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Two very different Catholics battle to be Canada’s PM

Canadian Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) (Getty Images)

Canadians are famous for saying sorry. It’s the default setting for public encounters; a busy railway station or airport is a cacophony of competing apologies as people sort themselves out into the proper queues. It is often said that we even say sorry to bank machines, though I have not witnessed that. People certainly say sorry for delaying others who are waiting at the bank machine.

So when Green Party leader Elizabeth May was asked, on the eve of the official campaign for Canada’s federal election on October 21, who her “personal hero” was, it was not surprising that she answered, “Jesus Christ, sorry.”

Was she just saying “sorry” as Canadians always do? Or was she genuinely sorry for mentioning the name of Jesus?

It turned out she was sorry for answering too “quickly and honestly” and not “self-editing” in time. It’s not exactly a shock that May might have led with her Christian faith. She was studying for the Anglican priesthood when she decided that she had to “save the world” and entered politics. But she doesn’t “like politics at all” and, if the world managed to get saved, she would go back to her divinity studies.

“Politicians in Canada should not put their religion on their sleeve,” May explained.

And they certainly don’t. When former prime minister Stephen Harper adopted, for a time, the custom of ending his speeches with “God bless Canada” it provoked a national debate over whether an American religious huckster and/or extremist had hijacked our national politics.

Religion is not to be discussed, except to raise the evil spectre of extremist fundamentalism. Which is more than passing strange, as the only extremism of any kind that has purchase in Canadian politics is secular fundamentalism. Wearing religious garb – hijabs were the target, but yarmulkes and crucifixes were thrown for neutrality’s sake – has recently been made illegal in Quebec’s public service.

Which makes this election interesting, given that the leader of the third party, the New Democratic Party, is a Sikh who wears a turban. Jagmeet Singh is proud of his identity but never speaks about it in religious terms, only cultural. Nevertheless, he is expected to be absolutely crushed in Quebec.

The two main party leaders, Liberal Justin Trudeau and Conservative Andrew Scheer, are, by current world standards, anomalies. Both are married to their original wives and both have children. Trudeau has three, and Scheer has five. Prince Harry would find it all very troubling.

Both are Catholic, but Trudeau shows no discernible practice. He spent the Easter Triduum this year surfing on the west coast. Scheer, on the other hand, is quite devout, trying his best not to be late for Sunday Mass with his family in tow, not least because his father is a deacon at the parish he often attends.

Trudeau has banned any and all pro-life candidates from the Liberal Party. The media consensus in Canada is rather stifling in its social libertinism, and so this is considered “moderation” as against Scheer, who permits pro-life candidates even as he holds the Harper-era commitment not to change Canada’s extreme abortion regime, which permits abortion on demand at any time on the public dime.

But because Scheer is an observant Catholic, he must fend off suspicions that he would rapidly impose the views of Pope Francis immediately upon taking office. On abortion that is. He would be lauded for following the papal lead on climate change and seaborne plastics.

“In the strategic context of the election, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer talks about religion the way teenagers talk about sex with their parents, reluctantly, downplaying his personal enthusiasm,” writes one of Canada’s leading journalists, Joe Brean in the National Post. “Whereas Liberal leader Justin Trudeau talks about religion the way parents talk about sex with their teenagers, awkwardly, downplaying his personal experience.”

Canada’s leading clergyman is trying to change the ambience that declares religion out of bounds, a toxic influence. Cardinal Thomas Collins will offer remarks and opening prayer at an all-party debate hosted by his own Archdiocese of Toronto. He has booked a big hall downtown – free tickets were gone in two days – and engaged as moderator one of Canada’s most respected political journalists (now retired). Who will show up is yet to be determined, but certainly Trudeau will not be there. Whether Scheer shows up or sends a proxy will depend in part on whether talking about religion in a political campaign has been partly detoxified by this new initiative.

While religiosity does influence voting behaviour in Canada, it is overcome by other identity factors. It is not like the United States, where religious observance is the most significant factor in voting; those who go to church vote Republican, massively, and those who do not vote Democrat, massively.

That is not likely to change this election. But perhaps the religious voice might get tiny bit more attention. Sorry about that.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca