Addressing the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked some of the criticism his government has received lately from the Conservative opposition.
“They say investing in Canadians is a waste of money or that our policies are too wide-eyed,” he said. “Too awake?”
He continued to direct his gaze towards the television camera mounted on a riser in the middle of the room: “Hey, Pierre Poilievre. It’s time for you to wake up.”
The convention hall crowd cheered as Trudeau listed a series of policies that, by his account, were simply good and common sense.
Those Liberals might have been pleased to hear that their leader was pushing back against this line of attack. And Trudeau might be glad to have that fight.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a keynote speech at the 2023 Liberal National Convention in Ottawa on Thursday, May 4, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
But wrestling with the pejorative use of the word “awaken” at this point might be like trying to fit a shadow. Because whatever it originally meant, awakening has become a way of saying something without saying anything at all.
In accordance with new survey data from Pollara, 57 percent of Canadians say they have at least a general idea of what it means to wake up. But fewer than 27 per cent of all Canadians say they could explain the term to someone else (Pollara deliberately did not offer a definition to respondents when he conducted the survey). And it is logical that, even in this group, different definitions are used.
(Dan Arnold, chief strategy officer at Pollara, was the Trudeau government’s director of research from 2015 to 2021.)
the term it originated among black Americans decades ago and it came to mean being socially and politically aware of injustices. Over the past 20 years it has gradually entered the mainstream, fueled in part by the Black Lives Matter protests that originated in the United States.
A protester holds a Black Lives Matter sign behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as people take part in an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill on Friday, June 5, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes woke as an adjective meaning “aware of and actively attentive to important social facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”
But the word also became part of America’s culture wars in recent years, its meaning twisted to mock those seen as excessively or performatively committed to championing equality or other social causes.
Eventually, this reaction spread to the north. Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole used the term during a video call with young conservatives in 2020 when she discussed a plan to rename the former Ryerson University because of its namesake’s association with residential schools.
Since succeeding O’Toole as leader, Poilievre has embraced the word even more enthusiastically, while stretching its meaning even further.
The many, many things that are “awake”
In an email to supporters last June, Poilievre said the Liberal government’s “obsession with woke culture” had made college campuses inhospitable to those with different viewpoints.
Subsequent messages from Poilievre and his party have used “wake up” in the context of Bill C-11, legislation that will apply Canadian content regulations to major Internet platforms (the Conservatives say it will be used to “censor” Canadians). Other Conservative messages have widely invoked the Trudeau government’s supposedly “radical awakening agenda.”
In the House of Commons, Poilievre has used the word to describe CRTC, mayors whose housing policies he opposes, ia culture which is allegedly driving people away from military service. On Thursday, Poilievre said Trudeau’s “woke ideology” explained the government’s passport changes.
More common sense, less woke nonsense.
In his remarks at the Liberal convention, Trudeau mentioned some examples of policies and actions that he seemed to think Poilievre might find too hot: a gender-balanced cabinet, reducing poverty, expanding access to affordable child care.
“Let me tell you one thing: $10-a-day child care is not wake-up call policy. It’s economic policy,” he said.
But Poilievre mentioned none of those things in a video he posted on Twitter the next morning. Instead, after referring to Trudeau’s “woke ways,” the Conservative leader listed a number of concerns: the Liberal government’s latest gun control measures and the decriminalization of simple drug possession in Colombia Britain, carbon pricing and the Prime Minister going on holiday, an increase in public service spending and the recent civil service strike.
It’s possible that Poilievre was trying to suggest that these examples somehow showed hypocrisy on Trudeau’s part. It’s fair to say that legendary blues singer Lead Belly probably had none of these things in mind when he told black Americans to “keep awake” in 1938.
In Poilievre’s interpretation, awakening serves as little more than a blanket term for whatever conservative politicians and commentators are opposed to at the moment, similarly.”socialism“It used to be used as a weapon against progressive proposals.
How Canadians Feel About Awakening (and Other Words)
But even if his own definition is unclear, and even if most people couldn’t tell you what awakening means, Poilievre might still be speaking to a receptive audience.
According to Pollara, 31% of Canadians who have at least heard the word think that waking up is “usually” a “bad thing,” while 16% think it’s usually a “good thing.”
Among Conservative voters, the divide is even starker: just 5% say awakening is good, while 57% say it’s bad. Bloc Quebecois voters feel the same way, with seven percent saying yes and 50 percent saying bad.
Liberal and NDP voters are much more inclined to see “woke” as a good thing: 31% of Liberal supporters and 36% of NDP voters like the word. But even these parties have to contend with voters who think there is something “bad” about waking up: 14% among Liberals, 13% among New Democrats.
The alarm clock wants to erase Mother’s Day.
This ugly and strange ideology — which Trudeau endorsed at his party convention — wants to erase everything except the state that would control everything and everyone.https://t.co/cW1Ts50eqm
Nationally, only 25 percent of Canadians consider themselves woke, including just 14 percent of Quebecers, which may explain why Trudeau decided to defend himself against Poilievre’s attacks last week.
But while many Canadians understand that awakening is a bad thing, they maintain a positive view of other words associated with social justice causes. According to Pollara, “Black Lives Matter” had a net good/bad score of plus-35, while pride flags were plus-34. Feminism, #MeToo, alliance, and affirmative action were plus-30, plus-28, plus-26, and plus-21, respectively.
Canadians seem to suspect that there is something different about being awakened, even though they generally support the kinds of causes that, in the past, would have been associated with awakening.
How Poilievre defines awakening
During the debate on C-11 in late March, Liberal MP Jenica Atwin asked Poilievre how he would define “awake”.
“Woke has one purpose and one purpose only. It has many pretexts but only one goal: control,” Poilievre. answered. “It’s designed to divide people by race, gender, ethnicity, religion, vaccine status, and any other way you can divide people into groups. Why? It’s because then you can justify having a government to control all those groups.” .
Poilievre’s references to race and gender might seem to point towards the official definition of Woke and its reaction. But aside from the apparent reference to vaccine mandates, Poilievre did not tie his definition to any specific federal policy.
And it’s not obvious how that definition would line up with the examples the Conservative leader cited in his video response to Trudeau’s speech. (Poilievre’s office did not respond to an email seeking further explanation.)
Many federal policies consider race, gender, or ethnicity. The Liberal government has pledged to address systemic discrimination in the justice system. Statistics Canada has received funding improve its collection of disaggregated data on race, gender and sexual orientation. A dedicated fund has been created support black entrepreneurs. Trudeau’s office has also prioritized diversity in federal appointments. Federal budgets are now subject to gender analysis.
Are any of these policies too woke? What exactly does the Trudeau government wake up to, and how different would a Poilievre government be?
In the absence of real specifics, the word is little more than a schoolyard joke. And if there is a fight here, the first step would seem to be getting those who use the word to explain exactly what they think it means.
Pollara conducted an online survey of 2,000 Canadians between April 17 and April 28. Just for comparison purposes, a probability sample of the same size would give a margin of error of +/- 2.2%, 19 times out of 20.