Vive la Canada! Three cheers for our northern neighbour

Liberal leader and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a rally in Milton, Ontario, Canada, during the election campaign. PHOTO: REUTERS/STEPHANE MAHE

It is fair to say that given the political mess, leading Anglophone countries are drawing a mixture of horror and derision from the rest of the world. Both are richly deserved. While you're at it, throw into the mix a queasy, disquieting feeling about a disaster waiting to happen. 

Yes, I'm looking at you Uncle Sam, where I have made my home, and good Old Blighty, with which we South Asians have long bittersweet ties. Both are looking at a political denouement that is scaring the living daylights out of political analysts. The US is going through an explosive impeachment battle with its populist, bomb-throwing president, and nobody is quite sure what will happen. The United Kingdom is facing one of the most unpredictable elections in recent history after it tying itself in knots trying to figure out how to leave the European Union.

Between daily breaking scandalous revelations about US President Donald J Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's fruitless, desperate attempts to extricate himself through yet another attempt at mendacious bluster, an election has come and gone in our northern neighbor, Canada.

What a refreshing difference!

Oh, the Canadian elections also had its share of drama. It's boyish Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced the political battle of his lifetime. Scandals, alas, deeply tarnished his golden boy image. But he survived through the skin of his teeth. While his centre-left Liberal Party lost its majority in parliament, it won a plurality, edging the arch-rival Conservatives.

What I found remarkable was the sensible approach the Canadians have to nationwide polls.

If time is money, the Canadian elections save both.

In the US, Democratic presidential hopefuls began testing the waters in early 2019 for presidential elections slated for November 2020. 

The Canadian campaign? Six weeks. That's it.

In other words, the Canadian campaign started around the time the third debate of Democratic candidates took place, and ended around the fourth debate. Heck, in the US we are just getting warmed up. There is the inestimable pleasure of eight more debates to look forward to, and the real fun scrum of statewide primaries is over 100 days away.

In monetary terms, the difference is mind-boggling. (To be fair, the US is vastly larger.) In 2016 the Hillary Clinton campaign spent over a billion dollars. That money has to come from somewhere, and you can bet there are strings attached. (The new trend of grassroots fundraising, perfected into an art by the Democratic activist organisation ActBlue, is a salutary corrective.)  In the 2015 Canadian election, the combined spending of all parties was limited by Canadian government to around 300 million Canadian dollars (worth less in US dollars.) The total combined amount actually spent was around 72 million Canadian dollars, a pittance in the US.

Is that the reason why Canada's policies seem so eminently sensible? While the US struggles to provide health care coverage, Canadians have—and overwhelmingly support—a publicly funded single-payer health care system with health insurance for all. They've had it for decades.

My few trips to Canada left me impressed. Toronto is wondrously diverse, and what struck me was the widespread use of public transport that cuts through socio-economic classes.

The contrast could not be greater in Atlanta, where I live. When I rode on Atlanta's subway trains and buses, I discovered a clear divide. Mostly working-class folks use it. If you ask suburbanites about bus routes, you'll be greeted by blank stares.

Canada seemed safe. One night in Montreal, it was really late. It was wonderful to see young people hanging out in streets with an infectious joie de vivre. I was a little surprised. Hey, I asked the manager, an Arab immigrant, how come everybody's hanging out this late? Is it safe?

The manager gave me a searching look. "You from the US, right?" Rather sheepishly, I pleaded guilty.

Canadian policies towards climate change, multiculturalism and inclusivity are not only more robust, they appear to have a broader consensus across the political spectrum.

In 2016, when US President Donald Trump was on a crusade to ban immigrants from Muslim countries, thousands of ordinary Canadians responded to the Syrian refugee crisis in a touching, deeply humane way. The New York Times reported, "Across Canada, ordinary citizens, distressed by news reports of drowning children and the shunning of desperate migrants, are intervening in one of the world's most pressing problems. Their country allows them a rare power and responsibility: They can band together in small groups and personally resettle—essentially adopt—a refugee family. In Toronto alone, hockey moms, dog-walking friends, book club members, poker buddies and lawyers have formed circles to take in Syrian families. The Canadian government says sponsors officially number in the thousands."

Now, I don't want to give the impression that it is heaven on earth up north. Countries, after all, are run by fallible human beings. The recent election campaign has been one of its most bitter and ugly, and while Canada's parliamentary system avoids the paralysing gridlock, in the US when the president is at loggerheads with Congress, it has its own share of problems when the public mandate is fractured, as it was in this election.

Canada is also facing sharp political and geographical polarisation of its own. The centre-left Liberals did well in Atlantic Canada (Quebec backed the regional Bloc Québécois), and was virtually shut out west of Ontario.

Canada also has its own history of racism, including towards South Asians, that goes back centuries.

Nonetheless, there is no gainsaying the fact that today's Canada, despite its imperfections, has important lessons for the 800-pound gorilla that is its southern neighbour.


Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.