What a difference 18 months can make. At the height of the pandemic panic, the prime minister leaned heavily on the line “we are all in this together.” In his daily briefings from Rideau Cottage, he insisted that we all had to make sacrifices to get the spread of COVID-19 under control. Along with other politicians who jumped on the same theme, Justin Trudeau correctly read the room. Approval ratings for the government, him and most of his provincial counterparts soared.
But on the campaign trail this week Trudeau’s tone and words have sharpened. Faced with protesters at his campaign stops and outside of hospitals, the prime minister sided with the 72 per cent of Canadians who support the use of vaccine passports to ensure the safety of those who enter indoor public spaces. In one instance, he even referred to anti-vaccination protesters as “those people are putting us all at risk.”
A less aggressive tone would have been more prime ministerial. Trudeau would have tried to convince the anti-vaxxers of the benefits of getting vaccinated. Instead, he chose to push them further away by calling them a threat to others. There is some obvious political opportunism at play here, otherwise, there would have been no need to link his closest opponent (Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole) to the same protesters who are “putting our kids at risk.”
But even if the prime minister does have an ulterior political motive, he is also reflecting the views of many Canadians.
At Ipsos, we track social cohesion (the degree to which people feel connected to their society, share values of the common good and identify with other citizens) and overall satisfaction with the way things are going in the country and the economy. Our data shows that Canadians were feeling less united and more pessimistic about the direction of the country before the election was called, which means that many Canadians, like the prime minister, are more likely to be pointing fingers at “those people” as the reasons for some of our challenges.
The tone is shifting. Early in the pandemic, some Canadians were banging pots and pans to honour our front-line workers. Last week others were throwing stones at our politicians.
We know that few Canadians wanted this election, mostly because they felt the pandemic was unfinished business. But maybe Canadians could also sense that our co-operative spirit was struggling against the weight of the seemingly endless pandemic and wanted our politicians to focus on bringing us together like they had started to in the spring of 2020.
At this point, it no longer matters what Canadians might have wanted. The timing and tone of this election campaign are further dividing Canadians. It will make it much more difficult for Canadians to emerge from the pandemic united.
Maybe that doesn’t matter too much in the middle of an election campaign, but come Sept. 21, it will come when we have to continue to work together to tackle the Delta variant, climate change, racism, reconciliation and the host of other potentially divisive issues on our horizon.
Mike Colledge is president at Ipsos Public Affairs Canada.