Are there lessons for European progressives in Canada’s liberal comeback?

Note: This article was originally published in IPPR’s latest edition of Juncture.

Much attention has been lavished on the politics of my home country since the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, won an astounding majority in October 2015. ‘The world needs more Canada’ has become an oft-repeated line. Admittedly, I may be guilty of having uttered it myself. Yet as we settle in to 2017, with Dutch, French and German elections looming, there is a risk in progressives gleaning too much hope from what is, ultimately, a unique Canadian story.

It is worth unpicking the differences and comparing the commonalities to disentangle where conditions were exceptional to Canada and what lessons liberal parties in the UK and Europe could indeed take. On the one hand, the demography, history and geography of Canada and Europe are miles apart, literally and figuratively. The underpinning philosophy of mentalities is not to be underestimated; while Canadians relish in ‘postnationalism,’ the nation-state is alive and kicking in Europe. On the other hand, the political context of an unpopular government provoking the desire for radical change is nothing new. The Liberals offer lessons for European progressives on how to ‘own’ change by opening up as a movement and moving away from traditional top-down structures. A more relatable European source of inspiration might be Emmanuel Macron’s new movement in France,’ En Marche’ (On the Move).


Points of difference

Beginning with the differences, the key points relate to demography, the historical context around immigration, and how these have shaped what Trudeau calls “the first postnational state.” While it is arguable whether Canada truly is a ‘postnational’ state without an identity (Canadians are nonetheless proud of their national symbols and reputation for being kind, outdoorsy non-Americans), an alternative explanation discussed is the Liberals’ patriotism, rooted in Canada’s distinct multiculturalism policies.


Demographics: Young people are an important electorate in Canada

First, in terms of demographics, Canada is a country where millennials are the largest generation, unlike the ageing populations of Europe. It makes sense, then, for political parties to try and win over this cohort. As the turnout figures for the 2015 election illustrate, they matter. Turnout went up in general among under 45s, most significantly among under 25s, where turnout went up by 18%. According to Abacus Data, this age group overwhelmingly supported the Liberal party, and swung to the Liberals in large numbers away from other parties compared to the 2011 vote. The Liberals not only mobilised them to the voting booth; they also changed their minds.


This was not down to the official campaign alone. The party had abolished official membership a few years before the election, attempting to reshape the Liberals – Canada’s natural party of government, in power more than any other – into a movement. Its targeted social media presence was aimed at gathering the maximum ‘follows’ and ‘likes.’ The Liberals’ website encourages supporters to sign up without a formal commitment. It was a smart data collection mechanism that later allowed the Liberals to communicate directly with their supporters.

The Liberals’ young people strategy was not down to communication alone, however. Pledging numerous policies directly targeted at this demographic, the party had something to say when talking to them: a $1.5 billion CAD fund to create 40,000 youth jobs; a tuition tax credit; the legalisation of marijuana, and electoral reform. This is a sensible strategy in a country where millennials outnumber the over 65s. In Europe, where the old outnumber the young, unfortunately this is not the most electorally viable route to power. Of course, young and working age people should not be ignored. But the sad truth is that even if every single one of them turned out to vote, it still would not be enough to counterbalance older generations. European progressives could draw on the Liberals’ strategy of actively reshaping the country’s demographics, however. The Liberals campaigned on a promise to undo some of the Conservative party’s policies on citizenship and immigration, highlighting the important role of young and high-skilled talent in Canada’s future economic prosperity.

Furthermore, the Liberals gained support among the working age by avoiding abstract discourse about inequality and focusing their narrative on helping middle class families. This works in a country where making an appeal to the ‘middle class’ is in no way controversial. European progressives face the tougher challenge of getting across their inclusive agendas of social justice without falling into either pitfall.


Immigration: Attitudes shaped by geography and historical context

Beyond demographics, Canada is a country with immigration written into its DNA. Immigration is controlled and favours highly-skilled workers who speak the national languages. Canada’s natural geographic location is also to its favour. Although the Liberals were praised for taking in over 35,000 refugees since they came to power in October 2015, the government was able to be selective in prioritising families, those with English language skills and some education. They had a plan and the option of bringing them over progressively in manageable waves. This is incomparable to the millions that have come to Europe en masse, where countries across the continent have not had the luxury of settling migrants in an orderly or selective way. There is no threat of a mass, unrestrained refugee flow into Canada; illegal immigration is not a concern. Progressive arguments in favour of tolerance and diversity are more likely to function in an environment of perceived control, fairness and security.


A further unavoidable truth is that the Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin and other terror attacks have left Europeans feeling particularly vulnerable, questioning the trade-offs of freedom and security that open borders bring to the surface. Immigration, free movement, and the lack of borders within the Schengen zone have been under the political spotlight as a result. That the terror attacks have been consistently committed by radical Islamists has also raised new tensions around Islam in Europe. Debates around Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia are a regular occurrence; sometimes in a thoughtful, considered way and sometimes not.

Canada is less exposed to these tensions for numerous reasons. Once again, its geography means it is further away from the Middle Eastern conflict zones, making it more difficult to travel to or from areas controlled by Isis and be radicalised in person. Muslims also comprise a smaller proportion of the Canadian population (three per cent) compared to Europe, where the Pew Research Centre estimates it is as six per cent overall, projected up to around ten per cent in certain countries, such as France. A defence of liberalism and secularism has strengthened in this context, where the equality between men and women is defended and valued more than the tolerance of religion which subjugates women.

It is also worth noting that Canada has a different relationship with its Muslim populations than the relationships between post-colonial European countries and the Muslim diaspora in European nation states. As a result, scholars have argued that Muslims in countries such as France, for instance, sometimes feel marginalised by government policies and a more recent nationalist backlash against multiculturalism which portrays immigrants and their descendants as unassimilated threats to national cohesion.

However, Canada is not entirely immune to religious tensions either. During the 2015 election campaign, the former Conservative party leader and former prime minister Stephen Harper tried to stoke debate around the issue. His government’s ban on women being permitted to wear a veil during citizenship ceremonies provoked a debate about identity, particularly in the province of Québec. Like in France, Catholics were once the dominant religious and political force; today the  Québecois strongly defend the principle of secularism. Québec also has a higher proportion of Muslims than other provinces given its linguistic ties to former French colonies. The debacle prompted a similar discussion as to the one happening in Europe: should we tolerate any symbol of gender disparity if it falls under our freedom of religion? There is no easy answer to this question, for progressives and conservatives alike, as both sides can make logical and coherent arguments in defence of liberty and tolerance.

At the same time, the reaction amongst Canadians to the former Conservative government’s divisive policies is notable. For instance, many protested against and mocked the government for the “snitch line” which was introduced for people to report “barbaric cultural practices.” Canada also has an official multiculturalism policy – something many European leaders have argued against or do not have. Canadians live in an environment where it is not only accepted that they belong in a cultural mosaic, but that they are “strong not in spite of their differences, but because of them” (an oft-repeated line of Justin Trudeau). While Canada’s multiculturalism policy is not perfect, it nonetheless nurtures a particular social and political climate in Canada which is absent in Europe.

In any case, European progressives would do well to note that progressive arguments in favour of tolerance and diversity work well in an environment of perceived control, fairness and security. There is a progressive case to be made for strong borders and a fair system which welcomes young, skilled migrants.


Progressive patriotism leaves little room for nationalism to flourish

It is in this environment that an attachment to national identities and values has been strengthened in Europe. Try uttering there is “no core identity, no mainstream,” as Justin Trudeau did, in any European country and you will be met with stares, perhaps even anger. Canada might be a post-national state (which is in itself arguable), but this is not an ideal for most people elsewhere. Even ardent pro-Europeans realise that the ultimate situation would be for people to feel equally British/French/German/etc. and European. In the absence of such sentiment, a darker, nationalist narrative has appeared. The British prime minister, Theresa May made this quite clear in her speech to Conservative Party Conference last year, declaring that “citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere.” National identity not only matters, but is particularly salient in Europe today.

Nationalism has not sprung from nowhere, however. It has been filling the void of patriotism. While these two terms are sometimes used as synonyms, they do not mean the same thing. Which is one of the reasons why it is debatable whether Canada is ‘postnational’; the Liberals have been able to channel national pride through an inclusive, patriotic narrative, emphasising the positive aspects of the country’s multicultural policies. Progressives need a clear distinction between nationalism and patriotism to defeat the former and promote the latter. Nationalism is, in some ways, the pathology of patriotism. Historically, nationalists have dangerously linked belonging to the nation with racial connotations. Then and now, they have promoted an exclusionary idea of the nation, a sort of national egotism or chauvinism. Nationalism is an ideology; it claims to represent the ‘true people,’ building a folkloric notion of a national community, united by territory and blood. In doing so, it ignores the plurality of views, of backgrounds, of ways of life that, together, shape the nation – what it is and more importantly, how it sees itself. By extension, nationalists reject those who disagree with them as not being the ‘real people.’ Conversely, patriotism can be a progressive force, promoting common aspects of a shared identity which are necessary for social cohesion.

Over the past few decades, in their great support for internationalism, European progressives gradually relinquished their sense of patriotism – the positive feeling of attachment to one’s national community, which is not exclusionary to other types of belonging. Within the UK Labour Party, for instance, a debate still rages between those who see a return to progressive patriotism as vital, and those who see it as a road to “regressive patriotism” which legitimises the nationalism of the far right. But the Canadian experience demonstrates that a discourse about diversity, strength and tolerance can be rooted in patriotism. While different cultures are celebrated, ultimately what Canadians have in common with one another is more important. Their shared values, entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, their symbols of ice hockey, beavers, and maple syrup, and their reputation of being overly polite, tolerant and diverse are all sources of patriotic feeling. They are an attachment to the idea of what the Canadian nation is.


The Liberals owned ‘real change’

While most of the Liberals’ success is down to unique Canadian conditions, there are nonetheless one key similarity between the two political contexts. Canada lived through almost a decade of right-wing populism under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Progressives also faced the challenge of having three competing parties on the left and only one on the right. The centre-left is in a similar position across most of Western Europe today. To win in this context, however, progressives cannot merely rely on defending old-school social democracy. The recipe for success in the 20th century cannot be the same as it was in the 21st. Despite being Canada’s natural party of government, holding power more than any other party since the start of the 20th century, the Liberals successfully portrayed themselves as the true agents of change. This was a particular feat given the ‘change’ mantle was also being channelled by the New Democratic Party as well as the Greens.


The Liberals turned the party into a movement, adopted a more data-centric approach to connecting with potential voters, mobilised young people, campaigned for systemic change to the way politics is done, defended diversity as a cornerstone of what makes Canada great, and refused to run any negative political advertisements. While elements of this approach are more difficult to replicate for reasons discussed previously, there are nonetheless a few lessons for European progressives.

Moving away from traditional, hierarchical top-down party structures is a tactic in line with the way that society has changed toward greater openness, connectedness and ability to voice opinions online and through social media. In line with this, calling for changes to make the Senate independent and non-partisan and promising to reform the electoral system acknowledge that the political system needs to change. Digital town hall meetings, streamed live with (non-pre-screened) questions from the audience and social media, were commonplace during the Liberals’ campaign and have continued during Trudeau’s premiership.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that since the election, some of these promises are being questioned, particularly whether 2015 really was the last election with first past the post. The various upsets, first about the disproportionate nature of the all-party select committee assigned to work on the issue (later corrected), then about the committee’s refusal to acknowledge that the vast majority of submissions from both the public and experts were in favour of proportional representation, and finally for the attempt to bypass the committee altogether with a biased online questionnaire. The Liberals likely think they can get away with this – a survey in August 2016 found that only 19% of Canadians were aware that the consultation process had even begun.

But this is short-term thinking; it will be difficult for them to maintain a narrative of continuing the change they started to set in motion if they fail to deliver any systemic change. Many New Democratic Party and Green voters who voted tactically for the Liberals in 2015, with hopes of electoral reform around the corner, are more likely to be paying attention and less likely to be so tactical next time around. For while the Liberals won a 15-seat majority in October 2015, they should not take it for granted as it is based on fragile support. One hundred and twenty one Liberal seats were won with majorities of less than 10%; 56 Liberal seats were won with majorities of less than 5%. These can be easily overturned in a first past the post electoral system, particularly in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

Nonetheless, there are a few examples across Europe of this movement-style call for real change. Progressives might draw more inspiration by looking closer to home rather than across the pond. In Spain, two new parties disrupted the traditional two-party, left-right status quo at the last elections. Ciudadanos (Citizens) ran on an open, liberal, centrist platform, and Podemos relied on a more grassroots and participative form of member engagement to craft its manifesto and draw support. While neither gained enough support to govern, they reduced the government to a weak minority, reliant on other parties to reach consensus.

Emmanuel Macron in France is another example of a forward-thinking progressive refusing to follow the traditional politics rule book. He founded the movement ‘En Marche’ in the same way one might develop a start-up: by doing research into the ‘market.’ In this case, that meant engaging thousands of volunteers to conduct 25,000 face-to-face surveys with citizens across the country about how they perceive France, the country’s problems, its positive points, and its future, as well as their personal future, ambitions, hopes and desires. On this basis, he started a movement which addressed what French people were saying.


Macron followed the Liberals’ model of not calling ‘En Marche’ a political party, but a movement. Anyone can support it by signing up, liking its Facebook page, following it on Twitter, or donating money – in other words, En Marche is gathering data on its supporters and establishing direct links to contact them. To select En Marche candidates for the legislative elections, anyone can apply online, and people will be chosen on their merits and ideas, with an emphasis on diversity and gender equality.

Many would have expected such an open, forward-looking, pro-European movement to fail in a country where the far right has been leading the polls for over a year, where people are known for their pessimism and attachment to tradition. Which is why En Marche might be a more optimistic and realistic source of inspiration for the European centre-left. There is potential for progressives elsewhere to break from the archaic, hierarchical party structures to start something new in other countries too. Where is the En Marche of the UK, or Germany, or Sweden, or the Netherlands?



Progressives around the world should celebrate that the Canadian Liberals defend a progressive, open, tolerant and liberal society. While there are many reasons why their approach flourishes in Canada and would be difficult to imitate elsewhere – namely the country’s demography, geography and historical approach to immigration – there are nonetheless some important lessons for Europeans. Arguments for a diverse and tolerant society work when people perceive the immigration system to be controlled, strong and fair. Equally, a progressive patriotism which acknowledges the plurality of what makes a nation helps prevent an exclusionary nationalism from taking root. Finally, the Liberals demonstrate that breaking away from traditional, top-down party structures and calling for systemic political change are reflections of civic society in the 21st century. However, do Europeans need to look to Canada – a foreign country – for inspiration, or should they be encouraged to look closer to home? The new progressive movements in Europe offer optimism for the centre-left and are worth a closer look.

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