Yes, Trump-style populism could happen in Canada. Here’s why

Yes, Trump-style populism could happen in Canada. Here’s why

Shachi Kurl and Stephen Maher recently matched wits at the fifth annual Travers Debate in Ottawa, which raises money for the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship. The subject of their debate: Be it resolved that Canada is immune from Trump-style populism. Angus Reid Institute Executive Director Shachi Kurl recreates her argument here. 


The morning after the 2016 U.S. election, I found myself 40 miles outside of Cleveland, Ohio, in a small college town of little consequence to anyone except those who live there, and those who used to live there ­— in this case, my parents.

But the pilgrimage offered more than insights into my familial past. It spoke to so much of why middle America had turned to Donald Trump. Indeed, the good folks of Wooster were not two-headed. They did not sport horns. But they did display Trump-Pence 2016 lawn signs too numerous to count as I drove past boarded-up storefronts, locked-up factory yards and rundown homes.

It was a place that explained many things, and also offered insight into why Canada, although better protected on some fronts, is not immune to the same kind of anti-establishment, élite-rejecting outcome.

There are forces in Canada who will insist that Trump-style populism here at home will always be under control, because of “Canadian exceptionalism”: the notion that when it comes to race relations, we are automatically nicer, fairer, more tolerant, more progressive and therefore more inclined to reject the populist path.

I would suggest that Canadian exceptionalism is baloney.

If populism is viewed through the narrow definition of discrimination based on identity, then perhaps, for now, this country holds a little more high ground. After all, the polling we conduct at the Angus Reid Institute shows 70 per cent of Canadians say they could vote for a national leader who is a turbaned Sikh, and that the majority feel our nation should work toward greater acceptance of LGBTQ rights. Four decades after its implementation, there is little doubt official multiculturalism policy has gone some way to protecting Canada from the anti-immigration, anti-“other” sentiment that has gripped the U.S. and Europe.

But it’s easier to be rosy about diversity when society isn’t forced to deal with it much. In the early days of Canada’s multicultural ideal, the visible minority population made up less than five per cent of the population. The newly released census data show it’s more than one-in-five (21.9 per cent) today, and is projected to rise to more than one-third by 2036.

Against this backdrop, Canadians are indicating we are not necessarily an endlessly accepting society. Sixty-eight per cent say visible minorities need to do more to “fit in” to mainstream Canadian society, 53 per cent believe our policies toward refugees and asylum seekers are “too generous” and one-in-four Canadians would like to see a Trump-style travel ban here.

We would do well to also remember the added dimensions that propelled a populist win south of the border: anti-élitism – the idea that power and moral virtue belong to the people, not just political or economic leaders; and anti-establishmentism, a rejection of journalists, academics, intellectuals and experts.

When we think about these other dimensions, Canadian opinion is revealing. Nearly half (47 per cent) say they don’t trust the government to act in the best interests of the people, while more than half (52 per cent) say most of the stories you see on the news can’t be trusted.

And while Canadians are turning away from traditional media, they’re turning toward social media. For example, 70 per cent are on Facebook several times a week. But we know that social media platforms, for all their benefits, also represent echo chambers. They are where populist views incubate, unchallenged, before bursting into the real world.

What does it all add up to?

Consider that fewer than half of millennials today say they are deeply attached to the country. Further, those saying their attachment to Canada depends not necessarily on patriotism or pride but on a good standard of living, have increased more than 50 per cent since 1991. If there issomething holding us together, perhaps it is not the common set of values we assume; it’s a desire for economic wellbeing. I saw first-hand the political effect that diminished economic wellbeing had on the people of Ohio. Can we really say that can never happen here?

Although Canada may have been built on the foundations of “peace, order and good government,” populism, in all its dimensions, is, has been and will be part of this country.

Consider that an estimated 100 far-right organizations operate in Canada today, including the Storm Alliance, which shut down a Quebec border crossing not long ago.

Too extreme you say? Isolated example?

Then remember that our history is punctuated by all manner of populist movements, which changed the landscape. Examples include the turn-of-the-century race riots and eventually the Chinese Exclusion Act, based on fears that Asian immigrants were threatening everyone else’s economic advancement. Or, decades later, the caring, collectivist movement of the progressives, determined to help farmers denied credit by the élite banks.

We have seen two referenda in Quebec driven by, among other things, populist sentiment against the perceived English Canadian élite. And of late, that province has adopted Bill 62, banning face coverings when dealing with public services. We have borne witness to the grassroots reform movement of the ’90s with the rallying cry “the West wants in.”

Then there is the populism that cut across educational, economic and ethnic lines to propel the late Rob Ford to victory in Toronto. There, citizens banded together to put a thumb in the eye of civic élites, and may do so again, if Doug Ford is successful next year.

Speaking of elections, although our first-past-the-post voting system tends to deny significant support to all but the main parties, what if it didn’t? The recent provincial election in British Columbia produced a government sworn to hold a referendum on proportional representation, something two-thirds in that province support.

Some of the strongest liberal democracies in the world vote using proportional representation. But it also allows for the fringes to be heard in ways traditionally blocked by first-past-the-post. If B.C. goes there, how can we say others won’t follow?

Many would argue the Charter of Rights and Freedoms offers immunity to populism, enshrining religious, language and identity franchises in our Constitution. While that offers a good, stiff defence, it stops short of immunity due to the Notwithstanding Clause, that seldom-used but always useable lever enabling governments to suspend such rights.

I do not argue that Canada is on the brink of an immediate populist shift of the kind that has brought conflict and hatred to the doorsteps of Americans. I hope it never happens. But that’s just hope.

If we view populism as bacteria, look in the petri dish: It’s already growing, it always has. We deny it at our peril. The only antibiotic is to shine a light, and acknowledge this.


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