Andrew Potter is an assistant professor at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
Ever since Donald Trump won the American presidency in 2016 with a toxic combination of sexism, vulgarity and the brazen courting of white nationalists, Canadian academics, pundits and pollsters have been obsessed with the question: “Could it happen here?”
By “it,” they mean the rumblings of discontent that have propelled right-wing populists to power across the West. Mr. Trump and Brexit are the most widely cited examples of the phenomenon, but almost every country has been implicated to some extent. Except, apparently, Canada, where the answer to the question of whether it could happen here is typically “yes, but.…”
That is, what we get is some dire reading of the tea leaves (it could happen here!) countered by a renewed faith in Canada’s continuing exceptionalism, thanks in large part to our healthier institutions and superior values.
But the truth is, not only can populism happen here – it already has. The reason most observers miss this is that they are working with a conception of populism that doesn’t really apply to the Canadian context.
The standard academic take is that populism is an ideological empty vessel, capable of taking left-wing or right-wing forms depending on the particular national context. But regardless of its shape, at the core of the populist instinct is the idea of a pure or authentic people being exploited or humiliated by a corrupt elite. As a consequence, populists typically deny the legitimacy of mainstream political and legal institutions, reject the value of experts such as academics and scientists, and demonize immigrants and refugees.
This last characteristic is the one most people have in mind when they worry about populism. And there are good reasons to be worried, especially in an immigrant-heavy country such as Canada. But while it is worth keeping an eye on changes in our usual welcoming approach, when it comes to populism, it’s not clear how relevant it is to the Canadian context.
That’s because populism in Canada isn’t, and probably never will be, about an authentic original people being diluted by an immigrant tide or debased by a class of globalist elites. Yes, there’s some of that to be found here, but it will never go anywhere, precisely because there never has been a single overriding dominant settler culture. From Canada’s earliest days there were always two or three distinct cultures striving for control. There simply is no “authentic” Canadian identity to serve as the focus for resentful nostalgists.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no populism here. There’s plenty of it – in many ways, Canada is the most populist-ridden country going. It just takes a form where we don’t recognize it as populism. Instead, we call it regionalism.
We usually talk about Canada’s regional identities as a point of pride, the sort of thing that spurs singalong tunes by Stompin’ Tom Connors or the Tragically Hip. But there is a dark side to it, part of which was brought to light earlier this year in a major survey done by Angus Reid on Western alienation and the state of the federation.
The striking thing the survey revealed is how much Canadians don’t particularly like one another, with British Columbia and Quebec particularly isolated. To the extent that there is any interprovincial amity, it’s completely local. Saskatchewan and Alberta currently have a little bromance going, and the people in the Maritimes all seem to like one another well enough. But after that, it’s pretty much either resentment or indifference across the board, and a sharp reminder of how weak Canadian nationalism is. Forget the two solitudes – we’ve got like seven of them.
What motivates this regionalism is a complicated mix of history, demographic shifts and economic fortunes. What is remarkable, though, is how often it manifests as a hatred of elites, especially the “Laurentian elite” in the Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal triangle and the institutions they control. On this view, the “authentic” Canadians are the regional peoples – the Québécois or the Maritimers or the Albertans or the Cascadians, all of whom are lorded over in their own way by the cosmopolitan elites in Ottawa.
This is populism of a highly regionalist sort. But whereas the current Quebec version, as practised by François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec, is strongly anti-immigrant, in general regionalist populism is highly congenial to being on good terms with newcomers. This is something that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have proven more than willing to exploit, with a considerable amount of success.
The upshot is that all the worrying over whether the right-wing populists will take power in Canada misses the fact that they already have. They’ve merely taken to the provincial level of politics to air their grievances and accomplish their goals.