Chairman's Desk

The Changing Faces Of Canadian Politics

Canada has the youngest leaders of its major federal political parties in its history and a single mother as its Governor General. The premier of Ontario is a lesbian and the premier of Prince Edward Island is a gay man.

As the seasons have changed, so too has the Canadian political landscape.

The October 2015 election of a Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau began a major shift from dominance by Baby Boomers to a younger generation. Voters chose Trudeau’s youth and optimism over the experience of the other party leaders.

Just two years later, Trudeau is now the oldest of the three main federal party leaders. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and newly crowned NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are both 38, Trudeau is 45.

Scheer and Singh were chosen by their parties, at least in part, as a response to the youthfulness Trudeau brings to his leadership. The three are the youngest group of federal leaders in Canadian history.

It’s a remarkable shift, especially when contrasted with many Western democracies, whose increasingly older populations embrace greyer, more experienced leaders. (France, of course, is a notable exception.)

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May, 61, faces off in Parliament against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, 68.

In the United States, President Donald Trump, 71, still rails on about 69-year-old Hillary Clinton. Among Trump’s potential rivals in the next U.S. presidential election are California Governor Jerry Brown, 79, Senator Elizabeth Warren, 68, and Senator Bernie Sanders, 76.

But in Canada we are witnessing more than just a generational change.

Singh’s decisive victory last weekend raised the curtain on a new Canadian political pageant — one that is beginning to more accurately reflect the growing diversity of this country.

Growing up in Windsor in the 1980s, Singh saw a Canadian political establishment that consisted largely of white, older, straight men. It was an establishment that did not reflect him, his family or his friends.

In fact, throughout his leadership campaign, pundits and other commentators spoke or wrote in code about whether Singh’s Sikh identity could prove a challenge in a general election.

Just as Barack Obama’s victory was eight years ago, Singh’s convincing win was, at least in part, a rebuke of those whispers — whispers that likely will mean nothing to most Canadians when they cast their ballots in 2019.

Another shift came the day after Singh’s win when Julie Payette, 53, was sworn in as Governor General.

She, too, represents generational change, but she also represents more.

The institution of the vice-regal office is, of course, traditional by its very nature, and despite the dedicated efforts of predecessor David Johnston and his wife Sharon to humanize the post, and their success at genuinely connecting with Canadians all over the country, many see Rideau Hall as far removed from everyday life.

But Payette’s warm and enthusiastic demeanour is as inspiring as it is engaging. Her down-to-earth approach allows her to come across as accessible and approachable. Her ability to speak passionately and eloquently for nearly 20 minutes about our country and its future, without notes, makes her not only genuine and authentic but allows her to connect with her fellow citizens.

A former astronaut who has twice been to space and who speaks six languages, our new Governor General is an impressive person, with a long record of accomplishments. She has long been a role model.

And on Monday, in one poignant moment, Payette blazed a new trail, while at the same time reflecting the current reality of many Canadian families: she arrived at her installation ceremony as a single woman with her 14-year-old son by her side.

According to Statistics Canada, about 20 per cent of families in Canada are headed by a single parent. But until now, a single parent had never served as Governor General.

Payette also chose to affirm her loyalty, rather than swear an oath on the Bible. As religion’s role in the lives of Canadians is changing, here was another example that Canada’s leadership is more closely resembling the population.

There are other important role models whose lives and experiences mirror those of other Canadians. The premier of Ontario is a lesbian and the premier of Prince Edward Island is a gay man.

Canada is a diverse, inclusive and welcoming place. How lucky we are, and how lucky are our children, that our political leaders are beginning to look more like all of us.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on October 8, 2017.

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