Is Canada turning Trump-ward? The recent selection of Doug Ford to head the official opposition party in the country’s most populous province of Ontario has inspired just that comparison.
Recently picked to lead Ontario’s bizarrely named Progressive Conservative Party, Ford is loudmouthed, brash, and feeds on a politics of rightist rebellion similar to that which spawned the Trump phenomenon. Also similar to Trump, Canada’s establishment conservatives are warily but visibly accordant with Ford and his base. Canadian federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer tweeted out standard best wishes, as did many other Conservatives like former prime minister Stephen Harper. As with Trump, Ford has harnessed an electoral energy and populism that more circumspect, milquetoast Conservatives don’t want to poke the wrong way lest it undermine their own prospects.
While Ford is noticeably more politically correct than Trump—which is to say, Canadian—and much more open to courting the immigrant vote, below the surface are many uncanny parallels: a desire to take down perceived elites, a determination to stand up to unfair media narratives, an attack dog approach to an out-of-touch political establishment. With Ford ascendant, Canada may indeed be hankering for some Trump-style politics. The country’s mainstream media outlets are already hosting experts who believe that Ford signifies a toxic brew of incompetence and silliness that will likely result in “disruption, distraction and dysfunction.” Liberal voters in the progressive urban enclaves of Ontario are reportedly “apoplectic” over his victory.
Ford is the brother of the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who became infamous after being filmed smoking crack cocaine in 2013. The ensuing political firestorm became a subject of fixation for international media and late-night hosts. Rob was already well-known for his outlandish rhetoric and highly personal run-ins with local reporters: he’d even been forced to apologize to one journalist, Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, after a particularly untoward incident on his property. Yet there was noticeably diminishing merriment in the media after Rob was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer the following year. He became something of a tragic figure leading up to his death in March 2016, but his brash style of pro-wrestling everyman politics didn’t die with him—far from it.
In any case, the question at hand seems to be: how far did the brotherly apple fall from the tree? By all accounts, not very. Reportage describes Ford as “thin-skinned, boastful,” and largely uninterested in policy during his frequently truant days as a Toronto city councilor. Channeling a Trump-style disdain for the media before it was a thing, Ford has called the Canadian press “a bunch of pricks,” and is fond of using crude and demeaning language. He is also an alleged former hashish dealer with a history of threatening to sue the media for libel and then not doing so. He was against fake news before it was cool (though so far, according to all available records, he hasn’t threatened to sue anyone for a joke).
Ford is known to speak loudly and thread the politics of resentment through his statements, feeding on feelings of victimization and anger, at least by Canadian standards of intensity. He revels in the same sort of disapproval and disdain that helped catapult Trump to the presidency. Liberal denunciations of Ford for insulting The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood or flying off the cuff in city hall speeches that were “little more than rants, peppered with error” are veritable catnip for those who already don’t trust the media. It’s easy for people to laugh, but such resentment of imposed liberal pseudo-morality is a potent force precisely because it channels the frustration and anger of voters who also feel laughed at and pushed outside the bounds of political propriety. Which turns out to be quite a large number of people—stateside and even in the Great White North. As David Reevely wrote for the National Post, “There are plenty of angry voters to appeal to, and Ford’s simple stop-the-gravy-train populism does it.”
As a former Toronto city councillor from an old political family, Ford has been angling at this moment for some time. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Toronto in 2014, and, following Rob’s death, pitched another aborted run in 2017 to “continue Rob’s legacy,” only to drop out and run for leadership of the PCs. Now, after a hotly contested leadership race, Ford is in charge of Ontario’s opposition to Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne. Interestingly, the popular vote of the internal party member ballot was lost by Ford to competitor Christine Elliott, but he seized victory on account of weighted districts, another parallel to the 2016 U.S. election. For her part, Wynne is highly unpopular in the province (even among many non-Conservative voters) due to fiascos from hydro-rate hikes to green energy brouhahas to corruption scandals. Her approval rating is 18 percent by some estimates. That means Ford won’t have to go up against Goliath come Ontario’s next election in three months.
Ontario Liberals have already been in power for 15 years, so their time is coming due. Ford doesn’t want a carbon tax and often makes clear his pro-business attitude. He also commits the very big no-no (in Canada) of leaving open the possibility of an alliance with social conservatives, a voting bloc with much higher numbers than their Canadian political representation would suggest. It’s unlikely Ford is doing so because he truly cares about their issues—like Trump, he wants to win and knows religious voters may be crucial to making that happen, which is why he’s also glad-handing the all-important money guys. All this has combined into a sweet spot for Ford in terms of timing and momentum. Which is to say: right now Doug Ford has a real shot at seizing significant political power in Canada.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. He covered the fledgling U.S. alt-right at a 2014 conference in Hungary as well as the 2015 New Hampshire primary, and also made a documentary about his time living in the Republic of Georgia in 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.