Looking back to ’72: From one Trudeau re-election bid to another

By David Blocker

The 1972 federal election was one of the closest in Canadian political history.  The exact results of the election remained in doubt for several days after the polls closed on October 30, 1972.  After recounts indicated the Liberals had tied with the Progressive Conservatives at 109 seats Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau decided to remain in government with a minority.[1]

Considering the parallels between the circumstances around the 1972 election campaign and the current context raises several interesting questions.

First, after winning power with a campaign full of euphoric promise, will progressive disappointment in Justin Trudeau’s first term result in Liberal election losses, as it did for Pierre in 1972?

Second, in the 1972 federal election the question of Canada’s relationship with the United States loomed large because of a right-wing American president’s protectionist economic agenda.  How will similar circumstances affect the 2019 federal election?

Third, will a divided conservative vote in Quebec benefit Justin Trudeau as it did his father in 1972?

Finally, is Jagmeet Singh willing and/or able to adopt the left-populist rhetoric that worked for David Lewis in the 1972 campaign propelling the NDP to its best result (at the time) and leaving the party holding the balance of power in the House of Commons?

The first, and most obvious, point of comparison between 2019 and 1972 is the Trudeau connection. Four years after winning government on a wave of popular support, emulating the Trudeaumania phenomenon that swept his father to power in 1968, Justin Trudeau will seek a second majority government in October 2019.  He will undoubtedly hope for a better result than his father achieved in his 1972 re-election bid.

Much as was the case with Pierre in 1972, however, the progressive promise of Justin’s successful 2015 campaign has worn off. Young people, women and progressives who supported the Liberals in 2015 expecting something different from Justin Trudeau have been left disappointed. The government backtracked on its commitment to electoral reform, and the continuation of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia brought Justin Trudeau’s commitment to human rights in foreign affairs into question. In addition, the SNC-Lavelin scandal, which has centered around the Prime Minister’s treatment of former Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould, has brought into question Justin Trudeau’s commitments both to feminism and to reconciliation with First Nations and Indigenous peoples. Just a few weeks ago the Daughters of the Vote turned their backs on Canada’s first self-declared feminist Prime Minister.

When Pierre Trudeau faced the electorate in 1972, young people, women and progressives expressed similar disappointment with his government’s failure to deliver on the progressive promise of ‘Trudeaumania’ and the 1968 election campaign. Alongside his famous promise to create a “Just Society,” Pierre Trudeau and the 1968 Liberal campaign adopted the slogan “participatory democracy,” already a popular phrase in the Sixties zeitgeist, to indicate that he represented a new kind of politics. After the election, Liberal party president Richard Stanbury took Trudeau’s commitment to participatory democracy seriously and sought to involve the grassroots members of the party, as well as the general public, in a process to develop policies and prioritize. This process, a fundamental transformation of the Liberal party’s hierarchical structure, culminated in a 1970 policy convention which empowered grassroots party members to produce progressive policies such as approving the government sale of marijuana and endorsement of a guaranteed annual income.

Ultimately the extensive process of public engagement and participation produced a document entitled the “Liberal Charter for the Seventies” which encapsulated the policies adopted at the 1970 convention and was intended to be the basis of the party’s 1972 election manifesto. The document was dismissed by the Cabinet, however. They had been unenthusiastic about the participatory process from the beginning, leaving Pierre Trudeau to campaign with a self-congratulatory and vacuous platform on the much-derided slogan “The Land is Strong.”[2]

Pierre Trudeau’s approach to foreign affairs once in government also brought his progressive image into question. Trudeau had repeatedly commented on the need to re-evaluate Canadian foreign policy during the 1968 election campaign. His past remarks, including speculating about Cold War neutrality and questioning Canada’s commitments to NATO and NORAD and his frequent comments about the need to “review” Canada’s foreign and defense policies, combined with increased public opposition to the American prosecution of the Vietnam War, suggested that his government would adopt a more left-wing approach to foreign policy. However, Pierre Trudeau’s dismissive response to requests for Canadian aid to those suffering in the Nigerian Civil War – “where’s Biafra?” – dominated discussion of Canadian foreign policy in 1968 and created an impression of the Prime Minister as arrogant and insensitive. As his biographer John English explains, “Trudeau’s apparent indifference to the suffering of the Biafrans tarnished his liberal credentials.”[3]

Unlike his son, Pierre Trudeau never declared himself a feminist. But his vague commitment to creating a “Just Society” was further tarnished by the criticism from feminists he faced over the continued illegality of abortion in Canada. The Liberal government’s 1969 amendments to the Criminal Code, which allowed doctors to perform abortions in hospitals only if a pregnancy threatened the health or life of the woman, a decision made exclusively by a committee of doctors, meant that most women were still unable to obtain a legal abortion.

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

In protest, feminists across the country staged an ‘Abortion Caravan’ of automobiles, carrying a coffin filled with coat hangers “in memorial to the thousands of women who die each year from illegal abortion,” which travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa in 1971.  When Pierre Trudeau ignored the protestors, thirty-six women gained access to the public gallery of the House of Commons, chained themselves to chairs, and disrupted proceedings with chants of “free abortion on demand” and “we want control of our bodies.”

Similarly, the concept of reconciliation with First Nations and Indigenous peoples was not part of the Canadian political discourse in the early 1970s. Pierre Trudeau’s government introduced a White Paper on Indian Affairs in 1969 that sparked a backlash from First Nations leaders over its assimilationist assumptions and policies. The government’s proposal to eliminate the Indian Act and remove Indigenous rights angered First Nations peoples who, influenced by the Black Power movement in the US, had already begun mobilizing resistance to their shameful treatment by the Canadian government. Harold Cardinal authored a book titled An Unjust Society, and the Assembly of Indian Chiefs of Alberta prepared a point-by-point refutation of the government’s White Paper.  The document, known as the Red Paper, was adopted by the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) and presented to Trudeau and government officials in 1970, halting implementation of the White Paper’s policies.

Just as in 1972, questions over the future economic relationship between Canada and the United States will loom large during the upcoming federal election campaign. Both Pierre Trudeau’s and Justin Trudeau’s governments were shaken by the election of a right-wing American president and the White House’s embrace of protectionist economic policies which threatened Canadian trade with the United States. President Donald Trump’s insistence on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement on terms more favourable to the US and his imposition of tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imports have dominated the Trudeau government’s economic agenda. Similarly, President Richard Nixon’s announcement of his New Economic Policy (NEP) in a speech on August 15, 1971 marked a significant shift in American economic and trade policy.

Often referred to as the “Nixon Shock,” the economic policy shift has been described as an “epochal event in the history of Canada-United States relations,” as the Americans made clear Canada would not be exempted from protectionist measures.[4] Of particular concern to Canadians were the ten percent temporary import surcharge, the NEP’s ten percent tax credit for American-made machinery and equipment, and the Domestic International Sales Corporation (DISC) which allowed American companies to defer paying taxes on at least half of their profits earned from exports.  Authored by John Connally, the Nixon administration’s combative Secretary of the Treasury, the combined impact of these measures was intended to bolster American manufacturing in the face of increasing competition from Western Europe and Japan.

But Canada too was in the crosshairs, thereby signaling to many the end to the ‘special relationship’ Canadians had enjoyed with the US to that point. Particularly worrisome were documents revealing American objections to the Auto Pact’s safeguarding of Canadian economic interests. The announcement of America’s unilateral termination of the Auto Pact had only been removed from Nixon’s speech at the last minute. The Nixon Shock led even the reliably pro-business Globe and Mail to editorialize “we have lately learned, and are still learning, that Canada’s economic and political dependence on the United States is not as easy, secure or undemanding as Canadian complacency has tended to assume in the past.”[5]

Justin Trudeau, like his father, will be relying on support from Quebec to remain prime minister after the fall election. Much as in 1972, the Liberal party could benefit from a divided conservative vote in Quebec to maintain their dominance in la belle province. Despite a decline in the popular vote for the Liberals in Quebec from 1968 to 1972, the party retained fifty-six of the province’s seventy-four seats. As a result, the Quebec contingent constituted a majority of the Liberal caucus. In 1972 the Progressive Conservatives won only two seats in Quebec despite capturing 17.4 per cent of the popular vote, in large part due to the appeal of the Quebec-dominated Social Credit Party, especially in rural Quebec. Under leader Réal Caouette the Social Credit Party, which combined social conservatism with Quebec nationalism, won fifteen seats with over twenty-four per cent of the popular vote in Quebec in the 1972 election.

Whether Maxime Bernier can replicate the unusual populist appeal of Caouette remains uncertain. But Bernier’s People’s Party appears positioned to attract support from the Conservatives’ right wing – perhaps especially so in Quebec, where Bernier attracts additional media attention. Furthermore, conservative Quebecois nationalists, who recently helped elect the CAQ provincially, may struggle to relate to Andrew Scheer, just as their predecessors struggled to identify with Robert Stanfield. The possibility of a conservative split in the popular vote could make it difficult for Scheer to replicate the limited achievements of 2015 in Quebec, when the Conservative Party won twelve seats with 16.7 per cent of the popular vote in the province. Much will be determined by the fate of the Bloc Quebecois, who are once again polling fairly well. But the party’s future remains in question after spending much of 2018 consumed by internal divisions over the controversial tenure of former leader Martine Ouellet and the rapid decline of the Parti Quebecois provincially.

Jagmeet Singh has struggled to attract attention and positive headlines since becoming NDP leader in 2017. Prior to the 1972 federal election newly-elected NDP leader David Lewis had little success breaking into the political discourse dominated by the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives. An internal NDP survey conducted early in 1972 revealed that under Lewis’s leadership there appeared to be little potential for improvement over the NDP’s disappointing 1968 election results. However, Lewis hit on a winning theme early in the campaign by attacking corporations that had taken advantage of government subsidies, grants, and tax loopholes despite making large profits. With great relish he labeled them “corporate welfare bums.”[6]  The federal NDP research staff uncovered numerous examples of prominent companies enjoying “corporate rip-offs,” enabling Lewis to release new revelations to the press daily.

The NDP’s embrace of left-populist rhetoric during the 1972 campaign drew significant media attention and re-energized party activists. The election results – thirty-one MPs elected as a result of an increased popular vote and the party’s holding the balance of power in the House of Commons – was the best in the NDP’s history to that time and appeared to vindicate the party’s left-wing messaging during the campaign. Some New Democrats have suggested that the NDP adopt a similar left populist message of the “people versus the powerful” in the 2019 federal election, as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have done with some success in Britain and the US.  Early indications are that Singh has taken this suggestion to heart.  Whether these measures will be sufficient to improve the NDP’s electoral standing remains to be seen.

Of course, numerous and significant differences between the 1972 and 2019 federal elections exist.  But certain intriguing parallels suggest that Canadian political observers could learn by looking back to 1972.

David Blocker is a PhD candidate at Western University whose dissertation is entitled “To Waffle to the Left: The Waffle, New Democratic Party and Canada’s New Left during the Long Sixties.”

[1] In fact the final results left with Liberals with 109 seats, the PCs with 107, the NDP with thirty-one and Social Credit with fifteen.

[2] Joseph Wearing, The L-Shaped Party: The Liberal Party of Canada, 1958-1980 (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1981), 141-173; John English, Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000 (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009), 77-8.

[3] English, Just Watch Me, 67.

[4] Bruce Muirhead, “From Special Relationship to Third Option: Canada, US, and the Nixon Shock,” American Review of Canadian Studies 34, no. 3 (2004), 439-62. The policy also included removing the United States dollar from the gold standard, marking the end of the Bretton Woods international financial system.

[5] “The visit could have value,” Globe and Mail, October 16, 1971.

[6] Terrance Willis, “Lewis gleefully latches on to a lip-smacking election phrase – Corporate Welfare Bums,” Globe and Mail, August 16, 1972.

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