Just recently, Canadian democracy experienced one of those powerful moments that determine the possibilities of political life and set the tone for collective action. While the 2021 Canadian federal election was clearly not desired by a large part of the population, it took place in a context that is, in a sense, a crossroads.
Rumours of an election had been circulating in Canada for some time. The election of a minority government in 2019 almost inevitably meant an early election in the near future, given that minority governments in Canada have an average lifespan of 18 to 24 months.
Catholics, and Canadians in general, might have hoped that this election would have provided conflicting perspectives on the issues of the day and substantive discussions on rebuilding Canadian society after 18 months of a pandemic that has been devastating at every level. In-depth conversations on the mutual rights and duties of citizens, on the investment of resources in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, and on pressing bioethical issues were all needed. But sadly, meaningful debates on these topics, and many others, were noticeably absent.
Renewing civic duty?
Interestingly, the traumatic experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up discussion of socio-economic issues to which the pre-pandemic consensus was closed. In particular, there has been much emphasis on the duty of citizens to participate in a range of small and large actions to stop the spread of the virus.
This re-emergence of the language of civic duty appeals to a more active understanding of political freedom which focuses more on the citizen's ability to participate in the pursuit of the common good than on the protection of individual freedoms.
The pandemic, like other major national crises before it, has also put to the test a cardinal principle of Catholic social teaching, namely subsidiarity. According to this principle, the burden of a given situation, and of the action related to it, falls to the entity closest to those concerned, to the smallest entity capable of responding.
In exceptional situations, it is tempting for the central state to assume excessive responsibilities, isolating individuals who become dependent on it and suppressing the intermediary bodies that usually constitute the most favourable environment for socialization. This temptation and its negative effects are even more pronounced in the context of a large federal ensemble like Canada, where the management of the bulk of social affairs is the constitutional responsibility of the provinces.
Opening up bioethics
The absence of a conversation about bioethical issues is also a serious concern. We live in a society where debates on questions where issues relating to life, the health care system, and ethical concerns converge are generally set aside and closed to conversation. Abortion and euthanasia are two obvious candidates.
And even though it is indisputable that the vaccines developed against COVID-19 are morally licit - the message from Rome on this topic is very clear - we should not allow all forms of questioning on this type of issue to be trivialized or ridiculed.
If those who predict a future where pandemics of this nature will be more frequent are actually right, it is absolutely essential that open bioethical conversations take place, not only to avoid a form of obscurantist scientism, but also so that everyone, feeling included and respected in the public space, is less tempted to fall behind far-fetched interpretations of our shared reality.
Following a well-established trend in Canadian political culture over the past few decades, this campaign has been marked by the absence of such discussions, which have been replaced by a poor substitute in the form of simplifying formulas characteristic of political marketing that is in many ways unworthy of the nobility of political life.
The low levels of our debates are there for everyone to see. The great figures of our political life would rather exchange, sometimes blatantly, lines learned by heart whose meaning, often evanescent, is sometimes even characterized by an unfortunate duplicity. Yet political life is the place where the common good is pursued, which in a parliamentary democracy like ours is characterized by a deliberation that requires seriousness, depth, and a genuine desire to build a shared society.
A disturbing uniformity
Yet the major political parties represented in the House of Commons tend to be increasingly similar on many of the major issues. The Conservative Party, for example, has essentially set aside a more traditional perspective on social issues under its current leadership. Further, in this context of pandemic, it has also become less interested in promoting hard-line economic policies. It could be said that the party distinguishes itself mainly by moderating the positions of the Liberal Party.
Some might argue that this standardization of discourse, particularly on social issues, reflects a society in which certain issues are no longer being addressed, simply because they are no longer of interest to the public. This explanation has its limits, however.
The role of the media
In a large and modern society like Canada, civic conversations take place through mass media, a social environment in which, like in any other, certain views are more common than others. That is perfectly normal and should not come as a surprise. Caution and critical thinking are always well-advised, though, as the relative levels of exposure and understanding of certain views may not always reflect the range of perspectives held in the general population.
In his recent book
, Liberal politician John Milloy, a Catholic, noted the way in which the media treated former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in the 2019 Canadian federal election, focusing on his faith and his stance on abortion. Although Mr. Scheer is obviously responsible for the way in which he chose to approach these issues, the generally held views on these topics within media circles was fairly clearly on display. This particular set of events is only a recent illustration of the sidelining of certain views in the public space that may not necessarily reflect the fullness of general public sentiment.
Risks to think about
The experience of recent years in major Western democracies shows that when certain widely held perspectives in the population cease to be represented by the traditional parties of government, they find their place in the civic conversation in other ways, often ways that most of us would find objectionable.
Just now, we are seeing a paradoxical rise of polarization, and even political violence, particularly directed towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This comes at a time when our society is marked by COVID fatigue, which is causing an audible minority to speak out in ways that are at best undignified, at worst violent.
This tension between the relative uniformity of the political parties' discourse and the emergence of tensions at the margins of political life was one of the particularities of this election. Now that it has concluded in a predictable status quo ante bellum
, let us hope that this new minority parliament will be characterized by more openness, and by debates focused less on superficial party polarization and more on the exposition, as rational as it is passionate, of each and everyone's perspectives.