In 2017, Michael Adams released Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit, which argued that “the sort of politics that brought Trump to office and informed Brexit” would not reach Canada. These sorts of politics have a name: populism. This movement is often synonymous with radical right-wing forces premised on extreme nationalist, anti-austerity, and anti-immigrant sentimentalities. Examples of modern-day populism are the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit movement. Adams claimed that Canadians do not tolerate these radical right-wing forces and believed that Canadian politics always finds its way “back to the middle” of the political spectrum. Is this truly the case or is this merely idealistic thinking?
To begin, one must acknowledge Canada’s differences from the United States and the United Kingdom. Research shows that Canadians are more welcoming and open-minded towards immigrants and people of diverse cultures, races, socio-economic backgrounds, religions, and genders. Not only are Canadians proud of their multiculturalism, but they view immigrants as a crucial aspect of economic growth and prosperity. Canadians seem to be more open-minded on ‘left-wing’ subjects such as the legalization of marijuana, access to safe and free abortions, and welfare than their US and UK counterparts. However, it is critical to consider recent tides that may lead to a populist movement in Canada.
I question Adams’ premise through the idea of ‘being swept.’ For example, Brexit’s arrival was largely unexpected, silent, and abrupt. Thus, is Canada truly immune to populism, especially in times of growing discontent? A study on poverty and employment precarity in southern Ontario reported that only 44 percent of the region’s millennials have full-time, permanent jobs with benefits and pension plans. This decline in decent jobs along with increased unaffordable housing causes anxiety and depression that disproportionately affects millennial men—making them ideal targets for the appeals of populism. Populism is a tool used to blame one’s problems on the power-holding elite, or according to Doug Ford’s “For the People” campaign, on those who “drink champagne with their pinkies in the air”.
Likewise, with Scheer’s Conservatives winning the popular vote in 2019, he reiterated the importance of fighting the elite, calling the federal carbon tax a “cash grab by elites who do not care about its impact on ordinary people”. This argument reflects a fundamental populist belief: the nation and its institutions are shifting in the ‘wrong direction’, a notion shared in regard to immigration.
A recent EKOS poll found that approximately 40 percent of Canadians are unhappy with both the pace and the proportion of “visible minorities” among immigrants. Of those who stated that there were too many non-whites among Canada’s newly-arrived immigrants, 69 percent identified as Conservatives and 15 percent as Liberals. These circumstances juxtapose Canada’s branding as open and tolerant with the actual feelings of Canadians.
While political sentiments naturally shift as social conditions change, this disconnect is problematic because it is linked to incidents of hate. Statistics Canada reported that the number of police-reported hate crimes reached an all-time high in 2017, with most cases targeting Muslim, Jewish, and black people, most notably with the 2017 Quebec City mosque incident. These incidents demonstrate a shift in sentiments towards one extreme, further influenced by policy alterations.
One critical example is the alternation of positions toward the Ontario primary education curriculum by Kathleen Wynne and then by Doug Ford. More specifically, Wynne’s changes proposed for ‘gender identity’ to be introduced early in Ontario elementary schools, while Ford’s changes postponed the topic until Grade 8. This policy flip-flop reflects the changing attitudes towards specific minority groups, in this case, the LGBTQ+ community, towards a less ‘radical’ position.
The image of left-wing ‘radicalism’ is, arguably, a factor behind sweeping right-wing populist sentiments occurring in Western democratic nations. Politicians like Trump discredit ‘radical’ ideas of universal health care, free education, climate change, and women and minority rights proposed by ‘radical’ left-wing candidates on the basis of these sentiments being external threats in an increasingly more dangerous world.
However, such politics fail to consider the ‘radicalism’ found in their own sentiments and refuse to acknowledge the notion that being swept too far either right or left is equally detrimental in tackling today’s issues. Like Adams, I believe that the best position for Canada is in the middle. Yet, the sweeping forces of modern-day populism cannot be ignored as Canada may already be caught in its wave.
Sarah D’Aversa is a MA International Affairs candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her primary topics of interest are the European Union, diplomacy, and international law.
Featured images courtesy of Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.