, I can relate to this.’”
Pedican recalls an electricity surrounding Trudeau’s 2015 candidacy; he was a proudly progressive candidate who promised to fight climate change, repair a broken relationship with Indigenous people, resettle Syrian refugees – and do politics differently.
But four years later, the excitement surrounding the prime minister has matured into frustration and apathy. Ahead of Canada’s general election on Monday, Trudeau has been robbed of the many tools he effectively deployed in his last campaign.
As the incumbent prime minister, he’s no longer the underdog promising to shake up Canada for the better, nor is he even the youngest party leader. And the stunning rise of Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic party, threatens to steal away young voters at a time when Trudeau needs them most.
Trudeau’s progressive shine is looking tarnished and shop-worn, and – despite a surprise last-minute endorsement from Barack Obama – the prime minister is now in the fight of his political life.
Polling shows Trudeau essentially tied with his Conservative rival, Andrew Scheer. Despite spending weeks criss-crossing the country to pitch their vision of the country, neither party has successfully swayed voters.
Facing the prospect of losing his parliamentary majority, the prime minister has been forced into attack mode, trading barbs with both Scheer and Singh. But the strategy – a far cry from his previous “sunny ways” campaign – could alienate the young voters, warned Shachi Kurl, executive director at the polling firm Angus Reid.
If Trudeau hopes to emerge victorious on 21 October, he desperately needs to excite millennials, such as Pedican, who came out in record numbers for the prime minister in 2015.
“Negative campaigns can have the effect of increasing cynicism – and can have the effect of suppressing voter turnout,” said Kurl, who argued that Trudeau’s previous optimism had clouded over in an election defined by personal attacks and an absence of any bold policy discussions.
“Most devastatingly, [Trudeau] has failed to live up to his own standards around ethics and around doing politics differently,” said Kurl – a reference to both the recent blackface scandal and a damning ethics commissioner report which found Trudeau had broken the law when he tried to prevent a large engineering company from facing criminal prosecution.
Complicating the picture for Trudeau is Singh, who has run an unflinchingly optimistic campaign, often in the face of overtly racist incidents. The first person of color to lead a federal party, Singh’s early candidacy was marred by a series of stumbles, including the exodus of several senior lawmakers from the party.
But after successful debate performances, he has surged in the polls and achieved something which now seems out of reach for Trudeau: inspiring young voters with the prospect of change.
At a recent campaign visit in Toronto, Singh posed for photos as he danced his way through the crowd to an impromptu stage.
“Together, we can build a brighter future. We’re not stuck with choosing between bad or worse. We’re not stuck having to settle for less,” he said to cheers. “Ask your friends, ask your neighbour, ask your family to dream big. Because you deserve it.”
I'm not a big believer in the political utility of memeing, but if I was, I'd tell you there's not a single political leader in the western world who understands Gen Z semiotics like this guy does. https://t.co/22jVR9NiYD
— Spooky Rexdale Mans (@andraydomise) October 17, 2019
Meanwhile, Trudeau has been forced to swap his lofty rhetoric of 2015 for centrist pleas to voters – disheartening those who supported his first bid.
“A lot of us really saw him as like a different kind of politician and then ended up being very disappointed – almost lied to by – how he turned out” said Rayne Fisher-Quann, a youth activist in Vancouver who, at 18, will be voting in her first federal election. “He seems very performative, especially when you look at the huge discrepancies between his words and his actions.”
She points to a string of disappointments: Trudeau’s nationalisation of the controversial TransMountain pipeline to ensure its construction despite opposition from environmentalists and some First Nations groups; his decision to boot out two high-profile women from his caucus; and his failure to meaningfully improve the country’s the fraught relationship with Indigenous peoples.
These unfulfilled promises, she said, made it feel as though Trudeau was “putting on a show of being progressive” for younger voters.
In the final days of the campaign, the prime minister has relied heavily on the slogan “Choose Forward”, warning that a vote for anyone but his party clears a path for a Conservative government.
For voters like Pedican, the strategy has resonated. “I get that change is slow and takes time,” she said. “[Trudeau’s] not the ideal candidate. But I would prefer to see him in office than Andrew Scheer.”
If, as predicted, neither the Liberals or the Conservatives win enough votes to command a majority of the House of Commons, all parties – including the Greens and the separatist Bloc Quebecois – could emerge as kingmakers in post-electoral negotiations.
While pollsters caution that a split on the left could open a path for the Conservatives to emerge victorious, the idea of voting strategically is often anathema to a generation that rejects the status quo of politics.
And for those unwilling to forgive the prime minister for broken campaign promises, Singh and the New Democrats – who could wield immense power in a minority government situation – are seen as an attractive alternative.
“Right now a lot of people – especially young people – don’t have a whole lot of hope,” said Fisher-Quann. “It’s always very heartening to see when a candidate is able to tap into hope – and make people feel like their voices can matter.”