Allan Stratton: Poilievre's populism is very Canadian, indeed
Far from being a Trumpian import, the Conservative leadership contender Pierre Poilievre's strategy draws directly from Canada's own history of populist rhetoric
By: Allan Stratton
Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre is oft accused of importing divisive American right-wing populism to our politics. His endorsement of the trucker protest against vaccine mandates — though not the legal violations of its organizers — has been portrayed as a play for Christian nationalists, racists and fascists. Likewise, his attacks on Davos and the World Economic Forum are said to welcome Trumpian conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites and Great Replacement nativists.
Common wisdom suggests that this strategy may win Poilievre the Conservative party leadership, but will render his party toxic to respectable, mainstream Canadian voters.
There’s a lot of smoke and at least some fire to this critique: The People’s Party of Canada will find it hard to tag Poilievre as a centrist squish.
But thanks to our constitution, the Supreme Court and our general political culture, all more liberal than their American counterparts, social conservative attacks on abortion and LGBT rights seem off the table.
Further, far from a Trumpian nativist, Poilievre is in favour of immigration and wants to cut the red tape that blocks immigrants from employment in their fields, something the current federal government has failed to accomplish into its third mandate.
My fear, as someone who shares many concerns about the prospect of a Poilievre government, is that commentators are misreading the broad appeal of his populism, leading Liberals to unwarranted overconfidence.
Sure, Poilievre’s strategy shares some Trumpian elements, but it’s equally rooted in a progressive Canadian tradition that dates back to the early 19th century and was prominent in the last half of the 20th.
If the Liberals don’t course correct, they may discover that while they are attacking Poilievre as a far-right extremist, he is eating their traditional liberal, working-class lunch.
In broad strokes, I imagine Poilievre channelling Louis-Joseph Papineau and William Lyon Mackenzie during the Rebellions of 1837-38. Instead of the Château Clique and the Family Compact, I see him fighting the Laurentian Consensus, another powerful, unelected group, this time composed of academics, bureaucrats, media apparatchiks and Central Canada think-tankers who dominate our culture and financial establishment — and who arrogate to themselves the right to determine Canadian values and the ways in which we are allowed to describe and think about ourselves as a nation.
For those of us who grew up on the left under Mike Pearson, Tommy Douglas, Pierre Trudeau and David Lewis, it is hard to stomach the recent illiberal turn in elite liberal discourse. It once assumed the importance of free speech, understanding that censorship has always been used by the powerful to suppress the powerless. Yet today, in academia and the arts, free speech has been recast as “hate speech,” and our Liberal government is passing C-11, which seeks to regulate what we read and how we express ourselves online.
Adding urgency to those authoritarian impulses, our governing elite has been captured by zero-sum, intersectional orthodoxy, at odds with the instincts of mainstream Canadians on both left and right. It has imposed redefinitions of language, and replaced “sex” by “gender” on everything from passports to the census, defining gender by stereotype.
Consistent with this move, since Bill C-16, even violent male sex offenders have been moved into women’s prisons based on self-ID alone, with no surgery or hormones required. Women at women’s shelters have been forced to room with sexually aggressive transwomen, and have been told they are in violation of human rights law if they complain. Our governing elite has also undermined rights touching on race and religion: Postings now include racial exclusion criteria. Burning of churches is condoned, if not celebrated. And matters of conscience have made some charities ineligible for federal funding. Et cetera.
Mainstream Canadians fully support human and civil rights for trans people, and their protection from hate speech. They also support diversity, reconciliation and abortion access. But they oppose an elite that fails to balance competing human rights interests — a failure that violates the spirit of accommodation and compromise at the root of Western (and Canadian) liberal values.
Commentators who call Poilievre too radical for the mainstream might consider that the Laurentian Consensus on such cultural matters has itself become radically out of step with moderate opinion, and ask themselves why the situations noted above have generally been gaslit in Laurentian media outlets.
Canada’s national myth is grounded in that ethos of moderation: The notion that we are a just society where people of diverse backgrounds live in harmony and co-operation. In truth, it has a long and shameful history of abusing Indigenous populations, notably with its residential schools aimed an assimilation and its ongoing violation of treaties. It also has a history of racial discrimination from the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the Komagata Maru Incident, to the internment of citizens of Japanese origin during the Second World War, and quotas on Jews and other immigrant groups.
But equally in truth, Canada was founded on accommodation: Language and religion were the race and gender of the 19th century. The British North America Act of 1840, precursor to Confederation, enshrined minority rights for Catholics and Protestants, and English and French speakers. It was a revolutionary document for its time and began the long and often difficult history of compromise for which we are known. The work is never ending, but the vision has always been clear — a vision that has drawn generations of immigrants to join the Canadian family, that has made reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians a primary national goal, and that has made this country the most peaceful and diverse land on earth.
The generosity of spirit necessary for such a nation is impossible to sustain with a governing elite focused on oppression narratives based on immutable characteristics. Nor is it possible to have patriotism by struggle session. So, when Pierre Poilievre talks about freedom, I suggest that despite his aggressive tone, his largest potential audience isn’t a small basket of deplorables, but, rather, a broad coalition of centrists who resent a private-school valedictorian attacking other Canadians as un-Canadian racists simply because they opposed mandates, or called for closing flights from China at the start of the pandemic.
Poilievre’s coalition may include people with small ‘l’ liberal values who cherish freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom from beating up on their own country: People who take pride in Canada and its accomplishments, and dream of an even better future with goodwill and equality for all. In short, Poilievre may appeal to ordinary people who sense that emergent progressive values are at odds with the liberalism that has informed our history, and that the ever-changing linguistic codes of “Wokespeak” are, in fact, exclusive; they are a form of privileged secret handshake, designed to limit access to the reigning Laurentian Consensus.
In the manner of William Lyon Mackenzie and Papineau, Poilievre takes on the Laurentian elite in matters economic as well as cultural, and in a way that lifelong Canadian leftists surely remember.
Who among us doesn’t thrill to the tirade NDP leader David Lewis launched against “Corporate Welfare Bums” in the 1972 election?
And when we hear Poilievre take strips off Davos and the World Economic Forum, who can fail to recollect that suspicion of free trade with the outside world, even and especially with our American neighbour, has always been central to our history and its populist expression. Laurier lost the 1891 election to Macdonald over reciprocity with the U.S., and lost again on the same issue to Robert Borden, in 1911, who ran on the populist slogan, “No truck nor trade with the Yankees.”
After that election, free trade was the third rail in Canadian politics, and opposition to it defined the left. National control of the economy was central to the creation of the CCF, forerunner to the NDP.
And Liberals and Dippers owned Canadian nationalism from the Sixties through the Nineties: Remember Maude Barlow’s populist Council of Canadians?
In the 1988 free trade election, the left argued that free trade would gut our manufacturing base and put downward pressure on our social programs as working-class jobs would flee south to low-wage jurisdictions. In Liberal leader John Turner’s soaring rhetoric to Brian Mulroney (cue thunder sheets)
“I happen to believe you have sold us out … Once any country yields its economic levers — the political ability of this country to remain as an independent nation, that is lost forever!”
Is the fight against globalism so very different? A fight to keep control of our culture and economy from larger foreign players? And is Poilievre’s heated rhetoric really more extreme than that of Turner, Borden and Barlow, especially when we allow for the coarsening of speech over the last century?
If we take an honest look at our own history, can we truly claim that Canada has avoided anti-elite populist rhetoric? That all of this is just another U.S. cultural import? And that it isn’t equally firmly rooted in Canadian left traditions?
Poilievre speaks for the hard-right base of his party, certainly. And I am not looking forward to life under his leadership. But unless the Liberal party and its Twitter cult understand the broad undercurrent of his populist appeal, and reorient to regain what should be their natural constituency, they will lose.
And they will only have themselves to blame for it.
Allan Stratton is the internationally award-winning author of Chanda’s Secrets and The Dogs.
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