Canada’s soft power is back

“Real change” was Justin Trudeau’s campaign slogan last year. While these are still early days, the change – in both style and substance – has already been palpable

Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration, including by Canada’s former prime minister Stephen Harper, Trudeau has been unashamedly telling the world about the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society.

While some countries have been building walls, Canada has been leading a national ‘#welcomerefugees’ campaign. Canada has received over 25,000 Syrian refugees since the October election, some of whom were personally greeted by the prime minister himself.

Moreover, the Liberal government will change the Conservatives’ controversial Citizenship Act, repealing the possibility to revoke citizenship. Why? Because “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”.

On foreign policy, after a decade of Stephen Harper’s harsh tone and emphasis on hard power, the Liberal government seeks a return to Canada’s soft power diplomacy and focus on free trade. Anti-Isis airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have ended. Canada’s role will be focused more on training and humanitarian aid, a move welcomed by the US. Even though Trudeau could have changed the mission without parliamentary approval he put it to a vote in the House of Commons, which passed.

While Harper damaged Canada’s reputation and global efforts to tackle climate change by withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol, this pressing issue is now treated seriously. Scientists are no longer muzzled and are free to speak without fear. Trudeau signed on to the global low-carbon transition at COP21.

At Davos, he touted that “my predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources, I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness.” Last week, Trudeau led a conference with all 13 premiers and indigenous leaders on clean technology and environmental innovation, which brought together investors, inventors, entrepreneurs and businesses from over 50 countries.

Furthermore, democracy is no longer an obstacle to be overcome by an all-powerful prime minister’s office. Trudeau appointed a new minister of democratic institutions, charged primarily with electoral and Senate reform. Committees are taken seriously again, free to elect their own chairs. There is a renewed openness with the media; the public is loving their panda-hugging,Vogue-featured prime minister. More seriously, Justin Trudeau has been taking part inlivestreamed Global Town Halls. Evidence-based policy will also be possible again, as bringing back the long-form census was one of the new government’s first actions.

The new government has been sending signals that gender equality matters. The cabinet has a 50/50 balance of men and women – “because it’s 2016”. On International Women’s Day the prime minister wrote an editorial in Canada’s largest paper under the headline “gender equality is an opportunity, not a threat”. Despite his short term in power, it would not be surprising if he holds a record for the number of times a world leader has described himself as a feminist. Moreover, the next series of banknotes will, for the first time ever, bear the portrait of a woman besides the Queen.

It is not all smooth sailing, however. A big test will be the new government’s first budget, set to be announced the week of 21 March. Low oil prices, a weak Canadian dollar and revised OECD growth forecasts of 1.4 per cent, down from two per cent, mean the Liberals will likely propose spending beyond the $10bn CAD deficit cap they promised during the election campaign.

Moreover, the new government has made no mention of amending bill C-51, a highly controversial ‘anti-terrorism’ privacy bill, which the Liberals committed to reforming if elected to government. They should not forget too quickly that their backing for this bill lost them a great deal of credibility and voting support among liberals, who protested across the country.

Overall, however, Canadians seem to be happy with the new government. The Liberals have been enjoying high levels of support in the polls since the election, currently 49 per cent (Figure 1). The boost has been entirely at the expense of the leftwing New Democratic party (NDP), who are down to their lowest levels of support since 2003, as the Conservatives remain steady with around 30 per cent of support.

As long as style does not start to mask substance, it is hard to imagine the NDP making a comeback in these circumstances. Canadians like their new “viral PM”.


Canada polls March 2016

Figure 1: Federal voting intention, February 2016. Source:

overview march 201

Figure 2: Average of all polls released each month, January 2009 – February 2016. Source:

Note: This article was originally published as a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network’s regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

Image source: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s