The Trump lesson for Canada: Inclusiveness and factual debates don’t happen by themselves

Carl Meyer
Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper shakes hands with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau before the start of the Globe and Mail Leaders Debate 2015. Photo from John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail via Getty Images
Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper shakes hands with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau before the start of the Globe and Mail Leaders Debate 2015. Photo from John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail via Getty Images

Canadians shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security when comparing their politics with the U.S. presidential election, argue several experts studying race, gender, immigration and foreign policy.

After witnessing this past year’s brutal, discordant campaign battle between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the consensus is: take nothing for granted.

The biggest lesson the U.S. presidential race has offered Canadian politicians is not to be “fooled into complacency,” says Andrea A. Davis, who is the chair of the Department of Humanities at York University and a researcher on race and gender.

“Eight years ago, with the nomination of the first African-American president, there was this sense — certainly in the U.S. and even across North America — that we had turned this enormous corner, and made these unforeseen strides in terms of ameliorating tensions around radicalized differences,” says Davis.

“Eight years later, we find ourselves in a position where that narrative is being highly, highly contested.”

Davis says it was easy for Canadians to look south and see examples of xenophobia and exclusion, then compare it to their prime minister personally welcoming refugees at the airport, and conclude “that’s not us.” The reality, she says, is that an inclusive society doesn’t happen automatically.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the first group of Canada’s refugees at the welcome centre Dec. 11, 2015. Photo from the Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the first group of Canada’s refugees at the welcome centre Dec. 11, 2015. Photo from the Canadian Press

“Our politicians, our government, our communities, even our citizens need to recognize that we need to work at it,” she says. People must understand the role they play in contributing to the society they want, rather than seeing themselves as passive observers.

For example, in education settings, she says, students can be shown the diversity of classrooms and how each person can be equally valued.

Trump’s campaign was built on populism, argues David Carment, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University. And in that sense, there is one parallel with former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

“Not to say that they are in any way equivalent, but they are both populists in that they both bypassed a lot of the key messaging that came out of mainstream media,” says Carment.

Harper was much better at media discipline, he argues. “The argument is that if Trump had managed to control the message, he’d be out front (ahead of the election), given the antagonism toward the current administration, and even notwithstanding Obama’s personal popularity.”

Immigration and media

For Jamie Chai Yun Liew, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert in immigration and refugee law, the U.S. campaign demonstrated the power of divisive politics to muddle truths.

In terms of immigration, not only did the typical campaign discourse fail to acknowledge the extent to which immigrants have contributed, and continue to contribute to both countries, she says, but it also avoided discussing real problems facing immigration policy.

“The issue of the day should not be closing our doors, but ‘How do we craft an immigration policy that fits the realities, the values on which our countries are based?’” she says.

Canadians are not separate from this conversation, she argues. While Trump has been overtly anti-immigrant, “there are still issues in our immigration system that this government, and the minister, is not willing to touch.”

As an example, she points to the detention of migrants in Canadian provincial jails. Critics point to a Red Cross investigation that found problems with overcrowding and health care, among other issues.

But beyond immigration or any one topic, it’s important to ensure a diverse range of voices be given a chance to be heard, and that the discussion is supported by facts and evidence, says Liew.

“One of the challenges I think we have in modern media and television is [the] danger of giving too much air time to voices that are very loud,” she says.

The right kind of pride

Trump’s successes during the U.S. campaign can be attributed in part to the power of “hubristic pride,” argues Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and a Canadian Institute for Health Research New Investigator.

Donald Trump waves goodbye to the crowd at the end of a campaign event on Sept. 29, 2016. Photo from Getty Images
Donald Trump waves goodbye to the crowd at the end of a campaign event on Sept. 29, 2016. Photo from Getty Images

Tracy argues in her book, Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success, that there are two kinds of pride: one based on an authentic sense of self-worth, and another based on “arrogance, egotism, self-aggrandizement.” The latter kind, which she attributes to Trump, motivates people to engage in dominance, a form of social influence.

She says it was hard to know whether someone who uses those kinds of dominance-based strategies could get ahead in Canadian politics, but notes her reasoning is based on evolutionary principles that are broad-based.

Upending the politics of trade

Another obstacle the U.S. presidential campaign presented to Canadian politicians is what to make of the contrast between the policies articulated by the two major presidential candidates, and those of the parties they represent, says Carment.

Clinton has talked about reinvigorating international institutions while not making much noise about changing the elements of free trade, he says. But the party Clinton represents, the Democrats, “are far more likely to be interested in protectionist measures than historically the Republicans have been.”

“On the other hand you have a guy like Trump who personally says every free trade agreement is open for inspection and needs to be rewritten, but historically a party in the Republicans who are more committed to breaking down trade barriers between countries.”

Further complicating factors, he points out, are the Congressional races that are also decided today. There are 469 seats up for grabs in the election, and while the Democrats are not expected to gain control of the House of Representatives, they could put a dent in the Republican majority there, making House votes less easy to predetermine.