Melissa Mollen Dupuis watched from the sidelines as Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish climate activist, led hundreds of thousands of protesters in a climate strike through central Montreal last month.
At the vanguard, a group of 30 indigenous and non-indigenous young people unfurled a banner that declared: “To the frontlines, for Mother Earth.” Dupuis, a prominent indigenous rights and environmental activist from Quebec, had helped train those young men and women: part of a broader, grassroots effort to marry the two causes – climate crisis and indigenous rights – and raise a new generation of youth activists.
As she saw them lead the march, she wept. “Those plants I grew, I was picking the fruits of that work,” she said. “I see it growing bigger and bigger.”
The climate march in September drew half a million people, the largest demonstration in Montreal’s history. It was the culmination of a broader national conversation on the climate crisis and environmental policies ahead of a federal election later this month that may weaken the prime minister Justin Trudeau’s hold on power.
“This was a defining moment for a generation,” said Professor Sylvie de Blois, the director of McGill University’s school of environment, in Montreal.
But the urgency of the national debate on what Canada can do to combat the climate crisis belies a broader failure by political leaders to address this and other generation-defining issues such as identity and systemic racism that have emerged in the course of a fractious and scandal-ridden election campaign.
On the environment, racial injustice and indigenous rights, many feel Canadian political leaders have steadfastly chosen politics over policy, failing to address generational challenges that voters tell pollsters are at the top of their concerns. That gulf appears wider as the final stretch of the campaign leads into election day on 21 October.
“In the last election we had a dream of hope of seeing real, profound change,” said Dupuis. “[This] is an election of discontent.”
Perhaps nobody personifies this sense of disappointment more than Trudeau, who has been held up as a beacon of liberal values at a moment of resurgent authoritarianism around the world. His milestones in office, including raising child benefits, resettling thousands of Syrian refugees and a carbon tax, have now been overshadowed by revelations that he has previously donned the racist caricature of brown and blackface make-up, including while he was working as a teacher.
Trudeau apologised for the incidents, which raised questions about systemic discrimination in a country that prizes its diversity, during the first election campaign in which a person of colour is running as leader of a federal party – Jagmeet Singh, the head of the left-leaning New Democratic party (NDP), who is a Sikh.
In the weeks since the incident, Trudeau has continued to apologise but critics say he has not engaged in a serious reflection on racism, and the blackface scandal has largely retreated into the background.
“Canadians and the media want to frame these things as just incidents,” said Dr Cheryl Thompson, an academic who spent years studying the history of blackface in Canada, and is now an assistant professor at Ryerson University, in Toronto. “This was just an incident, so now it’s over, let’s move on, let’s go back to being Canadian.
“For any black, brown, Asian, Muslim, you-name-it group, we don’t move on. This is an everyday thing that we deal with. There is a disconnect.”
Trudeau has also had to fend off allegations of political interference in the judiciary after his aides pressured the former attorney general and highest-ranking indigenous official, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to reach a settlement with SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based company that was allegedly involved in bribery and corruption abroad, including in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.
The treatment of Wilson-Raybould, who was expelled from the Liberal caucus, has served to underscore Trudeau’s record on indigenous rights, which is replete with symbolic gestures and admissions of wrongdoing while promises such as clean water for indigenous communities go unfulfilled.
Trudeau’s conservative rivals, led by Andrew Scheer, appear likely to reduce the size of his majority but have been plagued by scandals of their own. Liberals dug out videos of Scheer speaking out against gay marriage and abortion, and the Globe and Mail newspaper revealed that the opposition leader was also a US citizen.
None of the mainstream parties openly promote anti-immigrant sentiment, but they have taken pains to avoid criticising a secularism bill passed earlier this year in Quebec that prevents public servants from wearing religious symbols such as yarmulkes, hijabs and turbans. The law is seen as discriminatory by many legal scholars but is popular in Quebec, the province with the second-largest number of electoral districts.
The lack of a serious reckoning by political leaders on issues of identity and systemic discrimination raised in the campaign has lent a sense of missed opportunity to the election.
“We’re actually talking about the highest office in the country to which [the issue of race] is now attached, so it’s hard not to talk about it in some way, but I think generally speaking, there might be a lot of white Canadians who are just uncomfortable talking about race,” said Thompson.
“Race and racism are so complicated because it requires the person who is involved in the racial caricature to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment,” she said. “They actually have to have a moment of reckoning, of: ‘Why am I doing this? Oh, I think I might be racist. Where did that come from?’”
That sense of disconnect and dashed expectations shows up in another key issue: the climate crisis. Polling data shows that a majority of Canadians consider fighting global heating to be a top priority for the next government, and a plurality rank it at the top of their electoral concerns, a groundswell of support for action that mirrors the turnout in the climate march.
The Green party, which has subsequently experienced a surge in its support, has accused the Trudeau government of not doing nearly enough to limit emissions, and Trudeau has disappointed environmentalists by purchasing a pipeline that transfers oil from the province of Alberta to the west coast of Canada.
Scheer, meanwhile, skipped the climate march altogether and has vowed to challenge the government’s carbon pricing scheme, an attempt to curry favor with voters concerned about the economy in oil industry towns. Both top parties have proposed grandiose ideas to limit emissions, but few specifics on how these reductions will be achieved.
“For the younger demographic, the environment is a defining issue in this election,” said de Blois, the McGill University professor. “No matter who is going to take power in Canada this year, they will be held accountable by a generation who demand immediate actions and policies coherent with the challenges we face.”
Still, those who face systemic discrimination in Canada or are hoping for a real reckoning on epochal issues in government may have to wait until after 21 October. “Every four years it changes, but for us it’s the same Canada,” said Dupuis. “Every promise made is undone by the next government. It’s a bipolar Canada that we’re having to face every damn election.”