[ANALYSIS] Is Canada really immune to populism?

Marites N. Sison

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[ANALYSIS] Is Canada really immune to populism?
The populist People’s Party of Canada may have failed to gain a single seat in the country’s recent election, but its far-right platform is here to stay

A week ago, when Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau won a second term, although with a humbling minority, several people happily declared on Twitter: “Canada didn’t fall for populism” or “Canada didn’t fall to fascism.” A Toronto Star headline declared, “Canada gives populist wave a thunderous ‘meh.’” 

Earlier, progressive Canadians had expressed concerns that Canada would follow the nationalist-populist, right-wing trend that had swept its neighbour to the South and parts of Europe and Asia. Or that, at the very least, the whole of Canada would suffer the same fate as one of its provinces, Ontario, which elected a Conservative premier a year ago and is now reeling from disastrous cuts to education, social services, science and research, the environment, arts and culture, among other programs. 

Fears of a populist surge emerged when right-wing fringe candidate Maxime Bernier and his fledgling People’s Party of Canada (PPC) entered the picture, vowing to repeal the Multiculturalism Act and to accept fewer immigrants and refugees. The party, which was accused of having ties to white supremacist groups and having candidates who were racists and mysognists, had managed to raise $300,000 a few hours after it registered with Elections Canada.  

Even Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who cast himself as an “anti-fascist” option, had been accused of dog whistle politics and had played the populist card during the election campaign. At the Roxham Road in Quebec, where thousands of asylum seekers have crossed from the U.S. to Canada since 2017, Scheer raised the spectre of the notorious MS-13, a Salvadoran-American gang frequently invoked by US President Trump when pushing for harsh anti-immigrant policies. 

When the election results came in, they were dismal – for Bernier and his party. The PPC won zero seats and less than 2% of the popular vote. Bernier, who had served under the Conservative Party until he formed the PPC in 2018, lost his own seat in the riding of Beauce, Que., which he represented since 2006. 

The Conservatives lost the election, but won the popular vote – 34.4%, compared with the Liberal Party’s 33.1%. They also gained 22 seats more than in 2015. 

That the People’s Party performed badly was, according to some political observers, not surprising. “Canadian voters don’t and won’t soon support the kind of overt racism that Bernier courted,” David Laycock, a political science professsor at Simon Fraser University, told the Canadian Press. 

“Comparative public opinion data on immigration and multiculturalism show that while Canada isn’t the multicultural utopia that some commentators contend, Canadians don’t feel comfortable with explicit attacks on minority groups, and value ethnic diversity far more than most Europeans do.”

Still, others –  myself, included – believe that this is not the end for Bernier’s type of politics.

Deeply divided

For one, the election had been the nastiest one in recent memory, and its results showed a country deeply polarized along regional, cultural, and ideological lines. 

Trudeau may have won, but his party lost 27 seats and his government’s share of popular vote was the smallest of any government – majority or minority – in the country’s history. The Liberals where completely shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan where the Conservatives reigned, and lost ground in many parts of the West Coast and across Canada. 

The sovereigntist party Bloc Quebecois regained power in Quebec, reclaimed official party status and became the second opposition in the House of Commons, edging out the left-leaning National Democratic Party, which lost 15 seats. 

Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet attributed his party’s gains to a rekindled sense of nationalism among Quebecers. The Bloc had also championed Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law, which prohibits civil employees from wearing religious symbols while in the line of duty. Critics of the bill claim it disproportionately targets Muslim women.

“The Liberal victory pitted big cities against rural regions, the North against southern cousins and the old against the young,” observed the Globe and Mail. “Younger urban and northern ridings largely remained with the centre-left parties, while aging rural areas were resoundingly Conservative and Bloc Québécois.”

The morning after the election, “Wexit,” which called on Western Canada to exit or separate from Canada was trending on social media. Days after the election, someone spray-painted a vulgar mysognistic slur on the front window of the campaign office of reelected Liberal Catherine McKenna, the environment and climate change minister for the last four years under Trudeau. 

“There are people out there who are feeling disaffected, who are sensitive to and attuned to the politics of the negative, the politics of division, the politics of playing people off people and playing off stereotypes,” Conservative strategist and Summa Strategies vice-chairman Tim Powers told the Canadian Press. “That is worrying and it ought to be a worry for all parties – particularly as we’re talking about unity and tone and the like – that Maxime Bernier was able to get the attention that he did. Because he did get attention, a disproportionate amount.”

One wonders whether strategic voting – not just a disavowal of populist, right-wing politics – had played a role in the PPC’s defeat. It should also be noted that the PPC was only formed a year ago, and yet nearly 300,000 Canadians voted for its candidates. (Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) narrowly missed the 5% electoral threshold for the Bundestag in 2013, the year it was formed, only to emerge the third largest party in 2017. Its growth had, of course, been fuelled by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of Europe’s unprecedented refugee crisis.) 

Nothing new

Other observers maintain, however, that disunity is part of Canada’s DNA. “In a land as large and diverse as Canada, regional conflict is to be expected. It is inevitable. A degree of disunity has come to be an almost permanent condition,” public affairs columnist Lawrence Martin wrote in the Globe and Mail.

Martin noted instances in Canadian history marked by similar divisions, including the 1980s, when the oil crises of the previous decade lingered, giving way to stagflation – economic stagnation and inflation – and then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s unpopularity in Western Canada led to the rise of the right-wing Reform Party and what became known as “western alienation.”

Still, it can be argued that the world is much more different now than it was 30 years ago. One need only look at what happened to the U.S., with the election of Trump, or in Europe, with Brexit, and the role that social media has played in stoking nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly among those who feel they have been left behind or that the white race is being wiped out with the arrival of “the other.”  

Canada was lucky that despite a faltering economy in the Prairies, the rest of Canada was, according to economists, doing rather well during this election. History has shown that immigrants are often the scapegoats during an economic downturn, and one wonders what the outcome would have been if this had been the case during this election. Canada has also luckily not seen the same level of terrorism as the U.S., U.K. and France that could have easily been exploited by the far right.

In the 1980s, immigrants accounted for only 16% of Canada’s population; today, nearly 22% are immigrants. Statistics Canada projects that if current immigration levels continue, by 2036, nearly half of the population will be immigrants or children of immigrants. The number of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are also expected to rise (from 9% to 13-16%).  If this isn’t giving white supremacists sleepless nights, I don’t know what else would.

One would hope that given Canada’s colonial history, its Chinese head tax and exclusion act in the 1880s, and the internment of Japanese-Canadians in 1942, Canadians would not be so smug and so complacent as to think that the politics of hate and fear has not infected its body politic. – Rappler.com 

Marites Sison is a journalist based in Toronto

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