In the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency in November 2016, Canadian exceptionalism has enjoyed a healthy renaissance.
Trump’s nativist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric leading up to his election, and the turbulence that has characterized his administration since, have served as the perfect opportunity for Canadians to reassert themselves as a progressive beacon of human rights, tolerance and diversity in the world.
But a lingering question has lurked in the background: Could a right-wing populist in Trump’s mould succeed nationally in Canada?
The candidacy of Doug Ford for premier of Ontario appears to represent in the eyes of many Canadians their very own “Trump moment.”
Ford has been accused of being a vulgar, self-interested, dangerous populist by both media pundits and political opponents alike. Ford is the brother of the late Rob Ford, the equally populist onetime mayor of Toronto who infamously struggled with substance abuse issues.
Ford’s style and rhetoric have drawn direct comparisons to the 45th American president as he’s been branded a Northern tinpot Trump. Implicit in these comparisons is the idea that Ford, like Conservatives Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary before him, is merely mimicking Trump’s divisive style of politics in an effort to stir up the same type of populist resentment that swept across the United States in 2016 and propelled him to the Oval Office.
Many have dismissed the comparison, downplaying Ford’s populist credentials and similarities to Trump. But for those Canadians who have watched Trump in horror, and perhaps with a bit of schadenfreude, Ford represents a threat that has swept up from the south to infiltrate their peaceful, progressive, multicultural utopia.
While it’s convenient and comforting to position Ford as a cheap imitation of Trump’s political ideology and rhetoric, historical trends and recent developments in Canada reveal this isn’t really the case.
Populism, on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, has played a formative role in electoral politics at municipal, provincial and federal levels throughout Canadian history.
Furthermore, while many commentators and analysts have concluded that Canadian values simply won’t allow for the rise of the types of right-wing populism observed elsewhere, this only captures one piece of the populism puzzle that is troubling other countries around the world.
Historical roots of Canadian populism
At the heart of populism’s lure for politicians and citizens alike are appeals to a pure, mythic people against a corrupt, unresponsive political establishment.
Virtually all populist leaders seek to mobilize public disaffection with the political status quo by making visible some type of crisis that requires drastic, decisive action that only a populist leader can bring about.
The rhetoric of these appeals will vary from one context to the next based on the political, social and cultural milieu in which populism unfurls.
Canada’s experiences with populism date back to the period between the First and Second World Wars, when a large, well-organized agrarian populist movement sprung up across the Prairies. Opposed to the centralizing tendencies of the Ontario-based Liberal-Conservative coalition government, this movement eventually led to the formation of a number of highly successful political parties.
On the right, the socially conservative Alberta Social Credit Party would govern Alberta from 1935 to 1971, appealing to supporters with its opposition to the centralizing tendencies of the federal government and the creation of a federally administered welfare state.
Populism also played an important historical role in the development of leftist parties. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), eventually succeeded by the New Democratic Party, united labour activists, farmers and socialists to influence the trajectory of federal politics in Canada.
It led the movement for the development of a relatively strong and stable welfare state and socialist policies and programs.
Right-wing populism in Canada
While the left has drifted away from its populist roots, right-wing populism has continued to emerge periodically in recent Canadian political history.
A growing sense of western alienation and frustration with the Quebec sovereignty debate helped fuel the rise of the Reform Party in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Led by Preston Manning, Reform aimed to foster a divide between common, hard-working people and out-of-touch elites — in an effort to forge support for libertarian policy proposals designed to shrink the welfare state, oppose Quebec sovereignty, challenge multiculturalism, strengthen the jurisdiction of provinces and introduce greater direct democracy measures into political institutions.
The amalgamation of right-wing parties into the Conservative Party of Canada in 2003 has tempered the expression of populism as Conservative politicians have adopted the brokerage style of politics perfected by the Liberal Party.
But even under the leadership of Stephen Harper — a politician not considered particularly populist — the Conservatives regularly used populist rhetoric and appeals to help pass key pieces of legislation. From the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences and the scrapping of the long-form census, the Harper Conservatives framed many of their most controversial policy proposals as “common sense” and supported by the majority of Canadians.
What’s it all say about Doug Ford?
Examining Doug Ford’s campaign in light of the history of populism in Canada ought to provoke a rethinking of the labelling of Ford as “Trump Lite.” The brand of populism being practised by Ford in the Ontario provincial election campaign does not represent the importation of an American style of politics.
Instead, it’s better understood as an extension of populist strategies that have proven successful for Canadian right-wing politicians in the past.
Ford’s appeal to the common people based in promises to protect the hard-earned money of taxpayers, to clean up corruption and shrink government spending are more in line with the tradition of Canadian populism than they are with Donald Trump.
For the most part, Ford has stayed away from the nativist rhetoric of Trump, avoiding the topic of immigration and cultural integration altogether, preferring instead to base his appeal on economic resentment as opposed to cultural.
None of this is to say that Canadians concerned with the possibility of extremist political ideologies reaching the political mainstream should not oppose Ford or be concerned.
But to dismiss or criticize Ford as merely a Trump imitator is to ignore the evidence of racial and cultural resentment in Canada and the connection between recent hate crimes and acts of violence and right-wing extremist movements.
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If recent examples from Canadian politics have told us anything, it’s that mimicking populists from other parts of the world — particularly the U.S. — will not translate into electoral success.
The reason that Doug Ford may succeed where others like Leitch and O’Leary failed is because he represents a homegrown style of populism that connects with the cultural and political values of some Canadians.