Looking south as Canadians must and can do invariably provokes the comment, “It can’t happen here.” But it already has. While Donald Trump certainly cannot be replicated, the nativist, populist, and authoritarian tendencies of American Republicans have often appeared in Canada.
They have taken different forms, sometimes distinctly Canadian, but populist eruptions, mainly but not exclusively on the right, are frequent in Canadian history. During the Great Depression, Social Credit, which combined hostility to bankers, evangelical religion, and opposition to cultural modernism, gained power in Alberta and maintained it for over three decades.
Similarly, Liberal Mitchell Hepburn, who prided himself as a rough-edged boy “from the back concessions,” sold off the Ontario Premier’s lavish residence and limousine, took on bankers, defaulted on debts, made dubious alliances with mining interests, and ferociously attacked Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Hepburn bonded with Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis over booze and a shared dislike of King, but they split when Duplessis opposed King’s war effort as too vigorous while Hepburn, the leader of the largest Anglo-Saxon province, condemned King’s limits on Canadian participation.
In wartime, Canada’s conservative party became the Progressive Conservative Party. The name was an oxymoron but an accurate description of the slightly centre-right party that accepted and substantially contributed to the creation of the progressive welfare state Canada became in the 1960s and 1970s. Under the leadership of Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark, and Brian Mulroney, the party also accepted official bilingualism and accommodation of Quebec’s demands for autonomy.
Mulroney, a fully bilingual Quebec businessperson, managed to create a coalition in 1984 of right-wing Western Canadians, Ontario business leaders, and Quebec nationalists and conservatives, and he won the largest majority in Canadian history. But this mariage de convenance crumbled in the 1993 election and the Progressive Conservatives won only 2 seats. His Quebec ridings opted for the separatist Bloc Québécois while most Western Canadian ridings chose the populist Reform Party led by Preston Manning, the son of a Social Credit Alberta Premier. At the turn of the century the Reform ran a television advertisement declaring there must be no more prime ministers from Quebec.
There was a struggle for the soul and mind of Canadian conservatism between the populist Albertans, whose bankrupt province of the 1930s had become fabulously wealthy and increasingly neo-conservative as its energy resources were fully exploited, and Progressive Conservatives, who had accepted official bilingualism, redistribution policies, colour-blind immigration policies and the welfare state. The early studies of Reform Party supporters in the 1990s revealed that they were mostly Anglo-Saxon by background, wealthier, and profoundly troubled by the dramatic cultural and socio-economic changes that had remade Canadian politics since the 1950s.
Faced with successive Liberal majority governments in the nineties and the new century, Reformers and central Canadian conservatives, urged on by the increasingly powerful conservative media, notably Conrad Black’s National Post and energy industry-funded think tanks, another mariage de convenance took place. Stephen Harper, a former Alberta Reform MP and President of the right-wing National Citizens Coalition, defeated Progressive Conservative Peter MacKay to become leader. “Progressive” was quickly stripped from the party name. Although Mulroney was active as a marriage broker, the other two living Progressive Conservative Prime Ministers, Joe Clark and Kim Campbell, refused to participate in the celebrations. Clark memorably said that he did not leave his party, the party left him. Campbell and many others of the former ministers agreed.
Harper, who had denounced Quebec “appeasement,” called for a “firewall” around Alberta, praised American neo-Conservatives, and despised the Canadian “welfare state,” smoothed the rough edges and successfully captured a minority government in 2006 with 36.27% of the popular vote nationally and 65% in Alberta and close to it in Saskatchewan. Politically shrewd and highly intelligent, Harper particularly admired Australia’s John Howard and skilfully moved Canada towards the right domestically and internationally. Harper, like Trump, Howard, and Bloc Québécois leaders, realized that anger and resentment are the most powerful political motivators. Like Howard, he stumbled on the asylum issue and fell to resurgent Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau won his majority with less than 40% of the popular vote. The two-party dominance of Canadian politics came to an end in the thirties. The socialist New Democratic Party has governed in several provinces and was leading in some polls when the 2015 election was called. Normally, it has been the third party with the separatist Bloc Québécois having far fewer voters but, because they are concentrated in Quebec, a rival in the number of seats.
Alberta and Quebec, suspicious of the other’s influence while persistently seeking to enhance their own voice, have dominated Canadian politics since 1960. Since 1930, every Conservative prime minister, with the exception of Quebec’s Mulroney, has come from Western Canada. Since 1949, every elected Liberal prime minister has represented a Quebec constituency. Polls taken in Quebec and Alberta recently indicate that one-quarter of the population of each wants to separate, although Quebeckers are much more likely to say that they have benefited by being part of Canada.
The respected polling firm Abacus has just released its first poll after Justin Trudeau, on 11 September, called the election for 21 October. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has the support of 65% of Albertans and is poised to sweep every seat and nearly all in his home province of Saskatchewan. Overall, the Conservatives lead the Liberals, 35% to 33%, but their support is too concentrated in Western and rural Canada. The Liberals would win more seats because they have moved ahead in Ontario, where there is less political passion and more diversity. Scheer has been badly damaged by the unpopularity of the populist Conservative government of Doug Ford. Ford, whose 2018 campaign excoriated the “elitist” Ottawa and Ontario Liberals, promised “buck a beer,” and championed the “little guy,” has fumbled badly, giving too many jobs to friends, cutting too many expenditures, and setting new levels of inarticulate bluster in political rhetoric.
Trudeau needed Ford’s help. In 2015 he championed transparency and openness in government and justice for indigenous Canadians, seemed on the path to another majority government until his indigenous justice minister resigned and angrily claimed that he tried to force her to make a special deal for a Quebec’s SNC-Lavalin to escape corruption charges. It wounded him deeply.
Like Trump and Harper, Scheer has a base upon which he can rely. It’s close to 30%, higher than the Liberals and considerably more than the NDP. He needs more. The suburbs around Toronto and the larger cities of Ontario with high immigrant populations are politically volatile. Ontario has 121 seats, Alberta only 42. Alberta’s result are predictable; Ontario’s are not. Because of the political fickleness of most Canadian voters, an incident, such as the photograph of the young Syrian refugee’s body found on a Turkish beach in September 2015 that made Harper’s asylum policy cruel and “unCanadian,” could dramatically shift Canadian opinions.
And there’s always Donald Trump. Trump once tweeted that Trudeau was “weak and dishonest,” and he clearly represents all that he detests. Firmly on the populist right, Scheer tweeted in support of Brexit. He’s clearly Trump’s man, but his endorsement would be a political kiss of death. In short, there are no safe bets – except in Alberta.
John English OC was the Foundation Director of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary Canadian Studies, University of Toronto (2012–19). He has also served as President of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, co-editor of the Canadian Historical Review, and chair of the Board of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum. He is the author of the two-volume Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.