In the aftermath of the 2016 election and the rapid spread of populism around the globe, one country seemed immune: Canada. Justin Trudeau, the charismatic, dashing, and woke prime minister, sees himself as progressive liberalism’s leading light. But Canada is ripe for a populist revolt, and Trudeau may end up being its perfect catalyst.
Contrary to its mild-mannered international image, Canada has a long history of populism. Its upper crust are sometimes referred to as the “Laurentian elite.” Concentrated in downtown Toronto, Montréal, and Ottawa, these are Canada’s equivalent of East Coast elites. They dominate their country’s political, academic, cultural, media, and business institutions, and are ideologically homogeneous.
But during the 20th century, a new political axis emerged in Western Canada that challenged the unquestioned dominance of the eastern elites. The west grew at a much faster rate than other parts of the country, and provinces like Alberta and British Columbia began to demand a greater say in Canadian governance. Canadian populist movements frequently get their start out west, where feelings of being treated like second-class citizens are common. Both the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) and the New Democratic Party (NDP) have their roots in western populism.
In 1980, Pierre Trudeau introduced the National Energy Program, an attempt to redistribute Alberta’s oil wealth. To many westerners, this was nothing more than a political decision to subsidize eastern Canada at the expense of the west. It led to an extreme distrust of the federal government that eventually birthed the Reform Party in 1987, which campaigned on the slogan “The West Wants In.” By 1997, it was the official opposition, helping to bring about the collapse of the old Progressive Conservative Party (PC). In 2003, Reform and the remnants of the PC merged to create the current Conservative Party, leading to a nearly decade-long government led by Stephen Harper.
After Harper’s majority victory in the 2011 election, Canadian commentators began to openly talk of the collapse of the Laurentian consensus and the westward shift of Canada’s center of political gravity. Harper, who has just released a book on global populism, is a man of humble origins, and was widely loathed by the elites. His defeat in 2015 was for many elites a restoration of the natural governing order. But this masked trends that cast doubt on Canada’s populist exceptionalism. When Trudeau was elected, there were Liberal premiers in virtually every Canadian province. But by the upcoming 2019 federal election, it is likely that only Nova Scotia and Newfoundland will still be red.
Doug Ford, brother of the infamous late mayor of Toronto Rob Ford, is in many ways the physical embodiment of Canadian populism. Ford took over the reins of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party just months before the provincial election this summer. But this did not prevent him from winning a decisive majority and reducing the previous Liberal government to just seven seats. Ford is the antithesis of an elite. He’s a college dropout, visibly overweight, and talks about “stopping the gravy train.” A businessman whose only previous elected position was as a city councillor, Ford lacks the polished vocabulary of other politicians, and ran a campaign championing the common man and attacking “insiders and political elites.” Since becoming premier, Ford has pushed populist policies, much to the chagrin of elites.
This was followed by another seismic election in Québec. The governing Liberal Party (QLP) was swept out of office by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), formed just seven years ago. Since 1970, Québec’s government has alternated between the Liberals and the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ), resulting in a social democratic consensus built on high taxes and large federal subsidies. The results were historically bad for the PQ and QLP, which both received their worst ever share of the vote. The PQ were even reduced to third place behind the young socialist party, Québec Solidaire. The new premier, François Legault, is a Québec nationalist, but not a separatist, who has promised to reduce immigration and ban some civil servants from wearing religious symbols.
New Brunswick’s recent election resulted in a hung parliament in which the Green Party and the populist People’s Alliance collectively won a quarter of the vote and three seats each. In tiny Prince Edward Island, the provincial Green Party is currently projected to form the next government. And at the federal level, the maverick MP Maxime Bernier left the Conservative Party to form his own part-libertarian, part-populist People’s Party of Canada (PPC). Bernier’s break with the Conservatives coincided with a shift away from a focus solely on libertarian pet issues like Canada’s supply managed dairy system and towards what he calls the “extreme multiculturalism and the cult of diversity” of the governing Liberals.
Historic defeats for Liberals in Ontario and Québec, and the rise of non-establishment politicians and parties, suggest that Canada’s political establishment may be facing its own crisis of confidence. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 80 percent of Canadians surveyed think elites who run institutions are out of touch with regular people. Less than half (49 percent) said they trust key institutions like government, media, and businesses.
But the real backlash may be building out west. A series of events have conspired to reignite dormant western alienation. The western Canadian economy, especially Alberta, is heavily built on oil and energy. But future growth is dependent on pipelines to get products to market. A dispute over the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline—which resulted in a trade war between British Columbia and Alberta, the federal government agreeing to purchase the pipeline, and then a decision by a federal court in August to overturn the pipeline’s approval—has cast serious doubts on the prospect of future natural resource development.
Combined with a proposed carbon tax that is extremely unpopular with conservatives and westerners, there is a rekindled alienation, “the belief that no one in Ottawa—judges or politicians—either understands or cares about the Western energy industries and the people who work in them.” For many westerners, it isn’t a coincidence that these problems are occurring under another Trudeau. According to a recent Ipsos poll, just 19 percent of western Canadians polled agreed that their views are adequately represented in Ottawa. The animosity that existed in the west towards the old Progressive Conservative Party that allowed for the rise of Reform does not yet exist with the federal Conservatives. But there is ample reason to think that it is not a matter of if but when something or someone will capture this sentiment.
There are other signs that Canada may end up as a breeding ground for populism. Quilette, one of the emerging platforms of the “intellectual dark web,” now has a Canadian editor, and frequently shines the spotlight on Canadian issues. Rebel Media, a far-right website with over a million YouTube subscribers whose list of current or former contributors includes Seb Gorka, Faith Goldy, Gavin McInnes, and Lauren Southern, is Canadian-based. Jordan Peterson, perhaps the second most famous Canadian on the planet after Trudeau, grew up in Alberta and is still a professor at the University of Toronto.
The great irony of this simmering populism is that the man heralded as the symbol of Canada’s immunity, Justin Trudeau, may end up igniting it. Trudeau is polarizing figure and his progressive theatrics irritate many. This summer, while NAFTA negotiations were still ongoing, Trudeau gave a commencement speech at NYU in which he urged graduates to fight “aggressive nationalism” and act as unifiers “because if you want to bring people around to your way of thinking, you need to first show them that you are open to theirs.”
The problem with Trudeau is he peddles exactly the sort divisive politics he claims to reject. Trudeau’s government has tabled a “gender-based” budget, denied funding for summer jobs to groups that refuse to bend the knee on abortion, accused his opponents of practicing “the politics of fear and division,” and let his foreign affairs minister speak at a conference about the “rise of autocrats” that featured Trump in a video alongside Assad, Putin, and Duterte. Just recently he referred to the opposition as “ambulance chasers” for daring to criticize the transfer of a woman convicted of helping her boyfriend rape and murder an eight-year-old girl to a minimum security indigenous healing lodge.
Large sections of Canadian society, especially men, feel as though Trudeau views them as the same kind of “basket of deplorables” that Hillary Clinton openly derided. Trudeau’s environment minister has said she has “no time for folks who are like, you know, we shouldn’t take [climate] action.” The male finance minister responded to a female opposition MP who challenged his gender-based budget by saying “we will drag along the Neanderthals who don’t agree.” The arrogance and righteousness Trudeau and his allies display is bound, sooner rather than later, to create the kind of backlash that progressive elites in other Western countries have faced.
For someone who loves to talk about “ordinary Canadians,” Trudeau is a man who exudes privilege. It is unlikely that he would be an MP, let alone prime minister, were it not for his last name. And yet he may just end up being Canadian populism’s best friend. Back in 2015, Canada’s traditional elites thought that the defeat of Stephen Harper represented the restoration of normalcy. Little could they have known that a far greater backlash might be coming, one that their chosen savior might end up helping to ignite.
Benjamin L. Woodfinden is a doctoral student in Political Science at McGill University in Montréal. He has been published in The American Conservative, Maclean’s, Real Clear Policy, and the Ottawa Citizen.