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Canada’s last lines of defence against populism

It turns out Canadians are surprisingly amenable to populist forces. So what’s preventing an authoritarian leader from rising to power?
Prime Minister Trudeau attends the Vaisakhi on the Hill ceremony in Centre Block. April 11, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)
MPrinthouse shows off their Handee Signs, including signs for U.S. President Donald Trump and fictional character Frank Underwood from the Netflix series "House of Cards," at their exhibitor's table at the Manning Centre conference in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)
MPrinthouse shows off their Handee Signs, including signs for U.S. President Donald Trump and fictional character Frank Underwood from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” at their exhibitor’s table at the Manning Centre conference in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

A week after Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States last Nov. 8, Conservative MP Ted Falk rose in the House of Commons during the time set aside for “members’ statements,” which falls just before question period and is, as a rule, politely ignored. Falk represents the Manitoba riding of Provencher, hard by the windswept Minnesota border, and he spoke briefly of the “special relationship we have with our long-time friends and neighbours” to the south. Then he finished up with, “May God continue to bless America—God bless Donald Trump.”

That last part raised eyebrows among the many who take it for granted that Canadians had recoiled en masse at Trump’s win. But back home in southeastern Manitoba, often referred to as the province’s Bible belt, Falk’s words weren’t controversial. His constituency is largely evangelical Christian, reliably conservative and shares a lot in common with the American voters who made Trump president. (Falk declined to be interviewed for this story.)

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In fact, Canadian conservatives in general tended to welcome Trump’s win. An Ekos Research poll, which happened to be released on the day Falk rose in the House, found that while only 30 per cent of Canadians approved of Trump, fully 57 per cent of declared Conservative supporters viewed the new president favourably.

The populist energy stored in that reservoir of pro-Trump sentiment has to be taken seriously by Canadian Conservatives, especially those now vying for the federal party’s leadership. From the Liberal perspective, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has lately reaffirmed his old warning of a populist backlash unless government policy reduces economic inequality. And, further left, MP Charlie Angus launched a bid for the NDP leadership last month by urging his party to redefine itself in opposition to Trump-style populism.

All this attention to populism takes on a real-world urgency in light of what’s been happening—among other places on the Canada-U.S. border—along that stretch of the 49th parallel separating Manitoba from Minnesota, mentioned in the House by Falk. It’s there, as most Canadians have heard in news reports, that undocumented migrants have been crossing by the dozen—often trekking for hours across snowy fields in bitter cold—to leave Trump’s America behind and take their chances with Canada’s refugee process, maybe after warming up first over coffee at Little Jay’s Café in Emerson, Man. (pop. 700).

The prospect of a growing number of asylum-seekers slipping into Manitoba—and Quebec and British Columbia—is shaping up as an early test of Canada’s mood in the Trump era. Will the phenomenon ultimately benefit the Liberals, highlighting again Trudeau’s welcoming embrace of newcomers? Or will a perceived challenge the migrants pose to law and order reward a sterner rhetorical response from Conservatives, as it has in the U.S. and Europe, and help spark what is routinely labelled a “populist” upsurge on the right?

From our podcast: What are Canada’s attitudes toward immigrants, really?

Exactly what’s meant by populist isn’t always easy to pin down. Broadly speaking, though, the term is used most often these days to capture what happens when politicians on the right tap anxieties over mass migrations, linking those fears with underlying discontent over scarce jobs and stagnant wages for less-educated workers. In other words, populism means Trump’s rise in the U.S., the Brexit referendum vote to pull Britain out of the European Union and the serious challenges various right-wing parties pose in a string of European elections set for this year.

Could that same recipe be cooked up in Canada? Trudeau’s election triumph in 2015, followed by his celebrated welcome of more than 40,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, had many observers portraying Canada as almost uniquely immune to the inward-turning instinct behind Trump and Brexit.

Yet Frank Graves, the veteran Ekos pollster, has tracked and quantified similar strong currents coursing through Canadian conservatism. “The idea that a populist leader couldn’t win in Canada, that we couldn’t have an analogue to Trump, is I think nonsense,” Graves says.

His public opinion research shows pessimism about the economic outlook and misgivings about diversity. For instance, Ekos polling found back in 1995 that 81 per cent of Canadians agreed that “cultural diversity” contributed positively to Canadian identity. Asked the same question early last year, only 66 per cent rated diversity as having a positive impact.

Then there’s economic unease. According to Ekos, the percentage of Canadians who view themselves as middle-class has plummeted from nearly 70 per cent around 2002 to below 50 per cent last year. Few adult Canadians think the next generation will fare better economically than theirs has. And presented with the statement “If the current patterns of stagnation among all except those at the very top continue, I would not be surprised to see the emergence of violent class conflicts,” Ekos found that 57 per cent of Canadians agreed.

Combine hopelessness about economic prospects with a magnified sense of the risks out there in the world, and Graves says the result is, among some Canadians, a growing hankering for more order—even a tendency to accept authoritarianism.

“That type of outlook is much more receptive to the idea that we need a strongman who’s going to make decisive government actions to deal with this,” he says. “So he’s going to build a wall, or he’s going to deport illegal immigrants, or he’s going to bomb enemies.”

Graves is careful to stress that being primed to accept right-wing populist messages isn’t a majority mindset in Canada. These tendencies are, not surprisingly, by far most pronounced among avowed Conservative voters, and particularly in places like Alberta. Which raises the question of how the Conservative party—and its 14 aspiring leaders—might adjust in the Trump era.

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Other researchers also point to Canadian attitudes that appear receptive to a Trump-like message. For a recent McGill Institute for the Study of Canada conference in Montreal, University of Toronto political science professor Michael Donnelly analyzed an online survey of 1,522 Canadians conducted by the polling firm Ipsos and found scant evidence that Canada is particularly big-hearted when it comes to outsiders who want in.

Donnelly reported that when Canadians were asked how much they agree or disagree with the statement “The government should be generous in judging people’s applications for refugee status,” their tendency to be generous ranked a middling ninth out of 22 countries. Canadian generosity only outranked Britain’s by a notch, and was just modestly ahead of Germany—both countries widely regarded as having struggled to accept immigrants. “Whatever is driving Canada’s exceptionally positive history of immigration and integration over the past half century,” Donnelly concluded, “it does not appear to be an exceptionally tolerant public.”

Note that he didn’t say, however, that Canada’s world-famous reputation for integrating newcomers is undeserved—only that it can’t be chalked up mainly to national niceness. Perhaps the most persuasive case for why Canada really does better than the U.S. and most European countries when it comes to fostering diversity has come from researchers who focus not on Canadians’ attitudes, but on Canada’s immigration policies and the political system.

It starts with the demographic clout of Canada’s foreign-born voters. They made up 20.6 per cent of the total population in the 2011 census, the highest proportion among the G8 countries, far higher than the roughly 13 per cent in both the U.S. and Germany. It also matters that the vast majority of Canadian immigrants choose to live in big cities in Ontario, B.C., Quebec and Alberta.

University of Toronto political science professor Phil Triadafilopoulos stresses how immigrants to Canada become voting citizens more quickly than in other Western democracies, and how potent their votes have become in Canadian elections. “They don’t remain outsiders,” Triadafilopoulos says. “Politically, they become insiders very quickly.”

Prime Minister Trudeau attends the Vaisakhi on the Hill ceremony in Centre Block. April 11, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)
Prime Minister Trudeau attends the Vaisakhi on the Hill ceremony in Centre Block. April 11, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

In an influential 2013 paper entitled “Immigration, Citizenship and Canada’s New Conservative Party,” Triadafilopoulos and two co-authors, McMaster University’s Inder Marwah and Carleton University’s Stephen White, note that 84 per cent of eligible immigrants in Canada become citizens, compared to just 75 per cent in Australia, 56 per cent in Britain, and a mere 40 per cent in the U.S.

They emphasize research showing that voting among immigrant Canadians roughly matches turnout rates among native-born Canadians, and that immigrants are more likely than voters born here to pay attention to election news, including watching televised leaders’ debates.

Even more crucially, immigrants in Canada tend to cluster in Toronto and Vancouver, in what most political party election strategists view as key ridings. “To alienate large numbers of immigrant voters in dozens of federal ridings would almost certainly mean surrendering those ridings to other parties,” Triadafilopoulos, Marwah and White write.

Still, they point to “grassroots conservative opinion” that often seems resistant to high levels of immigration and policies promoting multiculturalism. That leads to what Triadafilopoulos, Marwah and White dub a “populist’s paradox” facing right-of-centre Canadian political leaders, who must find ways to speak to their base while also broadening their “ethnic” appeal.

It’s a dilemma that’s familiar to Preston Manning. He remembers coping with anti-immigrant bigots when he was leader of the upstart Reform party in the 1990s. “We had wild meetings,” Manning recalled in a recent interview. “Our first week in the ’97 campaign, we had ‘Let the People Speak.’ It was like Russian roulette. I would get up there and say, ‘Rather than us telling you what this election is about, you’re going to tell us what it’s about.’ There would be some good, ordinary people, but there would always be some nutcase who’d get up.”

Manning says he would try to politely disavow the nutcase’s anti-immigrant (or sometimes anti-Quebec) ideas without denouncing the individual. He now heads the Calgary-based Manning Centre, which trains Conservative political operatives, conducts research and holds a key annual gathering of the Canadian right in Ottawa.

At this year’s conference, held in late February, Manning urged Conservatives to try to harness the energy of Trump-era populism, rather than only “denounce and decry” its dark side. Talking of grassroots Conservatives who worry that multiculturalism and immigration threaten “Canada’s national values and identity,” Manning advised against “contemptuously dismissing [their] concerns.”

MORE: Q&A with Preston Manning on Canadian populism in the Trump era

But allowing anti-immigrant views any room to breathe has proven strategically risky. Former Tory prime minister Stephen Harper laboured hard to make inroads among immigrant voters, relying largely on tireless outreach efforts by Jason Kenney (who has left federal politics and is now seeking the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership). It paid off big in the Conservatives’ 2011 majority election win, which netted the Tories 32 of 47 seats in Toronto and its suburbs, where immigrants made up about half the population.

Then came the 2015 election reversal. Facing Trudeau’s challenge, the Conservatives stoked the part of their base that was alarmed by Islamic extremism or fundamentalism by proposing a ban on face veils during citizenship ceremonies, which Harper even said he would consider broadening to the federal public service. The Conservatives would also strip the Canadian citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorist offences and set up a “barbaric practices tip line.”

Chris Alexander, the former Conservative immigration minister who lost his Toronto-area seat in the 2015 election, later admitted that non-Muslim immigrant communities he didn’t anticipate would feel directly threatened by these controversial policies found them deeply unsettling. Those immigrant-heavy ridings swung almost entirely back to the Liberals.

“It was clear to me, and it’s even clearer in retrospect, that in urban Canada we were already in danger of being perceived as somehow an unwelcoming party,” Alexander, who is now running for the federal Tory leadership, said in an interview. “That was, in my view, undeserved. But in political terms, it was a disaster.”

Are Conservatives inclined to flirt with the same disaster again? Among the federal party’s 14 current leadership aspirants, Kellie Leitch, who proposes subjecting would-be immigrants to a Canadian “values test,” is clearly taking that gamble. She seems to be an outlier, though. Kevin O’Leary, seen by many as the race’s front-runner—and whose business and reality-TV resumé, and promises to slash taxes, invite Trump comparisons—shows zero inclination to mimic the president’s identity-politics blustering.

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Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary professor emeritus of political science and former Reform and Conservative campaign manager, says the Canadian way of selecting party leaders would likely frustrate an insurgency like Trump’s anyway. The U.S. primary system allows any American to vote for presidential nominees, so Trump was able to court votes from a broad, disaffected public. Canada’s next Conservative leader will be picked only by paid-up party members, which Flanagan says is a harder group for a risk-taking populist outsider to win over.

In any case, there’s just no Tory leadership aspirant who has the makings of a Canadian version of the current occupant of the White House. “Kellie Leitch is a very pallid imitation of Trump,” Flanagan says. “Kevin O’Leary isn’t even interested in the same kind of issues.”

If the Canadian election map makes taking an anti-immigrant line a losing proposition, and the Canadian way of choosing party leaders makes it hard for a populist outsider to win, there’s still the possibility that the Conservatives might try to activate the economic side of populism.

Even there, though, the formula behind Trump and Brexit doesn’t look like a natural fit in Canada. Trump blended his anti-immigrant rhetoric with promises to scrap or overhaul free-trade agreements. The Brexit forces linked discomfort with foreigners to resentment of the EU free-trading order. But in Canada, liberalized trade enjoys broad buy-in—particularly on the political right, and notably in the Conservatives’ resource-exporting western strongholds.

So echoing Trump and the Brexiters in railing against unfair foreign competition is a non-starter for Canadian Conservatives. That leaves, perhaps, finding a way to give voice to the anxieties of that broad swath of Canadians who, as Graves portrays them, fear that the middle class is shrinking and that opportunities for their children and grandchildren are dwindling.

But the Tories would find themselves playing catch-up with the Liberals when it comes to tailoring a populist message for those worried voters. Trudeau has been arguing since 2014 that failure to push income growth down from high-earners to middle-class families would eventually prompt a dangerous backlash. His answer, or at least part of it, came in last year’s budget, in the forms of a modest middle-income tax cut, an upper-income tax hike and a significant boost in federal payments to parents.

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Is more policy in the same vein coming in next month’s 2017 budget? In a significant recent speech in Germany, at Hamburg’s annual St. Matthew’s Day Banquet, Trudeau strongly suggested he isn’t done trying salve that middle-class sense of grievance. “With the pace of globalization and technological change,” he said, “there is a very real fear out there that our kids will be worse off than we are.”

Adopting his own version of the populist line, Trudeau took direct aim at corporations that post record profits but somehow can’t afford to offer job security to their workers. “Increasing inequality has made citizens distrust their governments, distrust their employers,” he added. “It turns into ‘us vs. them.’ ”

From the sounds of his Hamburg speech, Trudeau doesn’t intend to leave the next Conservative leader any easy opening to outdo him when it comes to giving voice to the disquiet of Canadians who believe the economic order is stacked against their families. It remains to be seen what additional policies the Liberals unveil in the upcoming budget to back up that rhetoric.

If Trudeau fails to deliver, a right-leaning populist might seize the chance to try to fill the vacuum. Overall, though, the prospects for a right-of-centre populist movement in Canada look dim, even though opinion in Canada, according to pollsters like Graves and academics like Donnelly, contains plenty of the same mix of fear and pessimism that fuelled Trump and Brexit.

There’s no shortage of Canadians who, if they’d heard Ted Falk wishing God’s blessing for Donald Trump, might well have said, “Amen.” But if they’re hoping that Trump-style populism will slip across the border and succeed in Canadian politics, they’re likely to discover that Canada’s welcoming reputation has its limits.