Justin Trudeau Battles For His Political Survival As Canada Gets Ready To Vote

Originally published on October 20, 2019 4:00 pm

In Canada, campaigning for Monday's election is going down to the wire with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fighting the battle of his political life.

His rise to power as Liberal Party leader four years ago on a message of hope and change now seems a long way off. He has since been implicated in a series of scandals that have him locked in a virtual tie with the opposition Conservative Party in a race that has some distinctly American overtones.

This past Wednesday, former President Barack Obama endorsed Trudeau, writing on Twitter that "The world needs his progressive leadership now, and I hope our neighbors to the north support him for another term."

Trudeau welcomed the endorsement. "I appreciate the kind words and I'm working to keep the progress going," he told reporters in Quebec, the Liberal power base where polls show he is losing support to the separatist Bloc Québécois party.

Andrew Scheer, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, sought to brush the Obama endorsement off altogether, saying, "I've got millions of Canadians behind me. I'm not very interested in what former foreign leaders are saying."

Obama remains hugely popular with Canadians. When he left office, his favorability rating in Canada stood at 81%. Scheer and Trudeau, by comparison, have approval ratings below 35%.

"This is an election in many ways that comes down to which of these candidates is a credible leader, and the answer in most people's minds is none of the above," says Greg Weston, a longtime political columnist and principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa. "So, when someone as popular as Obama comes in and endorses Justin Trudeau, it could have a significant impact, because a significant impact in a race this close doesn't have to sway a whole lot of voters."

Once a progressive hero, Trudeau's glow has dimmed in recent months. In August, a government watchdog found that he violated ethics law by trying to influence his attorney general to stop the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a large Liberal Party-linked engineering firm. Trudeau apologized, saying his motivation was to spare Canadian jobs. Two senior Cabinet ministers quit over the scandal, along with the prime minister's senior political adviser.

Then, in September, there were the revelations that Trudeau dressed in brownface and blackface two decades ago. "It was something that I didn't think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do, and I am deeply sorry," Trudeau said.

Despite the twin scandals, Scheer has struggled to capitalize.

At a rally in suburban Montreal this past week, several hundred Conservative supporters filled a ballroom to listen to him push his message of fiscal responsibility.

"We have a plan to get back to balanced budgets over a responsible period of time so we can stop borrowing billions and billions," he told the receptive crowd.

Scheer is tall, unassuming and from middle-class roots. He is, in many ways, the opposite of Trudeau, the outgoing, telegenic son of a wealthy political dynasty.

A devout Catholic and a married father of five, Scheer is a career politician. He was first elected to Parliament at the age of 25 and then became the youngest speaker of the House of Commons at age 32.

Justin Trudeau (left) and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer take part in a debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, on Oct. 10.
Adrian Wyld / Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Isabelle Lapointe, a Conservative Party candidate from outside Montreal who has worked with Scheer for the past several years, says what you see is what you get with him.

"He's a real person like you and I," she said. "He's a real family guy. He's not from a golden tower. He's on the ground."

But Scheer and his Conservative Party faces an uphill battle — especially in the critical and vote-rich province of Ontario, where the provincial Conservative government there is deeply unpopular because of cuts to health care and education.

Scheer has also been dogged by the revelation earlier this month that he holds joint U.S. citizenship.

"My dad was born in the United States," he told reporters. "I grew up in Canada my whole life."

Scheer says he submitted the paperwork to renounce his U.S. citizenship to the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa.

Political analyst Weston says the revelation has raised questions for some voters about whether Scheer's brand of conservatism is less centrist and Canadian and further to the right and closer to the views held by Republicans in the U.S. Congress.

"The conservatives have always been plagued by this notion in Canada that they have a hidden agenda, and that hidden agenda is social conservatism: Are they going to reopen the abortion debate, are they going to bring back capital punishment?" Weston says.

That concern has been fueled in part by Scheer's anti-abortion views and by a Conservative campaign that has downplayed the importance of fighting climate change.

With voters souring on Trudeau and not warming up to Scheer, third parties have seen a surge of support in the polls. They include the left-leaning New Democratic Party and its charismatic leader, 40-year-old Jagmeet Singh, who is winning over many of the millennial voters who voted for Trudeau's Liberals in 2015.

That vote-splitting on the left and the surge by Quebec separatists could see Scheer's Conservatives capture enough seats to form a government in Canada's parliamentary system with only a minority of seats.

And if that happens, Scheer would become the first American prime minister in Canadian history.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's Election Day tomorrow in Canada, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in the battle of his political life. The young liberal leader swept to power four years ago on a message of change and hope, but he's been implicated in a series of scandals. Polls show his Liberal Party narrowly behind the opposition Conservatives. David McGuffin reports from Ottawa.

DAVID MCGUFFIN, BYLINE: Barack Obama endorsed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by tweeting this - the world needs Trudeau's progressive leadership now. And I hope our neighbors to the north support him for another term. Trudeau, dropping in the polls, welcomed the endorsement.

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I appreciate the kind words, and I'm working hard to keep our progress going.

MCGUFFIN: Opposition Conservative leader Andrew Scheer did his best to brush it all off.

ANDREW SCHEER: I've got millions of Canadians like the ones here tonight behind me. I'm not very interested in what former foreign leaders are saying.

MCGUFFIN: Obama remains hugely popular with Canadians, unlike most of the leaders in this election, says Greg Weston, veteran Canadian political columnist and strategist.

GREG WESTON: This is an election, in many ways, that comes down to which of these candidates is a credible leader. The answer is, in most people's minds, none of the above. And so when someone as popular as Obama coming in and - endorsing Justin Trudeau could have a significant impact.

TRUDEAU: The Conservatives are the ones obsessed...

MCGUFFIN: Once a progressive poster boy, Trudeau's glow has since been dimmed by old-school political ethics violations and, at the start of this campaign, a scandal involving photos of him wearing blackface. But his main political rival, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, has been unable to capitalize.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The next prime minister of Canada Andrew Scheer.

(CHEERING)

MCGUFFIN: At this rally in suburban Montreal, a couple of hundred Conservative supporters fill a ballroom to listen to Sheer push out his message of fiscal responsibility.

SCHEER: We have a plan to get back to balanced budgets over a responsible period of time so we can stop borrowing billions and billions.

MCGUFFIN: Tall, boyish unassuming and from middle-class roots, the 40-year-old Scheer is, in many ways, the opposite of the wealthy telegenic outgoing Trudeau. A devout Catholic and a married father of five, Scheer is a career politician who became the youngest speaker of the House of Commons at age 32. Isabelle Lapointe is a Conservative candidate from just outside Montreal.

ISABELLE LAPOINTE: He's a real person like you and I. He's a very family guy. He doesn't live in a golden tower. He's on the ground.

MCGUFFIN: But his Conservative Party faces an uphill battle in the crucial vote-rich province of Ontario. The provincial Conservative government there is deeply unpopular over cuts to health care and education. Voters could take their anger out on Scheer. And then there was the revelation that Scheer holds joint U.S. citizenship.

SCHEER: My dad was born in the United States. I grew up my whole life in Canada.

MCGUFFIN: Despite beginning the paperwork to renounce that U.S. citizenship, political analyst Greg Weston says it raises questions for some voters about whether Scheer's conservatism is less centrist and Canadian and more to the right and Republican.

WESTON: The Conservatives have always, always in this country been plagued by the notion they have a hidden agenda. And that hidden agenda that everybody fears the most is social conservatism and - are we going to be back into an abortion debate? Is somebody going to try to bring back capital punishment?

MCGUFFIN: The race tomorrow is still too close to call. But one thing is certain. If Andrew Scheer's Conservatives do win, he will be the first American prime minister in Canadian history.

For NPR News, I'm David McGuffin in Ottawa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.