Every time I see someone writing about Canadian populist movements and the dismissive concerns that it could never happen here, I always shake my head because it does happen. To an extent, we are living through it right now. The Canadian Press has been doing some surveys to try and discover what the “northern populism” might look like, and while it’s not quite the same as the forces that brought Donald Trump into power, it nevertheless exists here.
Part of the difference we see is that in Canada, those populist forces are less white than they are in the States or in Europe, but the focus remains the same, which are the perceived ills of the liberal (big or small L, take your pick) “elites.” It’s not a secret that the way that Conservatives like Jason Kenney targeted ethno-cultural minority communities was by focusing on socially conservative issues, whether it was their reticence to embrace same-sex marriage, or things like marijuana, those were cues that helped them tap into those communities the ways that other populist movements haven’t, who are too busy dog-whistling to appeal to the more blatant racists. And while there are those undercurrents in Canadian populist movements, for which things like immigration remains a bugaboo, Canadian conservatives have managed to tap into a particular vein of “it’s not our immigrant community that’s the problem, it’s those other immigrants that are,” and that set up a kind of justification that “hey, we can’t be racists because these immigrants don’t approve of that immigration policy,” never mind that yes, immigrants can be intolerant of other racial or ethno-cultural minority groups that aren’t their own.
But populism is not a spent force in Canada. We saw how it operated with Rob Ford, and it’s alive and well in Alberta as they try to harness it into an anti-NDP political party. To an extent, the federal Conservatives and NDP have largely abandoned their own ideological underpinnings to be right or left-flavoured populists, and yes, there is a great deal of populist rhetoric underpinning the Liberal electoral platform, with appeals to this nebulous middle class that has no data to back up their claims (like stagnant wages for one spectacular example). Was Justin Trudeau able to harness it more effectively than his opponents? Yes. Does that mean that the scourge of populism that gave the Americans the Trumpocalypse is absent here? Not at all. That the composition is slightly different is an academic difference, but not reassuring in the least.