The point of the 2019 election is finally coming into focus: it was ultimately a humbling exercise for Canada’s political leaders.
In just one week, three of the major party leaders have been forced to reckon with humility at their first post-election caucus meetings in Ottawa.
The Greens’ Elizabeth May self-administered her own dose of humility, stepping down as leader last Monday. A chastened Justin Trudeau met his diminished Liberal ranks on Thursday, talking about the “gratitude” he would be extending to the nearly 30 former MPs who went down to defeat on Oct. 21.
As for Andrew Scheer, his humbling remains a work in progress. The Conservative leader was still talking in triumphal terms after he met his new caucus of opposition MPs on Wednesday, but a looming leadership review in April means that Scheer will be taken down a few pegs the slow way over the next five months.
Scheer will most certainly be asked, for instance, whether it was a good idea to go into the final week of the campaign boasting that he was on his way to a majority government. The fact that he landed again as opposition leader would indicate that voters wanted to keep that particular ambition in check.
The term “tall poppy syndrome” was apparently first popularized in Australia, but Canadians have their own fondness for knocking high-reachers down to size. It’s said that the legendary author Robertson Davies liked to recount what he heard at a 1957 social gathering when the news broke that future prime minister Lester Pearson had won the Nobel Peace Prize: “Who does he think he is?”
That same question, or some form of it, has been bouncing around federal politics since Canadians voted in a minority Parliament last month. Even New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh, who was judged to have had a good election, has been forced to acknowledge that all his campaign efforts still resulted in a sizable net loss for the NDP — from 39 MPs going into the election to just 24 now.
In 2019 especially, Canadians don’t want larger-than-life leaders, they want leaders who make Canadians’ lives larger. After a campaign that seemed to be constantly in search of one, overarching ballot-box question, perhaps we’re finally seeing what it was now: Do you want to teach Canada’s politicians a lesson about humility?
François-Philippe Champagne, the infrastructure minister who was one of the lucky Liberal MPs to hold onto his Quebec seat, told reporters that he had certainly taken this “message of humility” from the 2019 campaign. “We’re not here boasting. We’re here humble,” Champagne said as he went into Thursday’s Liberal gathering.
There were many poignant scenes of defeat around Parliament Hill last week. The Conservatives’ former deputy leader Lisa Raitt, who lost her seat in Milton, Ont., was talking about packing up her boxes and the unemployed staff members in her midst.
Former Liberal MP Kim Rudd, who fought hard but lost her seat in Northumberland-Peterborough South, came to town to empty her office and apartment, and talked of her sadness in seeing Canadian flags disappear from offices that have been handed over to a new crop of Bloc Québécois MPs.
One of the most poignant sights, however, came from someone who won his seat, only to find out the next day that he was suffering from cancer. Winnipeg MP Jim Carr, who still holds the job of trade diversification minister in Trudeau’s cabinet, showed up on Thursday despite his diagnosis. He was in a reflective mood, talking of perspective both political and personal.
“I’m feeling fine, thank you,” Carr said, clutching a daisy handed to him by cabinet colleague Maryam Monsef while he talked to reporters. “I’m just in my life now, going through a moment where I think it’s bringing out that yearning for unity and for civility in politics.”
Carr said he was hearing that demand at the doors throughout the campaign, even before he was plunged into his own personal “moment.”
“People are seeking unity in the country,” he said. “There isn’t much of an appetite for division and for divisive politics.
“There is a time for a nation to come together and that time is now.”
Of course, all this is easier said than done in politics, especially when Parliament is sitting. But the marching orders for all parties after the 2019 campaign are becoming crystal clear: MPs — and especially the leaders — have been given a mandate to be humble.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist for the Toronto Star.