Canada’s multiculturalism policies make it appear Canadians could be immune to populism. Could a country committed to preserving and enhancing its multicultural heritage be seduced by populism, so often associated with nativism and nationalism?
Even though the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) failed to win a single seat in the recent federal election, it still tripled its share of the popular vote. That requires a serious discussion about contemporary Canadian populism, since it’s posing risks to the tenor of Canadian politics and the unity of the country.
First we need to clarify what’s actually meant by the term populism. Often conflated with its far-right proponents, populism in Canada has historically allowed its adherents to gain visibility on the political stage. Populism, as a strategy, gave rise to parties like Social Credit that was particularly popular in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and made personalities of people like William Aberhart, the first Social Credit premier of Alberta, and former Reform Party leader Preston Manning.
Over the course of Canadian history, populism has been associated with a wide variety of ideologies — from socialism to neoliberalism, represented by parties ranging from the progressive, socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) founded in the 1930s to the right-wing, western Canada-based Reform Party. Populism’s foundation is the opposition between ostensibly moral citizens and corrupt elites.
During the 2021 federal election, populism was clearly associated with the anti-vax movement, and linked mostly to the PPC led by former Conservative cabinet minister Maxime Bernier.
While the PPC only got five per cent of the popular vote (842,969 ballots), that was a marked increase from the 1.6 per cent it won in the 2019 election. The party received more than half its votes in Ontario and Québec. The PPC platform draws on the supposed divide between Canadians and corrupt establishment parties or bureaucrats.
Wexit: Another form of Canadian populism
The Wexit movement is another current and ongoing example of Canadian populism, represented by the federal Maverick Party (formerly known as Wexit Canada) founded by Alberta separatist Peter Downing in 2020 and led since then by former Conservative MP Jay Hill.
The party and its provincial branches draw on a long history of separatism in the West — from the Reform Party to the Western Canada Concept, the Western Block Party and the Western Independence Party. It aims to gain political power the way the Bloc Québecois has managed to do in Québec.
But the Mavericks only won 35,278 votes in the election, mostly in Alberta (25,718) and Saskatchewan (7,250).
The populist movement in western Canada is driven by the persistent feeling of “western alienation” — the continued impression that the West lacks control over the federal political agenda. Some in the West feel they’re poorly represented in federal politics and that eastern Canada takes advantage of and benefits from their natural resources.
The rhetoric of western alienation is used to denounce federal or eastern control over provincial affairs and the supposed obstacles the federal government places in the way of the West’s economic development — from the carbon tax to equalization programs.
There’s also resentment fuelled by the perception that Québec is privileged at the expense of the West.
Again, true to most populist movements, western alienation draws on a supposed opposition between upstanding citizens (the resource-producing, hard-working, dispossessed people of the West) and the elites who they believe steal from them (the federal government, the liberal elites of Ottawa, but also multiculturalists and environmentalists).
Of course, contemporary populism in the West doesn’t come from nowhere — the region has experienced serious employment issues. Since 2014, 23 per cent of jobs in the oil and gas industry in Canada have been lost. Alberta and Saskatchewan, dependent on oil-extractive industries, have been particularly hard hit.
The state of populism post-election
So what did Canada’s current populism movement achieve during the election campaign?
It showed today’s populists can disrupt campaigns, sometimes using violence.
They can fuel debate on narrowly held views like anti-vaccination, and consequently distract from issues Canadians most care about, like income inequality, job creation and climate action.
They can destabilize and have an impact on the platforms of conventional, mainstream parties and influence the popular vote.
Finally, some forms of contemporary populism in Canada, like Wexit, are closely aligned with the interests of the oil industry and its expansion — not necessarily with its workers. It links popular resentment with a powerful industry’s interests.
As illustrated by the Confederation of Tomorrow surveys — annual studies conducted by an association of Canadian public policy organizations — Canada is a divided nation. The main areas of tension concern, notably, the nature of the values that Canadians believe they share.
Contemporary Canadian populism reinforces these moral divides — between westerners and eastern Canadians, between environmentalist and “energy citizens,” between anti-vaxxers and those who favour COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
It’s true that Bernier failed to get re-elected in his own Québec riding and that the Maverick Party only gained a scattering of votes. But that hardly means populism is defeated in Canada.