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Canada Can Avoid Another Brexit -- If We're Careful

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I am one of many women around the world for whom the election of Donald Trump has felt immensely personal. I also fear for the safety of visible minorities and the future of civil liberties in America. But perhaps my most fundamental worry, the knot that has sat in my stomach since Tuesday, is what the result signals about democracy in the United States -- and in Canada too, since we are intimately connected to our southern neighbour.

On Wednesday we woke up to see one of the nastiest, most divisive US elections end in victory for a demagogue. Hate and fear won in America on November 9. But on that same day I was able to find hope in the unlikeliest of places: The Conservative leadership debate.

With twelve candidates crammed onto a stage and extremely low production value, the debate was at times very difficult to watch. Candidates struggled to be memorable and incisive in 40-second chunks, resulting in more of a side-by-side lightning round interview than an actual debate. At times the microphones did not work. It was not a masterpiece of political theatre.

But that hardly mattered, because what I saw was something that I feared had been destroyed in 2016: respectful political dialogue. The candidates were all civil, jovial even, and laid out their positions in a clear and upfront manner. Candidates criticized one another's policies and presented different visions for how to grow the conservative movement, but they did so without resorting to ad hominem attacks.

And while I may not have agreed with many of the policies presented, there was a genuine attempt to engage with evidence -- excepting Kellie Leitch's unsubtle and dangerous grasps for Trump's coattails -- and speak with integrity.

The Conservative Party that I saw in the leadership debate was a party that I may not vote for, but that I respected. After months of traded vitriol and scandals, it was refreshing to be reminded that politics can be about genuine dialogue on the issues of public importance.

It can be a place where we hear new ideas and consider each other's perspectives. Where candidates can laugh at themselves. Where we can disagree without being disagreeable. In short: maybe politics in Canada won't break if we are very careful.

Brexit and the 2016 US Presidential election teach us that we must constantly work to cultivate a healthy political culture. We need to be better at listening to people and understanding how our lives are different. We should be especially willing to do this when we disagree.

And, perhaps most importantly, we need to respect one another: Political dialogue cannot function if it is not based on mutual consideration.

Naomi Klein is right that societies need a strong left wing to advocate for economic rights, especially in a time where inequality has soared. As a social democrat, I hope to see a more confident NDP press the Trudeau Government on issues such as climate change, social protection, and electoral reform.

But a strong right wing matters as well. Preserving trust in democracy is a deeply important effort in which all of us, and especially our politicians, must participate. The Conservative leadership race should be about reaching out to and understanding more Canadians.

It should be about modeling respect and exchanging ideas, as it seems to be thus far. And if the Conservative Party that emerges from this leadership contest is stronger and more connected to Canadians, all the better!

To avoid our own "Brexit moment" Canadians need to trust our democratic system. As the public face of that system, this is a responsibility that all of our politicians ought to take seriously. I was proud to see most of the Conservative leadership candidates meet that test on November 9.

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