Written by Cagri Arslan
Edited by Tahira Akbar and Huanan Liao
Anyone who does not live under a rock would have noticed a rise in right-wing populism and isolationism in many western democracies. From anti-immigrant groups in Germany and France to Donald Trump’s apparent popularity just south of the border, an increased interest in paleoconservative policies is undeniable. In contrast, Canadian social values and ideologies have generally remained the same throughout the last decade. So this begs the question, why is this the case?
By definition, populism is “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups”, often a result of the masses feeling that their thoughts and opinions are being ignored while momentous decisions are being made in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. In addition, populist attitudes can also be encouraged or triggered by a crisis. For example, after the 2008 global financial crisis, the world sought leaders with the character of an “ordinary person” rather than an out-of-touch multi-millionaire; and lo and behold, Obama arrived in a landslide victory. In many ways, Obama’s rhetoric was similar to that of Trump’s which won him the presidency in 2016. They both appealed to people that felt screwed over by the system. Obama appealed to the masses of people who had lost their mortgages and life’s savings in the 2008 recession while Trump appealed to people who had their jobs outsourced by destructive corporations. Though it must be noted, one major difference between these two individuals was their attitude towards foreigners: Obama advocated for close cooperation with the global community while Trump often weaponized his followers’ fears of migrants into political capital, creating a sort of “us versus them” mentality.
And this trend is not exclusive to the United States. AFD, an anti-Islamic far-right party saw electoral gains in the 2017 German elections. Likewise, VOX, a similarly anti-immigration, isolationist party also saw gains in the 2019 Spanish elections. Simply put, this ideological shift is prominent in both the US and most of Europe. One of the only exceptions to this trend of right-wing populism in western developed countries is Canada. Justin Trudeau has maintained a mostly stable government for the last decade, and even before him, Stephen Harper could be characterized as a pragmatic, centre-right neoconservative, rather than the firebrand far-right politicians we see in other parts of the world. One short-lived example of a Trump-like figure here would be Maxime Bernier, but it was just that, short-lived. He had a falling out with the Conservative Party after narrowly losing the leadership race to Andrew Sheer and went on to create his own party, the “People’s Party of Canada”. Like AFD and VOX, the PPC also ran on a far-right, paleoconservative platform, promising to cut immigration, privatize Medicare, and rejecting the urgency of the climate crisis. But unlike AFD and VOX, the PPC’s electoral performance was underwhelming, to say the least, garnering only 1.6% of the popular vote and not winning a single riding. Even Maxime Bernier himself lost in the riding of Beauce to a Conservative challenger, despite being an incumbent with the Conservative Party since 2006 and outspending all of his opponents. This doesn’t mean that far-right extremism doesn’t exist in Canada. It absolutely does. It just means that it isn’t as widespread as it is in other western countries.
Why is this the case? Why does Canada have so little populist influence in comparison to many other countries with similar socioeconomic conditions, and on a more general note, why is far-right populism on the rise? One possible explanation is the global refugee crisis, from both Latin America and the Middle East. Although there are many underlying reasons, there has recently been an influx of asylum seekers from Latin American countries like Honduras and Guatemala, be it due to economic insecurity or fear of gang violence. Since it is virtually impossible for the US to accommodate all these requests for asylum, there has been a consequent increase in illegal immigration to the United States. Likewise in Europe, there has been an explosion of refugees from the Middle East, over 5 million, fleeing war and dictatorial regimes. As a result, an undue burden has been placed on eastern European countries such as Greece, Italy, and Turkey to accommodate these refugees, though the effect of this has been felt all across Europe, particularly in Germany, France, and Sweden.
Although there are many people who are compassionate towards innocent people fleeing war and violence, there is also a sizable amount of people who do not want public resources to be “wasted” on non-citizens. This can explain the newfound prominence of nationalist groups that oppose immigration and multiculturalism, wanting to maintain their country for the “original” inhabitants of it. The same phenomenon also exists in the US, even more explicitly. Trump overtly used anti-immigrant rhetoric to instill fear of immigrants taking American citizens’ jobs to scare lesser-educated whites into voting for him. In both cases, a group or party that claims to be “for the people” set up an “us versus them” paradigm in order to split people among racial or national lines. And this is not just speculation. A Pew Research study of Americans conducted in late 2018 found that 46% of white respondents believed that the US becoming a majority-minority country by 2050 would weaken American customs and values, while only 23% of them believed it would strengthen American customs and values. Long story short, many people are subconsciously apprehensive towards outsiders, and this manifests itself in ostentatious leaders who use loaded language to stoke fears of demographic change, such as Trump.
But this hasn’t really affected Canada. Canada has no direct moral obligation to take in refugees from the Middle East like how Turkey or Greece do. While many European countries have human, moral obligations to take in the desperate at their border, Canada has the privilege of observing the hubbub from an ocean away while being able to hand-pick their refugees and control the exact number of them they admit. In addition, Canada is also greatly unaffected by the influx of asylum seekers from Latin America. Although many southern states in the US have to bear the brunt of asylum seekers and illegal immigration from Latin American countries, Canada has no such problem, we are separated from Mexico by the United States. And the stats show this; there is an estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants in the US while this estimate is less than 100 thousand in the case of Canada. Although undocumented immigrants do no net harm to a community, their presence can be weaponized by politicians to scare citizens. This strategy can’t effectively be used in Canada since there simply are not many undocumented immigrants here, so right-wing populist politicians have to target legal migration, which is often perceived as less dangerous by the general public.
So to finish this arduous prose, Canada is likely less impacted by a rise in right-wing populism than other western countries due to its isolation and proximity from centres of crises, Latin America and the Middle East. Let’s perhaps keep it that way, since it’s probably best to not open Pandora’s box.