On October 21, Canada had an election and our rather mild version of right wing populism lost. Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives received 34.4 % of the vote and Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party 1.6%. That’s only 36% of the vote for Canada’s right wing, populist parties.
Centre-left parties received over 63% of the vote with the Liberals receiving 33.1%, the NDP 15.7%, the Bloc 7.7%, and the Greens 6.6%.
In contrast, U.S. President Donald Trump’s “favourables” continue to be in the very respectable low 40’s – despite the televised impeachment proceedings where witnesses have testified that Trump held up aid to the Ukraine in order to pressure it to investigate former Vice-President Biden’s son’s business dealings in that country. In fact, Trump’s favourables are pretty much where they have been since he was elected and no serious observer is ruling out the possibility that he will be re-elected in 2020.
And in the U.K., the most recent polls suggest that hard-line Brexit Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a large lead in the days leading up to the December 13, election. In the latest round of U.K. polls, Johnson has, on average, the support of 42% of the vote compared to the second place Labour Party’s 28%.
So why did right wing populism have such a poor showing in the October 21 Canadian election while it appears to be on the rise in similar jurisdictions such as the U.S. and U.K.?
Why Canadian identity is different
In other Western countries, right-wing populism has emerged as a politics of us-versus-them. It pits members of a white majority that speaks the same language against immigrants and minorities, driven by a sense that a cohesive national identity is under threat.
National identity works differently in Canada. Canada may still have a white majority but we have two official languages and cultures – French and English. And to a great extent, they continue to exist as two solitudes.
This makes it difficult for any one political party to appeal to both groups’ sense of cultural threat. In practice, what this means is that while the Conservative Party may be able to appeal to many “old stock”, Anglo-Canadians using “dog whistle”, anti-immigration language, it has trouble appealing to francophone Quebecers’ sense of cultural threat at the same time.
That’s because the Conservatives are, in a very real sense, playing on English-speaking Canadians’ sense that their English Canadian culture is under seige by immigration. As such, Quebecers do not see the Conservative Party as advocates of French speaking Quebec. This largely explains the persistence of the Bloc as a strong nationalist political force in that province.
Of greater importance in understanding the 2019 election outcome, however, is the prevalence of a liberal Canadian “identity” in Canada’s four largest cities: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa (and, to a lesser extent, other larger Ontario urban centres and Winnipeg).
In all four cities, a significant majority of both “old stock” Canadians and “new” Canadians, understand Canadian identity as something that not only can accommodate official bilingualism and biculturism, but that is enhanced by the inclusion of immigrants from every corner of the earth.
This liberal idea of what it means to be a Canadian manifested itself in the 2019 election in the form of the Liberals dominating Greater Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver. And while the NDP, led by Jagmeet Singh, had some success in Vancouver, it could be argued that the former criminal lawyer and trilingual (English, French, Punjabi) Singh, is the virtual embodiment of this urban liberal ideal of Canada.
In summary, while there may be many Canadians (especially in rural and small town Canada) with a strong sense of an English or French Canadian identity under threat, it is almost impossible for any one political party to be the populist champion of both groups during an election.
Moreover, a majority of Canadians live in Canada’s larger cities where bilingualism and biculturalism are a fact of life (Ottawa and Montreal) or where visible minorities combined with first and second generation European immigrants (Italian, Greek, etc.), are an overwhelming majority (Toronto and Vancouver). In these four cities, not only is there an acceptance of bilingualism and multiculturism but these notions virtually define what it means to be Canadian.
As Justin Trudeau told the New York Times Magazine in 2015, Canada is the world’s first “post-national state,” with “no core identity” or “mainstream.”
Of course, in his comments Trudeau ignored the large minority of Canadians who do have a sense of a particular cultural identity under threat that they attribute to immigration. It’s just that those who view immigrants as a threat are a minority in Canada and in most national elections (including in 2019), this minority votes along linguistic lines for the Conservative Party (English-speakers) or the Bloc (French-speakers), thereby minimizing their political impact.
In contrast, a significant majority of Canadians voted for the Liberals, NDP and Greens in 2019 – and that majority is very comfortable with a Canada that has “no core identity” or “mainstream” defined in racial, ethnic or linguistic terms.
Canadian identity as “not being American”.
Though one, core Canadian identity may not exist in racial, linguistic, or religious terms for a majority of Canadians, Canadian insistence on not being American is a powerful force from B.C. to the Maritimes.
In the same interview where he lauded Canada’s post-national character, Justin Trudeau also claimed that, while there is no core Canadian identity, “there are shared values—openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.”
Here, the Prime Minister was echoing his father, Pierre Trudeau, who said in his Memoirs that “with the charter [Canada’s constitutionally enshrined bill of rights] in place, we can now say that Canada is a society where all people are equal and where they share some fundamental values based on freedom. The search for this Canadian identity, as much as my philosophical views, had led me to insist on the charter.”
In the eyes of a majority of Canadians, this is what distinguishes Canada from Donald Trump’s America today. For this majority, to be Canadian is to reject whatever is understood as American illiberalism. This means embracing things like public heath care, multi-lateralism in foreign policy, pro-choice on abortion, multiculturalism and strong climate change policy. The values that undergird this liberal identity are buzzwords such as openness, equality, and justice.
In summary, for a majority of Canadians, their “Canadian identity” is not rooted in a particular language, ethnicity, race or religion but in a set of liberal values. This helps explain why the forces of racial and linguistic backlash almost always fall short in Canada in national elections. Essentially, for a majority of Canadians, their identity is rooted in a commitment to bilingualism, biculturalism and multiculturalism and as a result, there is no particularist force around which a majoritarian backlash against immigrants and visible minorities can build.
Of course, in certain regions of Canada (in fact, much of rural and small town Canada), there will always be considerable resistance to official bilingualism and multiculturalism. In short, in these regions, the notion of a Canadian identity as a set of liberal values is not embraced. However, to the extent that this resistance is a factor in national elections, it takes the form of a minority backlash rooted in Canada’s two solitudes, led by two separate political parties (the Conservative Party and the Bloc), championing two different “national” identities (English and French).
Right wing populism may not be a threat nationally but fragmentation is.
The end result is that while right wing populism is unlikely to gain power nationally, there is always a serious danger of national fragmentation.
In 2018, Quebec elected the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) for the first time in its history, breaking the dominance of the Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Quebecois. The CAQ has passed a secularism law that bans some public servants from wearing religious symbols, plans to cut immigration numbers, and wants to impose a values test on new migrants. Premier François Legault has explicitly said that he wants more immigrants to come from Europe (as opposed to non-white countries). The government has also said it plans to transfer the control of some anglophone schools over to francophone boards—all moves very popular with French-speakers outside of Montreal.
The secularism bill is already being challenged in the courts, but Legault has threatened to invoke the “notwithstanding clause,” a section of the charter that allows governments to overturn a court ruling for a limited period of time. (The clause was included theoretically to preserve parliamentary supremacy, but it is rarely used and only applies to certain sections of the charter.)
While federal politicians and defenders of the charter regime like Justin Trudeau have been rather muted in their reaction to the law, the return of nationalism to Quebec politics does not appear to be a temporary aberration. The 2019 federal election saw the autonomist Bloc Quebecois party, a party that seemed until recently to be in terminal decline, win 32 seats – up from 10 in the 2015 election.
But Quebec isn’t the only part of Canada that has a distinct sense of itself. Partly as a response to the liberal nation-building project that Pierre Trudeau embarked on, Western Canada began to develop its own identity, one that was built on a deep sense of alienation from the perceived domination of Canada by Ontario and Quebec.
In fact, Alberta and Saskatchewan have begun to develop their own strange form of “petro-nationalism,” closely connected to their oil and natural gas resources and fueled by political grievances over stalled and failed attempts to build new pipelines and energy infrastructure. Newly elected Alberta premier, Jason Kenney, is the face of this petro-nationalism.
Indeed, the most palpable fragmentation today is in Western Canada, not Quebec. Pierre Trudeau’s post-national liberal project led to a widespread feeling in the west that Trudeau had attempted to appease Quebec at their expense. From a western perspective, federal transfer programs and energy policy moved wealth from west to east, bilingualism felt like an imposition in places where francophones were a tiny minority, and incessant constitutional debates about Quebec as a distinct society found little sympathy in the west.
But to return to the main argument of this post, there is no chance that western alienation and Quebec nationalism will threaten the liberalism of the majority of Canadians.
This is because there is a deep divide between Quebec and Alberta on climate change policy (and other issues) and as the post-election conversation between the two provinces becomes more adversarial, the divide is becoming deeper.
In fact, according to an Abacus poll published earlier this week, the percentage of Quebecers who would have Alberta separate from Canada is higher than the proportion of Albertans who would actually opt to leave!
In summary, weak national attachments, strong regional ties, and growing inter-regional resentments all point to a future in which fragmentation is a real possibility in Canada. But that fragmentation will not lead to a right wing populist government in Ottawa.
While in the 2019 election, a majority embrace of a Canadian identity rooted in liberal principles may have inoculated Canada against the sort of nationalist populism springing up in other Western countries, it has also created an opening for regional attachments and divisions rooted in the fact that at the regional level, there may very well be certain provinces (Quebec, Alberta, etc.) where a majority do feel that their core identity is under threat.
So while the majority of Canadians remain wedded to the liberal values of official bilingualism and multiculturalism, the Liberal minority government will have to acknowledge strong regional identities in provinces such as Alberta and Quebec where the majority do not necessarily share these liberal values.
That said, one only has to see how quickly Rogers’ Sportsnet fired Don Cherry over his “immigrants should wear poppies” remarks to see that for the majority of Canadians, Justin Trudeau’s view that Canadians can be defined by their belief in the shared values of “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice”, remains the dominant view in Canada.
Rogers obviously feared that advertisers would flee the show if Cherry was kept on.
In other words, the liberal national identity of the majority of Canadians made their voice heard on election night and in the aftermath of the Cherry rant.