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Canadian political surprises of 2016

Worldwide there were political surprises a-plenty in 2016, most of them unpleasant.

Voters in the United Kingdom and the United States, against all expert predictions, heeded the voices of discord, sturm and drang over the calming, if mealy-mouthed, assurances of the establishment.

Following an unpredicted primary result, the French will now, it seems, choose a president of either the far right or the extreme right. 

The people of the Philippines enthusiastically elected a thug who boasts about throwing people out of airplanes; and even the long dormant German far right movement -- the scariest of them all, if only for historic reasons -- is chewing hard at the ankles of the last establishment liberal still standing, Angela Merkel.

There is a visceral revolt in much of the world, it appears, and the political beneficiaries are not socialists or communists, but those who proudly wear the redesigned mantle of fascism.

Compared to all that, Canada was a tranquil island of predictability in 2016. But we had our share of political surprises, even if they were not of the tectonic variety.

Here are a half dozen.

1. Pierre Karl Péladeau bolts from the Parti Québecois (PQ) leadership less than a year after taking over. The media tycoon, whom NDP MP Charlie Angus once called "our Citizen Kane," promised the separatist party he had the charisma and determination to lead it back to power, and all opposition virtually melted away. When leadership rival Bernard Drainville decided it was futile to resist Péladeau and dropped out if the race, he explained: "The PQ needs its Pierre Karl Péladeau moment." Nobody, however, expected that moment would be so brief. Less than a year after assuming the top job, Péladeau tearfully explained he had to abandon the leadership because of conflicts with his estranged wife, media personality Julie Snyder. Péladeau was something of a hardliner on Quebec sovereignty, which endeared him to the fervent base of the party. That base seems to be losing influence. Today, the recently-installed, new PQ leader, former journalist and backroom political strategist Jean-François Lisée, promises that, if elected, the party will not even consider a referendum on sovereignty during its first term.

2. The Belgian region of Wallonia blocks the Canada-Europe free trade agreement, then goes along. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union (EU) almost died when, at the 11th hour, one of the regions of the Belgian federation announced it would withhold approval. That came as a shock to Canada's Trade Minister, Chrystia Freeland. The Trudeau government had hoped to make a big show of the signing ceremony. At the last minute, it had to cancel the Prime Minister's long-planned trip to Brussels. A big sticking point for the Wallonian Socialist government was CETA's package of provisions on investor-state relations. The Belgian regional government argued that the agreement gave private corporations too many rights vis-à-vis democratically elected governments. The Wallonians only agreed to go along after the EU added a side agreement that gave the European court of justice final say on the legality of CETA's proposed investor-state tribunals. CETA is not a done deal yet. The European Parliament must still ratify it, and with Europe, as Minister Freeland has noted, one can take nothing for granted. Canadian and Quebec government officials in Europe are hard at work on that task now. 

3.  Mike Duffy is acquitted on all charges. Mike Duffy faced a number of serious criminal charges, including taking a bribe (in the form of $90,000 Prime Minister Harper's Chief of Staff gave him to pay his notionally illegitimate expenses), but an Ontario judge ruled him guilty of none. The judge said the senator for Prince Edward Island had, in all cases, followed either well-established Senate procedures or the explicit instructions of Harper's senior officials. In the end, no senators have been found guilty of criminal offenses related to their expenses. But we do now have a new, supposedly non-partisan, way of naming people to the Upper House. So far, Justin Trudeau's picks -- which include Kim Pate, long time head of the Elizabeth Fry Society, and Murray Sinclair, who presided over the residential schools truth and reconciliation commission -- look good. Canadians can only hope they have seen the end of the Senate as a house of favouritism and patronage.

4. Trudeau government approves Kinder Morgan expansion. After promising it would not approve major projects before changing the Harper government's inadequate and truncated environmental assessment process, the Trudeau government did just that and approved Texas company Kinder Morgan's proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. That line runs through a number of environmentally fragile zones, First Nation lands, and the most populated part of British Columbia. The federal and British Columbia NDP, and many First Nation and environmental groups, loudly condemned the decision. But the Trudeau government found a new best friend forever in Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley. She enthusiastically praised the Prime Minister's leadership.

5. While we're on the NDP, the party shocks itelf when delegates to its Edmonton convention dump leader Tom Mulcair. For NDPers, voting non-confidence in Mulcair seemed almost an impulsive gesture, since there were no obvious successors waiting in the wings. That vote came right after delegates adopted, as an aspirational document, the Leap Manifesto, which proposes a fairly rapid transition to a non-polluting economy. Without noticeable irony, the same delegates enthusiastically applauded the host province's Premier when she vigorously argued that the Manifesto was a leap both too far and too fast for her province.

6. Trudeau crosses the floor of the House and elbows an MP. The most surprising aspect of Elbowgate was not that a Prime Minister would jump out of his seat, grab an MP by the arm and elbow another. What came as a surprise -- almost a shock -- was that most Canadians seemed to think the Prime Minister was entirely justified. Things were getting out of hand on the floor of the House, and the PM, like the teacher he once was, had to use some tough discipline to keep order. That, at least, is what a good many Canadians truly believed -- and expressed volubly. Only members of Parliament, and the relatively few who watch parliament closely, found Trudeau's unprecedented breach of the rules to be shocking and reprehensible, and that is a sad commentary on Canadians' understanding of their parliamentary system. Even more shocking, though, was the vicious, vulgar and misogynist hatred visited on the recipient of Trudeau's elbow, NDP MP Ruth-Ellen Brosseau. To their credit, senior Liberals were horrified by that torrent of abuse. But the attacks on Brosseau revealed a lurking, subterranean tendency in Canadian public opinion that came out in the open, and in full force, during the U.S. election campaign. In that context, it may turn out that one stomach-churning phrase will capture much of the horror that was 2016: "Trump the bitch." 

Happy New Year. Bonne année à tous. 

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