Peter Loewen is the director of the School of Public Policy and Governance and an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
Thursday’s election in Ontario, where nearly 40 percent of Canadians live, signals many things: After 15 years, voters were almost uniformly tired of a centrist but activist Liberal party. And voters redeemed Canada’s most colorful political family. The defenestration of the late drug-addled Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, has been squared by the election of his brother Doug as premier of Canada’s largest province.
The contest also showed that when considering the alternatives, more voters preferred a center-right party that promises spending efficiencies and lower taxes over a left-wing party offering free Medicare, dental care and university, all underwritten by higher taxes on corporations and the rich.
What the election did not signal was a wholesale transplant of Trumpian populism to Canada.
To be sure, the world is experiencing a populist wave. It represents a shift in both citizens’ preferences and the practice of politics. Across Europe and North America, support is higher for candidates who express both anti-system and anti-pluralist messages.
Anti-system messages share a common feature. Populists argue that political systems are unresponsive, corrupted and captured by a small elite. They are not entirely wrong in this.
Anti-pluralist messages show more variation. There is often racism and xenophobia. Take Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s anti-Semitism, or President Trump’s antipathy toward Hispanics and Muslims. These are nativist sentiments, pitting the national “us” against some ethnic or religious other. A milder by still detectable nativism is found in the appeals of Nigel Farage, the British politician and architect of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
Doug Ford is an unconventional politician, but he is not entirely apart from the current form of Canadian conservatism. This ideology has distinct populist tinges. It is generally distrustful of elites and experts. It puts little stock in the media and journalistic criticism. It is not given over to market fundamentalism, though it is distinctly pro-free trade. What it is not, at its core, is anti-immigration.
Ontario’s new premier fits, sometimes awkwardly, within this tradition. His electoral performance was strong in constituencies that are heavily populated by “new Canadians,” something of a catchall for immigrants and native born nonwhites. Polling data showed that he was the plurality choice of immigrant Canadians. He proudly inherited the ethnically diverse slate of candidates assembled by his predecessor. And he engaged in nothing resembling anti-pluralist rhetoric.
This is the form of populism in a country in which 1 in 5 citizens are born abroad, and especially with a city, Toronto, where the number is nearly half.
To be sure, this kind of populism is not an accident. It reflects decades of work within the conservative movement in Canada to win over the trust of nonwhite and immigrant Canadians, and to convince existing conservatives that common cause could be made with these communities.
This was a delicate act, and one that was animated not by voters but by elites, in particular former prime minister Stephen Harper and his immigration minister, Jason Kenney, who is now vying to be the conservative premier of Alberta. Kenney spent years attending banquets and building personal relationships with diverse immigrant groups, focusing on the fight for conservative values. Ford benefits from this groundwork.
What such a populism offers to the rest of the world is the possibility of a successful conservatism that is anti-elite, while not being anti-immigrant.
For all the trade tension between Canada and the United States, this might be a most useful export.