Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

Progressives in Canada have many good reasons to be disappointed with the Justin Trudeau Liberal government. Tangible achievements on key agenda items such as Indigenous reconciliation, greenhouse gas reductions and closing the inequality gap have been halting and uneven.

On democratic reform, a signature Trudeau promise, progress has been virtually non-existent. Trudeau cavalierly dropped his electoral reform pledge, and he maintained the centralized Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) power structure he promised to change. In fact, based on the testimony of Gerald Butts, it looks like Trudeau made the PMO more controlling than ever.

Even where there seemed to be an easy win, the Trudeau government has shied away from taking action that might challenge corporate power.

A year and half ago, the government pledged to appoint an ombudsperson for responsible enterprise. That official would have real powers to investigate abuses of and correct damage caused by Canadian companies operating abroad, especially in the developing world.

On Monday, April 8, the federal trade promotion minister, Jim Carr, named lawyer Sheri Meyerhoffer to the ombudsperson position. Critics, including Amnesty International and the labour-supported Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), were quick to note that, as constituted, Meyerhoffer’s position lacks real and effective power.

The CNCA’s Emily Dwyer points out that a fully-fledged ombudsperson would have the capacity to order companies under investigation to produce documents and provide testimony under oath. The Liberals’ ombudsperson does not have that power. Her role is, essentially, advisory.

Trudeau is still far more progressive than the Conservative alternative

Having said all that, there are still fundamental and highly consequential differences between the current Trudeau Liberals and the Harper Conservatives they replaced — or the Andrew Scheer Conservatives who seek to replace them.

A comment to this writer’s piece of last week, which dealt with Canadian refugee policy, and, in particular, its impact on European Roma refugee claimants, drives home that difference.

The article detailed how Liberal legislative changes and court decisions have undone many of the unfair and discriminatory measures Stephen Harper’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, brought in, under the guise of reforming the refugee system.  

Kenney had a bee in his bonnet when it came to Roma asylum seekers from such countries as Hungary. He was not above using obvious dog-whistle rhetoric to connect with those in Canada who share Europe’s centuries-old contempt for the people they call “Gypsies.” Many Europeans still consider Gypsies (more appropriately, Roma) to be foreign invaders. The ancestors of today’s Roma community arrived in Europe, from India, seven, eight or even nine hundred years ago.

Here is what one commenter, who identifies herself only as Jane Doe, had to say about that story:

“Boy, so much lefties crap……As someone who lived in Central Europe for 40 years, witnessing Romas, your article is so defamatory and completely untrue. Roma (cigani) came to Europe in 14th century. Majority never assimilated. They could dance, sing (some) but you would have to glue them to the chair in the school to get educated or skilled. I was a teacher. There were a few exceptions. My son’s music teacher was wonderful and he was ashamed of his own community. Majority Lifestyle was not working, stealing…Communists took care of them, splendidly, so there was not incentives to work. After 1990 regimes changed. Government asking them to work, contribute, pay taxes… they in masses claimed racism and apply for ‘refugee’ status in Canada. As far as I saw in documentary, many still live on welfare with their own community. Canada took over communists’ welfare system. And it’s more generous.”

That is but one example of the kind of bigotry that, in significant measure, drove Jason Kenney’s immigration and refugee policy.

Now, Andrew Scheer has picked up where Kenney left off. He seeks to incite panic and fear about what is, in effect, the trickle of refugees who come to Canada each year. (If you want to see what a flood of refugees looks like, consider Bangladesh, which, currently, hosts hundreds of thousands of Burmese Rohingya.)

The Conservative leader seems happy to play at being a dimpled and smiling Canadian version of Trump. At the same time, far too many Conservative politicians have made de facto common cause with the rising white nationalist movement in this country.

On immigration and refugees, the Trudeau government has not only set an entirely different tone from its predecessor, it has pursued very different and far more humane policies. These have had a significant impact on the lives of the thousands who seek refuge in this country each year. If Andrew Scheer were to take power in October it would mean many, many giant steps backwards for refugees and those who seek to assist them.

For progressive voters, that difference presents a huge conundrum.

It might be a different story had Trudeau carried out his oft-repeated pledge that the 2015 election would be the last one conducted under first-past-the-post. But, since the Liberal leader betrayed his commitment to put in place a more democratic and responsive electoral system, we are stuck with the awkward choices thrust on us by our current winner-take-all system. Our system, first-past-the-post, can easily award a majority of seats, and 100 per cent of the power, to a party that wins as little as 37 per cent of the vote.

And so, as those who care about the environment, workers’ rights, Indigenous rights, the fate of refugees, and social justice start to consider their electoral choices, they might be experiencing considerable agony.

They might not want to reward a Liberal government that has been feckless, incoherent and, in some respects, cowardly. But the alternative posed by the second largest party is so loathsome they will want to weigh their options very carefully before casting their ballots.

The ugly truth is that this fall we could get a result not dissimilar to that of 2006. In that election, unforced errors and scandals, bred of an arrogant Liberal sense of entitlement, handed power to a Conservative leader whose core policies could never command support from anywhere near a majority of Canadians.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...