This week in Canada: Presidents and prime ministers

Sue Spang

I have a memory of my fifteen-year-old self confronting my World History teacher, demanding to know why the country of Canada did not warrant a single mention in our lengthy, two-year survey of pre-history through the present day. She shrugged, bored by the question, and reported with lackluster energy, “nothing exciting ever happened there, I guess.”
Eight years later, I find myself a resident of this fine country of Canada, working on a Master’s degree in history at the University of Toronto, and determined to shed some light on the presence of Canada.
While Canadian newspaper headlines have anticipated the American election on Nov. 4 for months, far fewer Americans are aware that Canada held a Prime Ministerial election on Oct. 14. In this election, the 40th Canadian General Election, four new candidates — representatives from the Liberal, Bloc Québécois, New Democrat and Green parties — campaigned to replace incumbent Conservative PM Stephen Harper in an election triggered by the dissolving of parliament on Sept. 7, 2008.
The five candidates campaigned voraciously and relatively inexpensively. Television ads vaguely resembling PowerPoint presentations compared Harper to President George W. Bush; my favorite New Democratic effort, aimed at Harper’s lack of attention to the environment, featured cutout photographs of Bush and Harper super-imposed upon a background roughly akin to an illustration from Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” the voiceover reporting that Harper was on track to become “more harmful to the environment than George W. Bush.”
All five PM candidates partook in not one, but two round-table debates. The first debate took place in French, and two nights later, a second debate was held in English. Many Canadians were disappointed with the 59.1 percent voter turnout rate, the lowest in the country’s history, and ultimately Harper was re-elected as Prime Minister.
Many Canadians are considerably more excited about the American election, and no front page of any newspaper is void of a story about polls, gossip or the latest Canadian special-interest groups supporting Barack Obama. Though it has been interesting in its own right to watch the pageantry of the election from another country, albeit three hours from my home in Western New York, what has impressed me far more is the thoughtful commentary provided by Canadian periodicals and the genuine interest and vast knowledge exhibited by my colleagues; discussions inevitably turn toward the election, and questions of policy and process are asked with attentiveness.
Far less enthralled than Americans with the spectacle of scandal, many Canadians are genuinely interested in the outcome of our election. A friend of mine informed me that a cinema downtown would be playing the CNN coverage of the election returns throughout next Tuesday night. The Centre for International Studies has assembled a panel of top International Relations professors to respond to results at one of many events held on campus at UT.
I have read numerous interviews and held multiple discussions with Canadians ending in the same general sentiment: many wish they could be given the chance to vote in an election of such historical importance and with such an ability to create widespread impact.
In preparing to write this article, I casually asked another graduate student about what has happened this week in Canada. She replied, without prompt, “the American election.” (Well, that and actor and native son Christopher Plummer, best known to American audiences as Georg von Trapp in the cinematic rendition of The Sound of Music, released his memoir, entitled “In Spite of Myself,” to much pomp and circumstance).