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The acceptable face of hardline secularism

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire (CNS)

In late September, Justin Trudeau addressed the One Young World gathering, specifically held in Ottawa the better to bask in the glow of the Canadian premier lauded by his own foreign minister as “the most prominent and popular political figure on the planet”. The conference for some 1,300 young leaders exposed them to the wisdom of such luminaries as the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former Irish president Mary Robinson and the formerly celebrated Cher, singer and actress. Trudeau let the past tend to itself while he met one-on-one with the British actress Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame.

A year after his majority election victory in October 2015, is Trudeau fils a superficial celebrity master of social media, or the transformative leader of a new generation? Or both?

Catholics with a moderately good memory might have been amused at the sight of Trudeau, now prime minister, playing the role of a leader exhorting the young to change the world. Fifteen years ago, Church officials chose the 29-year-old to speak at an event to begin the one-year countdown to World Youth Day in Toronto. Having recounted his struggles with the “strict” tenets of Catholicism, he urged the young people to reject “old men with old ideas”. That caused some embarrassment. Was he speaking about Pope John Paul II?

A minor celebrity after delivering a melodramatic eulogy at the funeral of his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in 2000, the younger Trudeau, a quondam drama teacher and snowboard instructor, may have foreshadowed the course he would follow 12 years later when he became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The self-identified Catholic leads a government that very self-consciously understands itself as rejecting the old men and the old ideas.

Since his election victory a year ago, Trudeau has led an administration heavy on symbolism and self-congratulation. “Canada is back”, he says, with “sunny ways” after the apparently dark years of Stephen Harper, the Conservative he defeated. He began the 2015 election campaign at Vancouver’s gay pride parade, swore in a gender-equal cabinet, and signed United Nations accords on climate change and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Never mind that Trudeau has not changed much of substance. The first nine months of his premiership saw 10 bills passed through Parliament, the lowest in decades. While he was in opposition, Trudeau criticised Harper’s approach to the environment, terrorism and health care. Now a year in office, Trudeau’s ministers announce that “real change” actually means keeping the previous government’s carbon emission targets, anti-terrorism laws and health-care spending.

As for those UN accords, environmentalists and aboriginal groups recently expressed their sense of betrayal when Trudeau approved a liquefied natural gas mega-project – with a projected 6.5 to 8.7 million tonnes of upstream CO2 emissions – near a sensitive river ecosystem over the objections of local indigenous populations.

But some changes which Trudeau has made should concern Catholics and all people concerned about the protection of the vulnerable.

Before his Liberal Party received a majority in the House of Commons, Trudeau declared that no Liberal would be allowed to stand for election if they were in favour of any changes to Canada’s legal vacuum on abortion. Trudeau’s announcement was a definitive break with the past. The Liberal Party of Canada had long been a political home for both Catholics and pro-life voters, and Trudeau’s decision was criticised at the time by a respected former Liberal parliamentarian as “doctrinaire, judgmental and, in my modest view, the antithesis of liberalism”.

Since there are no legal restrictions on abortion in Canada, and no effort was made by the previous government to change this, it might seem that Trudeau’s abortion zeal has had no impact on Canadian public policy. But in May Trudeau’s government quietly committed foreign aid funds for abortions in developing countries, which the Harper government’s maternal and child-health initiative had refused to fund. The signature overseas aid initiative of the previous government for maternal health will now deprive some mothers of their children.

Last year’s federal election took place after the Canadian supreme court struck down the criminal laws against assisted suicide, leaving it to parliament to draft a new statute that would regulate the practice. With the Harper government choosing not to act, it was left to Trudeau to formulate the response. In a country lacking adequate palliative care and plagued by suicide crises in some portions of the population, Trudeau’s government went ahead with “medical assistance in dying”, with a committee of his own party’s MPs recommending that the newly proclaimed “constitutional right” be extended to minors and mentally ill patients. Even the government blanched at that.

Same-sex marriage, legalised in Canada in 2005, is no longer an issue in federal politics. Trudeau’s government has introduced proposed changes to the federal human rights act that would add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the grounds of prohibited discrimination. The effect of the proposal though is limited, as human rights tribunals have already been treating such grounds as prohibited.

In foreign policy, Trudeau has sought to re-establish Canada’s role as a provider of peacekeeping troops, sending his defence minister on an African tour seeking a suitable country for such a mission – prominent enough to gain favourable attention, but not dangerous enough to be too costly.

Trudeau abolished Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom (ORF), another initiative of the Conservative government. The ORF, unanimously supported in the House of Commons upon its introduction, trained the foreign service in understanding religious tensions, spoke out for persecuted religious minorities and funded grassroots projects promoting interfaith dialogue and conflict mediation overseas. Its functions have since been absorbed by a division of Canada’s foreign ministry with a mandate to promote a generic “inclusion”. Religious liberty will now be advanced in tandem with a determination to oppose “sexual exclusion”.

In a year when centre-left politics has taken a beating – from Brexit to the rise of Donald Trump – Trudeau has received laudations from progressives on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet while more glamorous now than the fin-de-siècle Barack Obama, Trudeau is not the global messiah Obama was eight years ago, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize simply for being so marvellous.

Can Trudeau lead a progressive resurgence? He has decided largely to ignore economics, make modest reforms on the environment, position himself most intensely on identity politics and do it all in constant view of the cameras, shirtless if need be. It is unlikely that that combination will fully address the cohort of disillusioned voters of which Theresa May recently spoke, defending them against an elite who “find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient”.

Justin Trudeau presents himself as the leader of a new generation. The World Youth Day organisers who in 2001 thought he might bring new energy to the Church did not foresee a premiership that would exclude pro-life concerns and downplay religious liberty. No one foresaw then that he would be prime minister at all. At the time, it was just a matter of using his celebrity for a bit of media attention. Fifteen years later, that’s why One Young World came to Ottawa.

Does Trudeau have something more substantial to offer? If not, he will do little to invigorate progressive politics in general, and will impede any development of the pro-life, pro-poor, pro-environment politics of a genuinely Catholic left which Pope Francis promotes. Then again, for Justin Trudeau, the Holy Father is another old man with old ideas.

This article first appeared in the November 4 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here