Canadians may be disappointed in Justin Trudeau, the politician. But they're not so disillusioned with his policies that they didn't return him as prime minister in Monday's national election.
Trudeau will now lead a minority government as his Liberal Party won 157 seats, which is 13 short of the necessary 170 to form a majority in the House of Commons. That's down from the 184 the Trudeau-led Liberals won in 2015, when the scion's "sunny ways" approach to politics made him a global political symbol — even a star.
The newly re-elected prime minister is perceived to have the charisma, if not the gravitas, of his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. But his image is dimmed due to political and personal scandal. His former attorney general accused Trudeau of bullying her when he tried to get her to lessen charges against a Canadian engineering firm. And amid a highly competitive campaign came old photos of Trudeau in blackface and brownface.
Canadians seemed to think Trudeau was more foolish than racist. But his tarnish helped boost Andrew Scheer, whose lackluster style made him an antithesis of Trudeau. Indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) his stolid style, Scheer's Conservative Party won a second-place 121 seats as well as the overall popular vote, fueled by oil-rich Alberta, as well as Saskatchewan, where Liberals lost every seat.
This return to regionalism was also reflected in the resurgence of the Bloc Quebecois, which will now be the third-largest parliamentary party. But that doesn't necessarily signal a return to the "national question" that convulsed Canada when Quebec had two succession referendums in recent decades.
Rather, the movement is "nationalist without being separate," Melanee Lynn Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, told an editorial writer. Thomas, whose academic focus is Canadian studies, added that Trudeau's political (and personal) brand damage may mean that some of the refugee and equity issues he stressed won't have as much international prominence, but his leadership on climate change may endure.
"What this means is that Canada goes back to being in the middle of our ability to have international influence," Thomas said of Minnesota's largest trade partner. "We've never been particularly forceful and often we are tangentially minor in international sorts of things. But where there's space is for us to be the North American nation that actually gets some of this climate-change stuff in order. This seems to be the policy area we would be most likely to continue that would be seen as a positive contribution."
Given the political climate in Washington, in which President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord and reversed sensible Obama-era policies, that would indeed be a contribution not just of continental but global importance. On other issues, Canada and the U.S. will continue their strained but vital relationship, which would be strengthened if Congress acts on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that's set to replace NAFTA.
It's not the kind of cohesive Ottawa-Washington partnership that's possible, but given Trudeau's diminished status and Trump's metastasizing political problems, it's about the best the bilateral relationship will soon get.