Canada’s ‘Small World’ Election

The Known World

how can something known
become unknown
in so little time

Mi’kmaw poet Shalan Joudry


Which is in worse shape, the form or content of Canadian federal democracy? The shape it takes is doubly deformed, for while all ‘first-past-the-post’ systems are unfair, guaranteed to deliver only disproportionate representation, major disparities in population-per-riding – what Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star calls “a basic and intensifying representational tension, with too few rural and too many urban dwellers — have in the last two elections delivered the Liberals a decisive unearned advantage in ‘voter efficiency.’

Canadian federal party leaders: Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh, Erin O'Toole, Annamie Paul, Maxime Bernier, Yves-François Blanchet

Clockwise from upper left: Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh, Erin O’Toole, Annamie Paul, Maxime Bernier, Yves-François Blanchet

In 2019, the Conservatives won comfortably more votes than the Liberals – over a quarter of a million more – and the Liberals won comfortably more seats (36). This time, the Tories secured nearly 200,000 more votes – and 40 fewer seats. I’m no Tory, but if I can pretend that such outcomes are fair, what kind of democrat am I? Or is Justin Trudeau, who in 2015 – as the new leader of the Liberals, then only the third-largest party in parliament – vowed incessantly to make that campaign “the last federal election using first-past-the-post?”

As for content, Trudeau’s flimsy ‘justification’ for calling a superfluous snap election – resented by a supermajority of voters, and costing them over $600 million – was to spark a “national conversation” on how best to weather and recover from COVID-19. What ensued, predictably, was a campaign characterized far more by diatribe than dialogue, soundbites than substance, especially on the part of Teams Trudeau and O’Toole.

Reflection on the virus crisis is of course warranted, particularly on the ways each ‘wave’ has hit the least privileged and most vulnerable the hardest, both within rich, vaccine-hoarding countries like Canada and around the still – inexcusably – largely-unvaccinated world. But the election call was never seriously intended to contextualize the crisis, to place it in a global context that puts Canada to shame, or to contrast it to the even more serious, authentically existential challenges humanity confronts.

“The world needs more Canada,” Bono famously declared in 2003, echoed 13 years later by President Barack Obama. Such praise, in so many ways unearned, is deeply offensive to many Indigenous peoples (and their allies). And in this election, Canada needed much, much more world.



In her introduction to a new collection of essays, The Nuclear North: Histories of Canada in the Atomic Age, Susan Colbourn writes that “nuclear issues have shaped Canadian life throughout the Cold War and beyond…Like it or not, Canadians were living in a nuclear nation.” As Colbourn’s “beyond” suggests, they still are, but whether they “like it or not” was a question left unanswered by an almost entirely ‘nuclear free’ campaign.
Cover of "The Nuclear North" by Susan Colbourn and Timothy Andrews Sayle

Even were nuclear issues, happily, now of only ‘subcritical’ importance – with slim chance of any conflict actually ending in Mushroom Clouds over battlefields and towns – the failure to address them would be dangerous. Given just how badly, as we aging peaceniks like to say, one nuclear weapon can ruin your whole day  – and, indeed, one day’s nuclear war the whole planet  – it would remain wise to ask just how ‘slim’ slim is. If the Bomb no longer matters, why not debate the merits of finally banning it, diverting the astronomical sums saved into building more peaceful, just and pandemic-resilient societies?

The terrifying truth, however, as a groundswell of expert ‘Doomsday’ warnings (including from climate scientists) attests  is that The Bomb – now possessed by (or possessing) nine nations, with more in the queue – still matters mightily, with risks of nuclear war, by design or malice, rising as inexorably as global temperatures. Why, then, has this very ‘nuclear nation’ just spent 37 electioneering days looking away from the brink?

A potted history  of just how ‘nuclearized’ Canada has been – and remains – may prove revelatory to many citizens, most of whom will have been taught little to nowt about it. For, to begin at the beginning, this mammoth settler-colonial state, itself created and sustained by genocide, helped make possible through its expertise, its technology, and most importantly ‘its’ uranium – plundered from Dene lands in the Northwest Territories  – the genocidal weapon that condemned Hiroshima and Nagasaki to destruction.

The Liberal government of Mackenzie King – who wrote in his diary that “it is fortunate that the use of the Bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe”  – opted not to become a nuclear-weapon state. The decision was motivated, however, as Robert Bothwell notes in The Nuclear North, not by “moral principle” but simply “the cost of a weapons program” and the “shortage of engineers and scientists.”

From 1950-1971, Canada (while attempting to hide the fact from the public) hosted US nuclear weapons and bombers in Newfoundland and Labrador. From 1960 to 1984, its military in both Canada and Europe was equipped with American nuclear weapons. For years after it relinquished its own nuclear mission, it allowed America to test nuclear-capable cruise missiles  – and conduct low-level “mock US bombing runs”  – in the Arctic. And throughout the atomic age, its military-industrial complex has been a cog in the American nuclear war machine, and its exports of nuclear materials and technology a spur to proliferation in India and elsewhere.


From the bombing of Hiroshima to the fall of the Berlin Wall, very many Canadians – from across the political spectrum – made clear how much they disliked this degree of involvement in practices they saw as subverting national sovereignty and endangering national survival. Perhaps in part to deflect such criticism, successive Canadian governments worked to build – and billed themselves as championing – an effective international nuclear arms control and non-proliferation regime. And for much of the 1990s Canada wore as a badge of honor the epithet ‘the nuclear nag’ for its efforts to persuade NATO, in view of the rather conspicuous absence of the Soviet Union, to seriously reform its nuclear posture.

US Secretary of State Addresses 2015 NPT Review Conference, 27 April 2015

US Secretary of State Addresses 2015 NPT Review Conference, 27 April 2015 (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

In the drumbeat decades since 9/11, however, the balance in Canada’s split nuclear personality has tilted alarmingly from dove to hawk. Ottawa has uncritically embraced Washington’s fateful agenda of NATO expansion, the blunder at the root of the new Cold War with Russia, and failed to condemn either its bid for global military dominance or its related assault on arms control, the blunders at the root of a new, rapidly-warming Cold War with China.

In 2015, at a crucial meeting of the 191 members of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Canada joined two nuclear-armed states, America and Britain, in blocking agreement on a far-ranging Final Declaration on the remarkable grounds that it called for a conference on a Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction-Free-Zone in the Middle East: an objective vigorously supported by Ottawa for years. Although the text stressed that all states in the region should be invited – and none compelled – to attend such a conference, Canada criticized the move as unfairly singling out the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed nation, Israel, which has always refused to sign the NPT. The surreal decision – which, though it was made by the Harper Conservatives, would almost certainly have been made by the Trudeau Liberals – shattered what remained of Canada’s reputation as a serious advocate for either disarmament or non-proliferation.


More importantly, the 2015 NPT debacle helped convince a super-majority of the treaty’s non-nuclear states that it was time to pursue a new treaty, embracing a goal enshrined in the NPT itself: a prohibition not just on the proliferation but the possession – by anyone – of the world’s most dangerous weapons. And just two years later – diplomatic ‘greased lightning’ – 122 NPT states adopted just such a measure, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), or ‘Ban Treaty,’ which became international law in January 2021.

In part at the stern behest of the United States, the 2017 UN talks to draft the treaty were boycotted by Canada (and all NATO states except Norway), a snub surely contributing to Ottawa’s recent failed bid for election as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. This fall in Canadian prestige has been matched only by the decline in mainstream Canadian coverage of international issues in general, and nuclear issues in particular. In October 2020, for example, 56 former leaders from 20 non-nuclear NATO states released an electrifying Open Letter calling on their countries to sign the Ban Treaty. The Canadian signatories included two prime ministers (both Liberal, Jean Chrétien and John Turner), two foreign ministers (both Liberal) and three defense ministers (all Liberal). And the coverage was – believe Google, if not me – desultory.

Peace Quest Cape Breton logo

Given Canada’s critical nuclear significance, past and present, Peace Quest Cape Breton  – a non-partisan citizens’ group I belong to – decided to play its small part by asking main party candidates in the two Cape Breton federal ridings to answer five questions on ‘Canada, the Bomb and the Ban Treaty’:

  1. did they agree with 75% of respondents to a recent Nanos opinion survey  – also spectacularly under-reported – that Canada should join the Ban?;
  2. would they support – as did 76% of the Nanos respondents – parliamentary hearings on Canada’s nuclear policies?;
  3. how specifically did they think Canada could best work to eliminate nuclear weapons?;
  4. did they agree that any state or group of states had the right to use nuclear weapons first in war?;
  5. given the devastating impact on the climate – global cooling, not warming – of even a ‘limited’ nuclear war, did they agree that policies to advance nuclear disarmament should form part of Canada’s climate change strategy?

We distributed a similar questionnaire during the 2019 federal election, receiving thoughtful responses from Green and NDP candidates. This time, we received but one response, from Liberal Party HQ in Ottawa: a boilerplate policy statement identical to that issued to other organizations, avoiding all five questions – and any mention of the Ban Treaty!

PQCB Questionnaire Liberal Response


There were, of course, numerous groups seeking to pierce the shield of silence round an issue which, “much like the global climate emergency, constitutes a clear and present threat to human civilization.” The words are those of Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, and Paul Meyer, a former senior Canadian disarmament diplomat, lamenting in The Hill Times on September 16 that “if the topics being addressed by party leaders and platforms during this federal election are any indication, nuclear disarmament would seem to be a non-issue in the Canadian landscape.”

The Green Party platform, in fact, commits Canada to “sign and ratify the Treaty to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and press urgently for global nuclear disarmament,” while the NDP pledges more vaguely – why? – to “support nuclear disarmament.” But the Bomb is indeed entirely absent from the governing party’s platform, while the Conservatives muster only a swipe at Iran’s alleged “reckless nuclear ambitions.”



Bianca Mugyenyi

Bianca Mugyenyi (Source: Canadian Foreign Policy Institute

And it wasn’t just The Mushroom that was missing. On August 20, Peggy Mason, president of and a former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament, reasoned that because “the climate crisis and the pandemic have underscored the inextricable link between international affairs and Canadian well-being,” it is “more important than ever that the leaders of each federal political party indicate their vision of Canada’s place in the world.”

Her appeal – for “all federal parties to support either a specific foreign policy debate or a significant allocation of time for this subject in one of the two scheduled leaders’ debates” – went unheeded, with the two-hour French leaders’ debate (September 8) allotting only 20 minutes for consideration of two oddly combined themes, ‘Justice and Foreign Policy,’ and the English leaders’ debate omitting the subject entirely.

In the event, heated exchanges on the government’s (mis)handling of the Afghanistan evacuation, and intermittent pulses of Russia- and China-bashing, featured in both debates. But what Mason wanted – in addition to a candid accounting of Canada’s tragic entanglement in Afghanistan – was time to weigh a range of key strategic choices. And there are many, for example those enumerated in a brilliant ‘modest proposal for reimagining Canadian foreign policy’ by Bianca Mugyengi, director of the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute (CFPI) – whose own questionnaire, incidentally, received but a single main party (NDP) response. Among other wise measures, including signing the Ban Treaty, Mugyenyi called on the next government to:

  • end Ottawa’s massive military support – $14 billion in Light-Armoured Vehicles – for the Saudi Arabian war machine currently destroying much of Yemen;
  • end ‘Operation Impact,’ Canada’s ongoing military presence in Iraq;
  • restore diplomatic relations with Iran;
  • withdraw Canadian forces from “provocative US-led missions in the South China Sea,” and from equally dangerous NATO missions in Latvia and Ukraine;
  • take a firmer stand against the illegal Israeli occupation of – and human rights abuses in – Palestinian territories;
  • include the Department of National Defence, one of the country’s major polluters, in national greenhouse gas reduction targets, and demand a worldwide “end to the exemption” enjoyed by militaries under the Paris Climate Change Accord; and
  • scrap plans to spend $5 billion on armed drones, and nearly $20 billion – initially – on 88 “unnecessary, dangerous, climate-destroying fighter jets,” to quote a July 14 Open Letter with over 100 signatories including Neil Young, David Suzuki, Elizabeth May, Naomi Klein, Stephen Lewis and Noam Chomsky (plus, less notably, myself).


These proposals – modest, as Mugyenyi says, in the sense of being “consistent with the government’s claim to support a ‘rules based international order’ and ‘feminist foreign policy’ – form part of the wider Anti-War Platform of a new ‘Canada-Wide Peace and Justice Network,’ formed in 2020 to focus the efforts, and amplify the voices, of “groups, organizations and individuals from across Turtle Island, north of the Medicine Line” – the US-Canada border – “working in anti-war, environmental, international solidarity, decolonization, and/or social justice areas.”

Every Child Matters

Design by Andy Everson, K’ómoks First Nation, B.C.

For the Network, the intimate linkages between Canadian nuclearism, militarism and imperialism – and thus, between denuclearization, demilitarization, and decolonization – are clear. For many settler-Canadians, however, the colonial nature of ‘their’ country was seemingly revealed as never before this summer, with physical confirmation of a crime-against-humanity long-known in Indigenous communities and denounced in 2015 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): the existence of multiple mass-graves on the sites of former residential ‘schools.’ Yet in an election hot on the heels of this supposed ‘game-changer,’ Indigenous issues were strikingly marginal. Though there was one memorable moment in the English debate, when NDP leader Jagmeet Singh castigated the government’s efforts to limit compensation for tens of thousands of Indigenous children who experienced discrimination and neglect at the unsafe hands of federal ‘welfare’ services:

Singh: “You can’t take a knee one day if you’re going to take Indigenous kids to court the next.”

Trudeau: “You love that line about taking Indigenous kids to court. It’s actually not true.”

But as Indigenous rights advocate Cindy Blackstock quickly insisted, it actually is:

Stunning that he would say such a thing when his claim is so easily disproven… They litigated on cases directly impacting First Nations kids and families and the whole thing is set out in the Federal Court record and the hearings were webcast.

Trumpy Trudeau, dare one say?


Singh himself, though, was met with Indigenous and allied protests for refusing to support – as the Green Party does – the nearly two-year-old resistance to clear-cut logging of old-growth forests in Fairy Creek on Pacheedaht, Ditihadt, and Huu-ay-aht territory on ‘Vancouver Island.’ The corporate license to kill was issued by the NDP provincial government in ‘British Columbia,’ and to the heartbreak of many, Singh has chosen to place party above principle.

Protestors and RCMP, Fairy Creek, BC

(Phot by Adam van der Zwan/CBC)

The Fairy Creek protest is massive – “considered,” Amy Goodman noted on Democracy Now!, “Canada’s largest act of civil disobedience ever”  – and the images, including of brutal policing, compelling. Even during a pandemic, it could and should have featured prominently in the news, before and through the election: yet how many Canadians went to the polls unaware of the drama or the stake, laid out by Goodman:

Land defenders with the Fairy Creek blockade are calling on others to join them to save the remaining trees, which are hundreds of years old, with some estimated to be more than a thousand years old, among the oldest on the planet.

So what? Canada is a new country. And means the world to itself.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.