Because Canada, our northern neighbor and largest trading partner, is having an election on May 2. And yes, you ought to give a damn. For one thing, more than eight million U.S. jobs depend on Canadian trade. Canada is our top foreign oil provider, selling us more than 2.5 million barrels daily. The Canadian dollar is now worth more than ours. They've got tons and tons of fresh water that many of our parched Western states would love to get their hands on. Most Canadians are able to speak at least two languages. So stay with me as I give you the American digestible explanation of Canada's election.
As anyone who has visited Canada knows, the queen's picture on money is just one mark of a government different from ours. Canada is a constitutional monarchy and has a parliamentary system of government. So, in the interest of vast simplicity, and in the specific case of Canada, this means that the political party that wins the most seats in the 308-seat House of Commons usually forms the government. That party's leader then becomes prime minister. For this election, four major Canadian parties are vying for this chance (yes, the Green Party counts but they currently don't have any seats in Parliament so even most Canadians do not consider them a "major" party). And they are having this election, with a campaign of only 36 days (!!), because the previous government lost a confidence vote in Parliament on March 26. That vote triggered this election. I just wonder how often we'd have elections and how mental all of us would be if we could have votes of (no) confidence in Congress that automatically resulted in elections.
In any case, Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, has been prime minister since early 2006. As party chief, he's led the Conservatives to two minority governments, meaning they've won less than the 155 seats necessary to form a majority government but with enough to organize a government without forging any coalition with another party. Although Harper has lately taken to doing things like playing the piano in public, he's still far from most people's idea of exciting. He actually reminds me lot of the really smart high school kid who was refused dates by lots of popular girls, grew to be a great success, and has never forgotten even one slight. He's married to an attractive blonde (revenge exists in some forms) and is known for running an extremely disciplined ship. He's criticized for this by many of his opponents, who claim he is dismantling Canadian democracy. When he stands next to Barack Obama, you sort of get the sense that he respects the guy but can't stand him at the same time, and not just because the president is thinner. Still, Canadian Conservatives don't bear as much resemblance to American Republicans as you might think. For one thing, none of them talk about obliterating Canada's national health plan. The polls thus far indicate that the Conservatives will maintain a minority government with Harper as prime minister.
Then there's Michael Ignatieff, head of the Liberal Party and leader of the Loyal Official Opposition (generally the party with the second largest seat count). I know, one cannot imagine a major American political party publicly calling itself Liberal. Or of any opposing American party calling itself loyal. Now Ignatieff is pretty glamorous. He holds a Harvard Ph.D., has written a raft of books, and spent nearly 30 years outside Canada as a professor and journalist (including a fair amount of time in the U.S.) before returning in 2005. And people criticized John Kerry for speaking French. He's been leader for a little more than two years, used a Bruce Springsteen song as his campaign theme, and has expressed admiration for many things American, including John Kerry. Passionate and intellectual though he often appears, he doesn't seem to be catching fire with enough voters. Especially when he talks about coalitions or mergers with other parties. Canadian politicos hold lots of campaign barbecues and to be honest, a guy like Ignatieff just doesn't look that great with hot dogs.
The leader of the third major Canadian party is the man who heads the party that wants to take the French-speaking province of Quebec out of Canada. Gilles Duceppe, chief of the Bloc Quebecois (which only runs candidates in Quebec, the second most populated province in Canada, so a lot of seats are available), likes to say he was a "bloke who became a Bloc" because of his English mother. As it is, there has been a time in recent history when the Bloc Quebecois actually formed the Loyal Opposition. If this sounds hard to fathom, just think of a Secession U.S. party being the minority party in Congress. Some say we already have such a situation in the Tea Party. No matter. If Duceppe leads the Bloc to opposition status, and if Harper's Conservatives remain in minority government form, you can expect some interesting and unpleasant times in the House of Commons. Especially during Question Time, when the prime minister or one of his ministers must answer questions from often American-style smarmy, television-posing members of Parliament from other parties. Still, a parliamentary system means that members of Parliament almost always have to vote in line with their party so unlike the U.S. Congress, things often get done. Not that everyone agrees with everything that is done. But things do get done.
And the fourth leader is Jack Layton, head of the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). Yes, they really kind of are...socialists. Sarah Palin would hate them if she knew of their existence. Layton, who has struggled courageously with prostate cancer and hip surgery, almost makes the late Paul Wellstone or Ted Kennedy look somewhat conservative (just a bit, we are not talking Pat Buchanan here). His party currently holds 36 seats in Parliament and even though Jack does not look all that exciting either, the NDP has rocketed in the polls within the last week. Many think what would have once been unthinkable, as it has never happened before: the NDP will come in second, and will form the Official Opposition. At the very least, many believe they will win enough seats to make Michael Ignatieff's already prominent eyebrows flare ever so wider. Although I do wonder how Stephen Harper would handle being loyally opposed by people who don't think of socialism as an expletive to be deleted.
Now while the campaign thus far has been absent of American-style extramarital affairs, really, really sleazy or large-scale money accusations, or just horrendously bad hair, it has been far from boring. People always think of Canadians as so nice and polite but there have been plenty of accusations of lies and other forms of treachery about things like helicopters and campaign financing, mostly aimed at Harper. One popular video shows women breaking up with Harper as they would with a common cad or pimp. Another features a sort of lounge singer sorrowfully crooning "Steve, Steve, It's Time to Leave." It's tame stuff by American standards but you know, you don't hear a lot of people around the world calling us nice and polite.
So I implore you to take a break from Sarah, Michele, Tim, Mike, the Donald, Mitt, and any others and cast your eye north. Canada and its election really do matter. Really. I mean, what happens if they ever get really ticked at us and decide to sell their oil to China or India or anyone but us. Or don't let us come up there to fish, or make cars...