Frank Graves is president of Ottawa-based EKOS Research Associates. Michael Valpy is a fellow of University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance.
Now that the flag of populism has been planted firm in Ontario’s soil, it is necessary to recognize that the province’s new, soon-to-be-sworn-in Progressive Conservative government very much is not a product of Ontario’s traditional conservative constituency.
It is not rooted in older males optimistic about the economy and seeing Canada as an agreeable sort of place. Rather, a majority of males between the ages of 20 and 55 appears to have handed Doug Ford power over the next four years, and his supporters are, by and large, anything but optimistic about the economy or, for that matter, anything else.
EKOS research finds them deeply and consistently angry at elites, anti-intellectual, chafing at political correctness, largely tepid toward trade and globalization, staunchly opposed to immigration – and especially to non-white immigration – receptive to bromides about “restoring greatness”and “taking back control” and wanting to bring back lost security and class privilege.
The trigger of their discontent is that they belong to that sizeable chunk of the province’s population who have been standing still or moving backward in the economy over the past 30 or so years, and who do not see things getting better in the future.
Many perceive themselves to have fallen out of the middle class or have only a tenuous middle-class connection. They see that the things that permitted them to participate in the middle class in the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of this century – the housing and equity markets, for example – are no longer in place.
They have been, until now, in the blind spot of Canadian political life, the fact of their existence not just ignored, but largely denied by media and political elites, their anger and dissatisfaction incommensurable with the frame of reference of the larger, more comfortable segment of the Canadian population. Their votes on June 7 were the manifestation of Canadian inequality – the protests of people falling behind.
Does this sound familiar?
Yes, there are echoes of the vote creating premier-to-be Doug Ford in Ontario to the vote that gave Americans Donald Trump in the most recent U.S. presidential election and gave Britons a “Leave” outcome in the referendum on Brexit.
It is the electoral voices of people who have been told trade liberalization is good for them, globalization is good for them, even neoliberalism is good for them, while the reality of their lives is that those contracts haven’t worked, with the result that there are people living in two different worlds in the United States and Britain, and, to a significant degree, in Canada as well.
Being told that Mr. Ford is unfit to lead Canada’s largest subnational government is unhelpful – first, because a lot of their unhappiness and anger is rooted in real changes in their conditions, which governments, despite their rhetoric, have not ameliorated; second, because depicting them as the deplorables, as Hillary Clinton did in the U.S. presidential election, merely engages them more deeply and emotionally.
What’s different in Ontario is that the boundaries of populism have not been restricted to the white portion of the population and may be defined as much by class and cultural factors and a shared sense of resentment over issues such as progressive sex education in the schools and sexual and gender identities seen as non-conforming.
It’s worth noting that the lawsuit by Mr. Ford’s sister-in-law announced just before voting day had no negative impact, suggesting his support from voters borders on something primordial.
Canadian elites – the media in the forefront – so rarely address the underlying issues of populism, merely browbeat and ridicule the adherents. Little wonder they appear to want to burn the house down.
A better political approach might be to make a priority of restoring economic growth with equal opportunities to participate across generations and across classes, to look at what’s behind anti-immigrant sentiments, to engage in active labour-market programs with a strong commitment to trades and a skills-based agenda, to address the alarming – in fact, scary – trends showing that young people in the Western liberal democracies are turning their backs on democracy and indicating they would favour strongman leaders.