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Trust, Trump, Trudeau, And Canada’s Next Election

Greg MacEachern

Occasionally, as part of the analysis of the Canadian psyche, it’s noted our Canadian/US inferiority complex has morphed somewhat – into a smug, but quiet superiority. And perhaps that’s fair. An evening’s viewing of a CNN shout-fest about current US politics might give us reason to feel good about ourselves. From Russian involvement in the last US election to voter suppression to changing of voting districts (gerrymandering), there’s lots to feel proud about when it comes to the security of Canada’s democratic processes. Or is there?

Perhaps not. After months and months of coverage revealing Russia’s involvement in the last US election, the potential for Canadians’ data to be used in election campaigns without their knowledge became apparent when a whistleblower from Cambridge Analytics revealed they had obtained the data of 50 million North American Facebook users. As a result, Canadian privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien announced in late March a formal investigation to determine if any of our information was used in an unauthorized way.

The questions surrounding Facebook and the democratic process are a far cry from the 2015 federal election when Facebook was used as one of the tools of “Vote Nation”: an initiative to get a greater number of younger Canadians out to vote. By logging on to the Vote Nation app, a user could generate a photo indicating they were planning to vote ready for sharing on Facebook. (It may have worked, too, as there was a 17 per cent increase in youth voters in that election.) As a result of the recent revelations, Facebook definitely won’t be looked on positively by media for the upcoming November 2018 US Midterm elections (where all 435 seats of the House of Representatives and a third of US Senate seats are up for grabs), and as for Canada, perhaps the Hill Times’ April 2nd headline, “Facebook makes it easy to run illegal and ‘Astroturf’ ads,” is an indication of what’s to come.

Even prior to the Facebook disclosure, Canada’s democratic process has been subverted in recent history, most notably with the “Robocall” scandal of 2011, a voter-suppression attempt in 14 ridings that used automated calls to send voters to incorrect polling stations. A subsequent Elections Canada and RCMP investigation resulted in one Conservative Party staffer being charged with “having wilfully prevented or endeavoured to prevent an elector from voting at an election” and was eventually sentenced to nine months in jail. However, as the trial wrapped up, media coverage focused on what wasn’t learned during the trial, and the number of questions that remained.

After being elected in 2015, the Trudeau government began comprehensive consultations to live up to its election promise of having a new electoral system in place for the 2019 campaign. Those looking for that reform had their hopes dashed when, in early 2017, citing a lack of consensus, the government abruptly reversed course, saying that a new system would no longer be a part of their mandate. If electoral reform was an influence on your voting choice in 2015, it’s not hard to imagine how this might increase your political cynicism.

Perhaps in that light, it’s not surprising that Canadians’ trust is stronger in police, judges, and the courts than in democratic institutions (as we’ll see in the upcoming Proof CanTrust Index).

So, what can be done to increase trust?

The first step would be for the federal government to fill the role of the Chief Electoral Officer—a position that’s been vacant for almost 16 months. With near-daily coverage of Russian involvement in the US elections, questions about social media data mining and privacy, as well as our own recent electoral history, it’s more than time to put someone in that role, especially since we can expect our own election cycle to start as soon as Budget 2019 is tabled next spring.


Update: On May 8, after this blog was originally posted, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected Stéphane Perrault to be the new Chief Electoral Officer – a post that was officially vacant since December 2016.