Explain Canadian politics to me?

Just as if I were an idiot, which I basically am.

I’m a Canadian citizen, passport and certificat du citoyenete and everything, but I’ve spent my life living in the U.S. and only recently discovered that I’d been born a Canadian citizen as well. I’ve spent about 10 days, total, visiting distant relatives, north of the border, so I understand almost nothing about Canada’s political landscape. But I’d like to. I’m even thinking of buying a house in Nova Scotia and spending my summers there.

The very little I do understand is that my cousins are very wealthy yet they seem to hold the values of wealthy Americans in disdain. Near as I can tell, their politics are centrist for Canada, but they would be considered far left-wing in the U.S. They seem open to the state taking some care of the disadvantaged, they seem very accepting about racial issues, they are appalled by the profligacy of guns in the hands of citizens—in short, they seem like nice, decent people to me. But they identify themselves as slightly to the right of Canadian politics.

So fill me in on the landscape. What are the three issues that most divide Canadian voters? In the U.S., aside from the whole Trump/QAnon thing, I’d say the three main issues are 1) race, 2) abortion, 3) guns, none of which appear to me to be very important to Canadians.

Where do your cousins live? The political hot-button issues in Alberta are different from those in Quebec, for instance.

In Ontario. All within 100 miles of Toronto. (Which is what in km, btw?)

But based on my two recent visits, in July of 2016 and 2019, Ontario is just as hot as the Northeastern US in the summertime: it hit 90 degrees F on both visits. (Which is what in Centrigrade, btw?) So I’m going to look in Nova Scotia–I have a plan that may or may not work, but will have to give me a cool summer for me to try it.

Isn’t what you’re saying true about every country, though? Different politics in NYC (where I grew up and spent most of my career) than in Florida (where I retired to).

About 160 km.

About 32 C.

Did both of those conversions in my head, btw…

Based on some polling

Of these, the most important perennial issues are the economy (including and especially housing affordability) and more lately indigenous issues and the environment.

From what I can gather, Canada’s housing market has exploded ever since the Dot Com bust (people invested in property, not the stock market). Unlike in the US we weren’t badly affected by the 2006-2008 economic crisis, so house prices just kept increasing. The pandemic caused house prices to increase. Everything seems to. The bubble is inflating, although even saying there’s a bubble could cause anger. Different provinces (and federal parties) have different policies to control housing prices, all of which seem to increase housing prices. When more than half the voting population owns a house and sees it as their retirement, actually reducing housing prices would cost votes. So typically politicians say they want housing prices to go down (to get younger people to vote for them) while simultaneously doing nothing to control house price inflation. Or a few are incompetent, and just keep picking the worst possible strategies.

The culture war is much less strident here but it’s still here. It seems to focus on fewer issues. There aren’t many Canadians who would attack gay marriage or talk about abortion, but there’s always complaints about excessive political correctness, the current government apologizing for everything, etc. The culture war is stronger in some areas (Alberta and Quebec, to be specific). These culture war issues tend to get a lot of focus whenever there’s a huge issue or push on the issue (eg drug overdoses) and then people sort of forget about it once the media stops talking about it.

That’s just my take on it.

Yes, this also put me off about buying a house near my cousins. Just as hot as NYC and just as expensive.

I was able to do the kilometre conversion, but not the Celsius one. The only ones I know are:

100 F = 37 C
32 F = 0 C
0 F = -20 C
-40 F = - 40 C

And I have personally experienced each of those temps.

  1. Race - this one is tricky. One of the football gurus from the southern US who was very successful in my town, both as a player and a coach, says it’s one of the most racist cities he’s lived in. I’ve not spoken to him personally, but he seems to be referring to the casual individual racism he has encountered as an African-American, not an institutional racism. There is also racism directed to Indigenous people, with deep roots in things like the Indian Residential Schools. However, neither of those seem to be entrenched in partisan politics, the way the Solid South strategy has been for Republicans. It’s a serious issue, but not a partisan issue, if I can put it that way? But, I’m a middle-aged white guy, so I’m not the best person to talk to on this issue, because I’ve not experienced it personally. Others who have experienced or studied it, have come up with the term “maplewashing” to mean a certain self-satisfied white Canadian smugness about racism, that it happens “down south”, in spite of clear issues here. For example, I was talking once with a friend of my parents who said that she thought the stories of racism aimed at those of Chinese origin were overblown. I asked her if she was aware that in her own hometown, the “Chinaman” owner of a Chinese restaurant had been convicted of a provincial offence for employing a “white girl” (apologies for the terms, but that’s what the provincial law used), a conviction upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada. She had no idea. Nor do many people seem to know that my own province denied the right to vote to “Orientals” until the late fifties. The uncovering of the graves of Indigenous children who died at the residential schools may be triggering a re-thinking of our history. The idea of children dying from abuse, within living memory, seems to be a gut-punch, in a way that slavery back over close to two centuries ago does not.

  2. Abortion - correct, not a major political issue, I think partly because when the Supreme Court struck down the abortion law, the Progressive Conservatives were in power with a huge majority - and yet, they couldn’t agree on a new bill, in spite of two attempts. After the second attempt was defeated, PM Mulroney just threw up his hands and said “I’ve got better things to do to spend my political capital on, like bringing in a new tax.” (Seriously.) Since then, the conservative parties (first the PCs, now the CPC) have shied away from any legislation on abortion, because social conservatism does not win votes at the federal level (and abortion is a federal issue, not a provincial one, under our Constitution).

  3. Guns - Yes and no. Most Canadians don’t seem to have any trouble with strict registration requirements for handguns, and very limited use (typically, you can only have a handgun in your home, the shooting range, and in transit inbetween). However, the Liberals’ attempt at applying registration requirments to longguns backfired badly (sorry; pun intended). It was upheld by the Supreme Court, 9-0 (no 2nd amendment here!), but then became a political issue. The Conservatives eventually repealed the long-gun registry, but only after they had been elected to a majority government; although PM Harper had two reasonably successful minority governments, he couldn’t push through abolition of the long-gun registry until he had a majority. And, the Liberals have been in power since 2015, but no indication of trying to bring it back. It’s a rural-urban split: urbanites don’t want handguns, and rural folk don’t care; rural folks want hunting guns, and urbanites don’t really care.

Canadians, generally, don’t pay attention to politics unless there is an election. People are politically aware, but there is a sense of trust/faith in our institutions, public stewards, and media that kinda doesn’t exist in the USA.

There isn’t a sense of 24/7, no hold bars, race to the edge, political brinkmanship that I see daily in federal US politics. Things might be different on the provincial levels though.

One difference is that you don’t have to self-identify your political beliefs in voting, unlike the US primary system. As well, there really is a belief in Canada that people can be non-partisan. I think those two things go together.

OK, lemme try this a bit differently. What am I, an American, ignorant of about Canadian politics that Canadians think is important?

What do you think of bilingualism? Quebec sovereignty? Western alienation?

If you want to see what the parties are for/against, CBC has a political compass test for you.

Take it fresh and be sure to share your results.

my own results btw

Very much agree with this. Canadians generally tend to have faith in government (even if some governments are sometimes unpopular) and in the justice system, and by and large in the media, especially a national institution like the CBC. Supreme Court decisions are rarely seen as political, and tend to avoid the kind of absolutist protections of individual freedoms often found in US rulings (often backed by convoluted logic that seems, IMHO, to be trying to justify an ideologically motivated conclusion in what is very often a split 5-4 opinion) in favour of a more balanced protection of society overall. It’s telling that the US was built on a foundation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” whereas Canadian values are best expressed as a quest for a peaceful, just, and compassionate society.

It’s funny but when I saw “football” in the context of race, the first thing that came to mind was Chuck Ealey, the talented Black American college quarterback who turned pro and wanted to join an NFL team as QB. Nothing doing; every team turned him down. Blacks just didn’t get those top jobs back in those days – even as late as, in this case, 1971. So he came to Canada, where where he became the first Black quarterback to win the CFL’s Grey Cup when he led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the title in 1972.

CBC’s As It Happens recently re-ran an episode from 2016 where they did an interview with Ealey and his daughter (link to transcript below – the transcript is huge, so search for “Chuck Ealey” if you just want to read that part). This part is interesting; “CO” is the CBC host Carol Off; CE is Ealey:

CO: You came to Canada, [chuckle] played for the Canadian league. What was… how were you accepted? How different was it? Did you feel that it was a different place?

CE: You know, it was almost immediate. It was… it was different. When I came up on the highway, I thought it would be different. You know, like the highways or the buildings [CO chuckles] or the cars or something, you know? [chuckling] Because you never crossed that line. And when you get here, you saw all of that was the same, except the people were different. The responsiveness there, it was almost like you had to lift a colour barrier off of yourself, like it was a blanket that was gone. People said hi. People who came up to you that were different colours and different backgrounds. And as I went into Toronto or something, I see different cultures and a lot of different things that I never saw in context of where you were growing up. Because it was either Black or white. And either they were hard or soft, but everything was different as far as receiving me as an individual into the community.

Carol does note that racism certainly does exist in Canada, then and now, but it’s not nearly as pervasive and insidious as in the US.

Well, that’s not what Richie Hall says:

As I say, I’m not the fellow who would know about it personally, but Richie lived here for over 20 years. I take seriously what he said.

I won’t dispute that those observations are authentic and probably accurate. Canada is a very big place and a lot of this stuff is regional and varies by specific circumstances. Some of the mistreatment of indigenous peoples has indeed been horrible, on both sides of the border.

Still, I think the Chuck Ealey story is a happy one and a credit to this country.

I think this should be an Emily Litella bit from Saturday Night Live.

Canadians tend to be fairly well educated, but most find politics dull. They have a general idea of issues, more so if highlighted by social or traditional media. They are often weak on specific details of debated bills and the like.

By world standards, all electable Canadian parties are moderate. The main national parties, frankly, agree on more points than they disagree. All basically agree in having publicly funded health care and education, free trade, allowing immigrants, a safety net, a competitive business tax, the supremacy of law and the Constitution, a free media, reaching out to workers and “the middle class” and photo-ops at hockey games and coffee shops. They do differ on a few points, and pretend these differences are important, but steal each others talking points during elections. Sure, the tax and immigration preferences differ a little as does enthusiasm for public media and partisan focus. But few Canadians are a paying member of any political party. Quebec has electable local parties, Alberta does not but would like to.

Big issues? Covid, China (and foreign trade, with the US being important to Canada) and the economy (jobs, cost of housing, etc.). Social issues do matter to some partisans and are sometimes significant but are not usually at the top of the list.

There are many issues needing attention that politicians ignore, bring up election after election without doing anything or talk big but largely go with the status quo - a national weakness.

That varies from state to state, though, so it’s not in every state that Americans have to register as of a particular party. I kind of like the American primary system (which also isn’t unique to the US; I believe France for example also introduced something similar); I feel it encourages wide participation in politics as opposed to the Canadian system where political candidates are largely chosen by party insiders.

It does seem true that political affiliation seems to be more salient to people’s identity in the US than in Canada. Maybe it’s the two-party system. In my case (and of course I’m definitely not a typical example of what people think of when they think of “a Canadian”), while my opinions are an important part of my identity, the actual parties I’m voting for are somewhat less so, since parties exist as mere vehicles for opinions. But it might be different if I had only two possible options.

While there are a few political issues unique to Canada, and @Northern_Piper named a few of them, I feel that Canadians often mostly care about the American public debate, despite not having any voice in it. It’s understandable, since Canada mostly consumes US discourse and so any issues over there usually also appear here, but I don’t think it’s really healthy, and it tends to mask discussions that should be happening about Canadian issues.

It depends on what you think a political party is for. If it’s simply a vehicle to get people elected, sure, maybe primaries are good.

But if you think a political party is to advance a particular ideological perspective, then party control over the nomination process is an important value. As I understand it from various threads on the topic over the years, the parties in the US have ceded control over their nomination process entirely to the state governments, because of the primary system. There was even a case a while ago where the Utah Republican state party wanted to nominate local candidates by a caucus system, and the federal courts overruled them and said they had to have a primary system. If a party doesn’t control its own nomination process, how can it ensure an ideological position?

Plus, if you’re in a system where it’s easy to start a new party and get candidates nominated, the value of a primary system is less apparent. But if you’re in a system where it’s “two and only two” parties, then perhaps a primary system has its advantages.

As for participation in the political process, it’s very hard to compare that across countries, since voter registration rules are different, but the stats from Elections Canada and US sources seem to indicate that Canada on average has a slightly higher voter turnout than the US: