The resounding demand for change that saw the Liberal leader Justin Trudeau swept into the Canadian prime minister’s office, and Stephen Harper out of it, also introduced other auspicious changes, setting the country on a different but familiar path. The 338-seat House of Commons now has more female representatives than ever before, and there are 46 members from minority groups (though African-Canadians are still underrepresented). The country’s first lawmaker born in Afghanistan was elected. The 10 members from Canada’s indigenous population of about 1.4 million is also a record.
These results are immensely gratifying to a majority of Canadians who understand that aboriginal peoples, referred to as “First Nations,” hold a pivotal place in Canada, and that the modern nation-state was founded on the labor of successive tides of immigrants who left behind wars or natural disasters and built new lives here.
The election produced other stunning numbers. Participation was up 7 percent from the last election and, at 68 percent, exceeded even the turnout of the recent British election, in which Scottish separatism was such an urgent, motivating issue. The combination of the young Mr. Trudeau’s appeal and a federal initiative to woo normally apathetic student voters spurred a marked rise in the youth vote. And the surge at polls on First Nations reserves was so unexpected that photocopied ballots needed to be used in some places.
The enormity of Mr. Trudeau’s victory was unanticipated even by his Liberal Party, though, in retrospect, it had an overwhelming logic. Voters across this vast nation of 36 million were resolutely determined that they would not wake up on Oct. 20 to another day of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.
Within 24 hours of his triumph, Mr. Trudeau’s activities were harbingers of a very different ethos from Mr. Harper’s, in which division was persistently used to advance political causes. Network television followed Mr. Trudeau as he took selfies with hijab-wearing commuters at a Montreal metro station. Pictures of him dancing with Hindus and eating with Muslims circulated on social networks. These are images that mean far more to most Canadians than ones of their good-looking new leader with his chest bared that acolytes of celebrity culture have seized upon with such elation.
What Canadians see in these new images is that a better country, a welcoming place of second chances, has not been lost. Canadians know their good fortune is a historical accident, a byproduct of bountiful space and resources, and they feel it is their duty to share it. Canadian foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century — its traditions of peace operations, humanitarian enterprises and open immigration policies — was shaped by this idea.
So Little Jamaica, a portion of the federal district where I ran for Parliament for the New Democratic Party and lost, is populated with Canadians of Caribbean origin who arrived in the 1960s. The area is emblematic of so many immigrant communities across the country that benefited from Canada’s welcome. My party, which appeared headed for victory just weeks before the vote, faced an almost impossible task there because of the memory of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin’s father and the charismatic leader who opened the door for them.
“In Jamaica,” said one potential voter, “we say, don’t damn the bridge that you cross.”
“He fed me when I was hungry,” said another.
Pierre Trudeau became the Liberal Party leader and prime minister on April 20, 1968, the same day that the Conservative lawmaker Enoch Powell warned in London of “rivers of blood” should Britain permit Commonwealth immigration. Subsequently, many Caribbean emigrants chose Canada, not Britain, as their new home.
Mr. Trudeau’s election offers promise in helping to solve one of the world’s most difficult problems. He is well positioned to address the issue of Syrian refugees, much on the minds of Canadian voters keen to expunge the embarrassment Mr. Harper brought on when he equated the country’s tradition of humanitarian work with “dropping aid on dead people.” That line resonated poorly when the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach three weeks later.
Canada, a country founded on the awarding of land grants to refugees (those from the American Revolutionary War among the first), has the will and the resources to do significantly more to alleviate the current European crisis over mass migration.
Mr. Trudeau also faces daunting challenges in the crises of First Nations at home, where many reserves are plagued with failing infrastructure. Some reserves have not had access to clean drinking water for more than a decade. The Conservatives’ indifference to the tragedy of some 1,200 aboriginal women and girls murdered or missing since 1980 is an open wound. There is a dearth of hope among the young people in the First Nations.
Still, these are the days of greater optimism for Canada’s future. For more than 10 years, Mr. Harper and the Conservatives, intent in their “war on terror” and constantly warning about threats to security and the economy, worked unrelentingly to eradicate the Canadian consensus that calls for building bridges at home but also abroad.
Some Canadians who turned out to vote for the first time to set the country in a new direction were just 4 years old when planes were flown into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, ushering in a new reality for so many in the West. Is it possible, at least in Canada, that the long shadow of Sept. 11 is, to some degree, receding?
Noah Richler is an author and broadcaster.