Could populism take root in Canada? Too late – it already has

Two slightly different takes on populism in Canada, starting with Andrew Potter who notes that the Canadian variant as seen in the provinces is largely not anti-immigration (save for Quebec with its Bill 21):

Ever since Donald Trump won the American presidency in 2016 with a toxic combination of sexism, vulgarity and the brazen courting of white nationalists, Canadian academics, pundits and pollsters have been obsessed with the question: “Could it happen here?”

By “it,” they mean the rumblings of discontent that have propelled right-wing populists to power across the West. Mr. Trump and Brexit are the most widely cited examples of the phenomenon, but almost every country has been implicated to some extent. Except, apparently, Canada, where the answer to the question of whether it could happen here is typically “yes, but.…”

That is, what we get is some dire reading of the tea leaves (it could happen here!) countered by a renewed faith in Canada’s continuing exceptionalism, thanks in large part to our healthier institutions and superior values.

But the truth is, not only can populism happen here – it already has. The reason most observers miss this is that they are working with a conception of populism that doesn’t really apply to the Canadian context.

The standard academic take is that populism is an ideological empty vessel, capable of taking left-wing or right-wing forms depending on the particular national context. But regardless of its shape, at the core of the populist instinct is the idea of a pure or authentic people being exploited or humiliated by a corrupt elite. As a consequence, populists typically deny the legitimacy of mainstream political and legal institutions, reject the value of experts such as academics and scientists, and demonize immigrants and refugees.

This last characteristic is the one most people have in mind when they worry about populism. And there are good reasons to be worried, especially in an immigrant-heavy country such as Canada. But while it is worth keeping an eye on changes in our usual welcoming approach, when it comes to populism, it’s not clear how relevant it is to the Canadian context.

That’s because populism in Canada isn’t, and probably never will be, about an authentic original people being diluted by an immigrant tide or debased by a class of globalist elites. Yes, there’s some of that to be found here, but it will never go anywhere, precisely because there never has been a single overriding dominant settler culture. From Canada’s earliest days there were always two or three distinct cultures striving for control. There simply is no “authentic” Canadian identity to serve as the focus for resentful nostalgists.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no populism here. There’s plenty of it – in many ways, Canada is the most populist-ridden country going. It just takes a form where we don’t recognize it as populism. Instead, we call it regionalism.

We usually talk about Canada’s regional identities as a point of pride, the sort of thing that spurs singalong tunes by Stompin’ Tom Connors or the Tragically Hip. But there is a dark side to it, part of which was brought to light earlier this year in a major survey done by Angus Reid on Western alienation and the state of the federation.

The striking thing the survey revealed is how much Canadians don’t particularly like one another, with British Columbia and Quebec particularly isolated. To the extent that there is any interprovincial amity, it’s completely local. Saskatchewan and Alberta currently have a little bromance going, and the people in the Maritimes all seem to like one another well enough. But after that, it’s pretty much either resentment or indifference across the board, and a sharp reminder of how weak Canadian nationalism is. Forget the two solitudes – we’ve got like seven of them.

What motivates this regionalism is a complicated mix of history, demographic shifts and economic fortunes. What is remarkable, though, is how often it manifests as a hatred of elites, especially the “Laurentian elite” in the Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal triangle and the institutions they control. On this view, the “authentic” Canadians are the regional peoples – the Québécois or the Maritimers or the Albertans or the Cascadians, all of whom are lorded over in their own way by the cosmopolitan elites in Ottawa.

This is populism of a highly regionalist sort. But whereas the current Quebec version, as practised by François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec, is strongly anti-immigrant, in general regionalist populism is highly congenial to being on good terms with newcomers. This is something that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have proven more than willing to exploit, with a considerable amount of success.

The upshot is that all the worrying over whether the right-wing populists will take power in Canada misses the fact that they already have. They’ve merely taken to the provincial level of politics to air their grievances and accomplish their goals.

Source: Could populism take root in Canada? Too late – it already has: Andrew Potter

Canada has so far managed to avoid the populist disruptions seen in other Western democracies, but the social fabric tying the country together may be starting to fray, a leading expert on the issue said.

In his book Whiteshift, political scientist Eric Kaufmann described Canada as a possible exception to the populist wave in the West, but in a recent interview with economist Tyler Cowen, Kaufmann said the precarious status quo is now under threat.

“The idea that English Canada is immune to this is actually wrong and I do think we’re going to see more of it going forward,” Kaufmann said. “The electorate is now more polarized on cultural issues than it’s ever been in Canada. We’ll have to see where that goes, but I don’t think Canada will be the great exception that it has been for much longer.”

As evidence of this, Kaufmann pointed to the newly founded People’s Party of Canada, which advocates for reduced immigration levels; and Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government in Ontario, which he said “has elements of this populism.” Ford’s government, though, has mainly steered clear of the immigration issue, except for a brief spat with the federal government over funding for resettling asylum seekers who had crossed the border illegally.

Neither the federal Conservatives or Ford’s PC government have called for a reduction in the amount of legal immigrants that Canada accepts each year. Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has called for a reduction in the number of immigrants allowed into Canada from 310,000 to 250,000. The current Liberal government hopes to boost the number to 350,000 by 2021.

On Cowen’s podcast, Kaufmann said he’d also noticed recent polling that shows support for immigration isn’t changing much in Canada, but that it is hardening along partisan lines.

“Immigration attitudes are now very different depending if you’re a Conservative or Liberal voter. That didn’t used to be the case even five years ago, so there’s more of a politicization of that issue now,” he said.

A recent poll by EKOS found that nearly 70 per cent of Conservatives surveyed believed that there are too many visible minorities among immigrants, while only 15 per cent of Liberals agreed with that sentiment. Just five years ago, the same poll showed 47 per cent of Conservatives in agreement, alongside 34 per cent of Liberals.

In his book, which grapples with the end of white majorities in Western societies, Kaufmann devotes a chapter to “Canadian exceptionalism,” trying to explain why the country has managed to avoid a populist backlash despite high levels of immigration.

Kaufmann argues that there is an elite consensus in Canada about multiculturalism and anti-racism that makes many populist ideas taboo. For example, when Kellie Leitch ran for leader of the Conservative Party on a plan to screen immigrants for “Canadian values,” she was overtly branded a racist by pundits and rivals.

People will start to resent this suppression “only when there is a breach of etiquette by a successful populist politician, which pulls the centre-right across a norm boundary,” wrote Kaufmann.

In English Canada, the poll by EKOS found about 40 per cent of people think there are too many visible minorities in their communities but “the difference is there are no political vehicles channeling this at the federal level,” Kaufmann wrote.

Taboos are particularly effective at enforcing moral norms because “people act not only on their own beliefs, but from perceptions of what others think is correct,” he wrote. That helps explain why anonymous polling on immigration tends to show more negative results and why norm-breaking politicians like Donald Trump can sometimes inspire what seems like a spontaneous wave of support.

Kaufmann takes care to differentiate between Quebec and English Canada and argues that François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, which was elected on an immigration reduction platform, fits the profile of a populist-right party. The difference, Kaufmann argues, is that English Canada’s historical lack of identity has been replaced with multiculturalism, while Quebec has always maintained a distinct culture.

“Where Quebec identity is territorial, historical and cultural, the contemporary Anglo-defined Canadian identity is futuristic: a missionary nationalism centred on the left-modernist ideology of multiculturalism,” wrote Kaufmann.

Although English-speaking Canadians and Quebecers share similar sentiments on issues that have traditionally been embraced by populist parties — for example, on banning the burka — Kaufmann argued that “the distinct elite norms of English Canada” account for the difference in mainstream support.

“As long as there is no system breach, English Canada may be able to repress criticism of multiculturalism and mass immigration indefinitely,” Kaufmann wrote in his book, published in late 2018. Since then, he fears the system may already have been breached.

Source: ‘I don’t think Canada will be the great exception’ to populist disruption, expert says

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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