Canada: The blessings, and pitfalls, of democracy in action


Canada is a diverse country with its Aboriginal people (who themselves are divided into different tribes), French and British founding nations and immigrants from all over the world, who have flocked to this cold country in search of a better life and have done well. Today all Canadians are equal in the eyes of the law and almost all of them enjoy full human rights.

Given the vastness of the land - it is the world’s second largest country in terms of area - and the diversity of its peoples, democracy here seems to work somewhat erratically. But it does work and that helps to make Canada a model country, where people differ on policies but also make compromises in order to maintain the country’s unity and stability.

There was a time when Canadian immigration policy was based on race and sought to exclude non-whites. But this bias was ditched years ago and today those people are welcomed warmly who can contribute the most to Canada along with those who face cruel or unusual treatment or punishment in their homelands because of their ethnicity, religion or political views. Canada welcomes those who need its protection to live in peace.

Last month’s Canadian election underlines the need to reform the system. The present one does not accurately reflect the wishes of the people.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is back as Canada’s prime minister. But while the Liberal party leader had a majority of seats in the previous parliament and could govern with ease, now his party has won only 157 out of 338 seats in the House of Commons. That’s 36 more than the second-place Conservatives, but 13 short of a majority. Furthermore, his party received only 33 percent of the votes and yet won 155 seats. The Conservatives received 34.4 percent of the votes but won only 122 seats. This result will reinforce those who advocate changes to the electoral system to more accurately reflect the wishes of the people.

Trudeau will still be able to govern comfortably if he can get the support of the New Democratic party and/or the separatist Bloc Quebecois for his policies.

This vote shows the strength, and weaknesses, of democracy in real life. As was often the case in the past, the Liberals govern because two of Canada’s most populous provinces, Ontario and Quebec, are firmly in their camp. Their support has traditionally been more limited in Atlantic Canada. Their support has almost vanished in western Canada.

This is not a new phenomenon. Canada is a diverse land, with strong regional differences. Western Canadians assert, for example, that it is Ontario and Quebec which control the government and that western Canadians get the short shrift. There have been mutterings in the West about the need for Western Canada to move away from Canada if the nation continues to be governed by Ontario and Quebec and ignores the rest of the country, particularly the West.

But most Canadians understand that this is how democracy works and that the party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons is the one that forms the government, sometimes with the support of smaller parties.

To be effective the government will depend on the Bloc Quebecois, which won 32 seats. This is ironic because the BQ is not a national party and barely exists outside of Quebec. In fact its stated aim is to try to get Quebec out of Canada to become a separate country, though it says this will be within the framework of a united Canada. How exactly it can separate and yet remain a part of the country has not been spelled out.

BQ Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet has asserted that he will not join the Liberals but will support legislation that he feels would benefit Quebec province. National Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, the first non-white in Canada to lead a national party, has also stated that his party will support government policies that align with those of the NDP. The NDP has won power provincially but has never won the most seats in the national parliament. This time it won 24 seats. Chances are that it will push the Liberals to build a more equitable society by taxing the super-rich. Liberals are likely to be receptive while making job creation their priority.

The election featured a heated discussion about the direction of the Canadian economy. The Conservatives emphasized job creation, the building of pipelines and infrastructure to meet future needs. The Liberals and the NDP had similar agendas but they stressed the importance of climate change and global warming and their impact on Canada and Canadian jobs.

Compared to elections elsewhere the election campaign in Canada was relatively tame. Differences between the competing parties were not that great. And Canadians prefer the electoral process to remain relatively civilized. Still, the election shows that the system does not fully reflect the wishes of the people and needs improvement.

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and asylum judge.