A Populist Canada?

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Afp
La Jornada Maya

Martes 12 de febrero, 2019

In 2016, many Canadians snickered as the U.S. elected President Donald Trump to office after he ran a tumultuous campaign rife with animosity, racism, insults, scandal and a general lowering of the positive visioneering and civil discourse usually associated with a presidential campaign. Like many others, Canadians were surprised that such a person could be elected President of the most powerful country in the world.

It is now time for Canadians to take stock of their reaction at that time and to consider the possibility of something similar happening in Canada.

In 2015, Canadians elected Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party to office with a parliamentary majority. After prior scandals and corruption that plagued his party and that led it to be out of power for over a decade, Trudeau was a fresh face who had campaigned on positive and inclusive values and had underscored his forward-looking campaign vision as a “sunny ways” in contrast to the campaign style and messaging of his opponent the incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Canadians appeared to welcome Trudeau´s energy and empathy. He appeared to listen to voters and have their concerns at heart. As a former teacher, he had learned to connect with his public and voters welcomed this change. Most of all, I believe that they enjoyed seeing Canada set the tone for liberal democratic politics.

Fast forward to the present.

Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, is now governed by a populist who has been compared in some ways to Donald Trump and has claimed publicly that Trump is his hero. Since being elected to office in 2018 with an absolute majority, he has appeared to espouse some of the anti-foreign rhetoric acclaimed by the Trump administration down south. As well, he has followed the Trump model of decreasing taxes on the wealthy while eliminating many social programs important to the lower economic classes and minorities.

One of the key reasons for Mr. Ford’s election was the widely perceived ineptitude and fiscal mismanagement of his predecessor’s Liberal government.

But in 2018, Quebec elected François Légault and his right of center Coalition Avenir Québec with a majority despite the fact that the preceding Liberal government had left the economy in excellent shape and the average taxpayer better off than ten years ago.

Included in his political platform was an anti-immigrant plank calling for reducing the number of immigrants to the province as well as positions on dress and decorum appearing to target the Muslim citizens of the province. Once again, echoes of the type of anti-immigrant and racist positions advocated by the Trump administration south of the border.

In 2017, Andrew Scheer became leader of Canada’s Conservative Party and consequently, Leader of the Opposition. Since taking office, he has taken the party further to the right and advocated some of the populist policies espoused by his neighbors to the south.

In an article in Canada´s Macleans Magazine, EKOS Research Associates President Frank Graves and Michael Valpy of the University of Toronto wrote that “The shifts in the democratic world order over the last decade have increasingly prompted social scientists to discard the left-right political spectrum in favor of an “open-ordered axis,” or what The Economist calls drawbridge-down vs drawbridge-up thinking. The former are cosmopolitan-minded people, in favor of diversity, immigration, trade, and globalization, and who are optimistic about the future; they’re guided by reason and evidence-based policy, and believe that climate change is a dominant priority. Drawbridge-up people, with an “ordered” worldview, are largely parochial, and they have reservations about diversity, are deeply pessimistic about the economic future, believe more in moral certainty than reason and evidence, are disdainful of media, government and of scientific expertise, and are convinced that climate change is trumped by the economy and their own survival. It’s ordered thinking that is metastasizing in Western societies, including Canada’s, especially among the political right. EKOS research from 2017 suggests about 30 to 40 per cent of adult Canadians are drawn to it”.

I believe that the majority of this 30 per cent - 40 per cent form the ideological base of the Conservative party, and this is Andrew Scheer’s target. In Canada, 30 per cent - 40 per cent of the population concentrated in a number of ridings across the country can give a leader a majority government much the same way as the U.S. Electoral College gave Donald Trump the presidency despite the fact that he won three million votes less than his rival.

Unlike the United States, Canada’s populists include different racial and cultural groups. Traditionally conservative Indo-Canadians and Chinese Canadians support many of the values espoused by the Conservatives despite the fact that in the 2015 federal campaign that party proposed and later withdrew the creation of an anti-Canadian values hot-line where people could report suspicious activity.

This was taken by many to mean anti-Muslim activities.

I have yet to hear Mr. Scheer condemn this approach.

However, Mr. Scheer’s determination to stand against same-sex marriage, gun control, and liberal sex education in schools appeal to these voters who tend to live in homogenous neighborhoods in ridings where it is easier to sell populism than in the more diversified areas of the country. Unlike the United States, many of these ethnic groups tend to have higher education but enjoy a cultural conservatism that resonates with the messages of conservative populists.

But what is at the core of this situation?

Frustration and fear of the future is the common denominator around the world.

Last week I asked my class of Mexican university students how many were worried about finding jobs after they graduated, being able to buy a home and car, marry, raise a family, and earn a decent living. All raised their hands, even though the university in which I teach is upscale and the students come from well-off families.

If they feel this way, how do the Canadians, who are generally economically better off as a society, perceive their ability to achieve the kind of future in which they can believe?

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 80 percent of Canadians surveyed think elites who run institutions are out of touch with regular people. Less than half (49 percent) said they trust key institutions like government, media, and businesses. This survey reflects the concerns that spurred the rise of populist politicians and policies impacting many western democracies.

“Canada is not immune from the impact of the global trust crisis. In fact, we’re seeing similar trend lines as our neighbors in the United States,” says Lisa Kimmel, President and CEO, Edelman Canada. “Canadians are telling us they are worried about their futures and don’t trust our institutions to fix their concerns.”

So, Canadians are no different, it appears, when it comes to evaluating their future and fearing for the worst.

While the reality may be different, politicians who pursue populist policies like Ford, Legault, and Scheer may well appeal to the angry and marginalized who perceive that the worst is yet to come.

And herein lies the danger for Canada.