Justin Trudeau and his Liberal team always knew that the 2019 campaign could never be a repeat of 2015.
But the security scare at Trudeau’s Mississauga speech on Saturday night drives home just how much has changed in Canadian politics, the country and for the Liberal leader himself since he won the election four years ago.
Even though Liberals do know that there are no exact repeats in politics, the Mississauga rally was no doubt intended as a replay, of sorts, of a big gathering Trudeau held in Brampton in the late days of the 2015 campaign.
It was a turning point, that Brampton rally — clear evidence in tone and turnout in the heart of the GTA that something large was happening for Liberals who had entered that epically long election campaign in third place.
About 7,000 people flocked to Brampton’s Powerade Centre two weeks before voting day in 2015, to hear a buoyant Trudeau proclaim that “better is always possible.”
And indeed things did get very much better for Trudeau in the days afterward — streets closed along the campaign trail to handle the massive throngs coming out to catch a glimpse of the soon-to-be prime minister.
The scene in Mississauga on Saturday night could not be more different — about 2,000 Liberal supporters, kept waiting for 90 minutes while Trudeau and his people grappled with some kind of serious, but undisclosed security threat. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau did not introduce her husband, as planned (and as she did in 2015,) staying instead in the background while Trudeau appeared in a bulletproof vest under his blazer.
Nothing Trudeau has done in the past four years justifies a threat to his life, or that of his family, as everyone, even his election rivals, were quick to point out afterward. The Liberal leader spoke on Sunday of the “polarized” political climate that creates situations like the one he faced, in which he, in four years, has become a polarizing figure.
“I am concerned in general with the polarization that we’ve seen in this election,” Trudeau told reporters. “We have seen this in our friends and allied countries around the world, where increased divisive discourses, misinformation, deliberate misleading of electors has led to some very toxic elections.”
In that context, Trudeau is correct. Four years ago, there was no Donald Trump in the White House, the Brexit vote hadn’t happened and Canadians were talking in the midst of an election campaign about how to make this country more welcome to immigrants and refugees.
How exactly has this happened in Canada in general, then, and Trudeau in particular? More pointedly, what changed between Brampton, circa 2015, and Mississauga on Saturday night?
No prime minister, in recent memory at least, has experienced such a drastic, public mood swing between elections. All successful leaders accumulate some baggage between their first election and their next try at re-election, but the backlash against Trudeau in this campaign seems particularly vicious.
What makes it even more curious is that the nastiest attacks are focused on who Trudeau was before he became prime minister — almost as if his opponents have stored up material that failed to work in 2015, when all of the “not ready” ads and ridicule against the Liberal leader bounced off a seemingly bulletproof public image.
After last week’s French-language leaders’ debate, representatives of right-wing publications lined up first at the media microphones to grill Trudeau about ugly slurs circulating with regard to his personal past as a teacher in B.C. There’s no need to dignify the slurs by spelling them out again here; the Star’s Marco Oved did a thorough forensic analysis last week of the manufactured smear campaign, which nonetheless lived on at the postdebate scrums.
To be clear: ugly rumours circulated about Stephen Harper and his personal life all the time he was prime minister too — Ottawa reporters were repeatedly peppered with “tips” about the alleged breakup of the Harper marriage (which still endures, by the way.) Brian Mulroney, in his late, unpopular years in office, was alleged to be drinking on the job (also very untrue.)
But as far as I can recall, none of this dark side of political gossip turned up at a media microphone for any prime minister.
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Nor is Trudeau the first prime minister to face security threats, but it’s rare to see a political leader having to sport a bulletproof vest at a Canadian political rally. This isn’t good. As an Uber driver said to me the other day after watching the leaders’ debates — this isn’t Canada. (The driver, an immigrant from Haiti, said he’s always liked Canadian politics because we are more polite about our differences than American politics. I’m not sure that’s always been true, but it is easier to be more polite than Donald Trump these days.)
Trudeau’s Mississauga rally on Saturday night was never going to be what Brampton was on Oct. 4, 2015. But the stark difference between the two events — from the picture of hope to the spectre of fear — is a regrettably retrograde step in our politics, regardless of your political stripe. Maybe it’s harder for Trudeau to say now that better is always possible, but Canada should be better than this.