Northern composure: Can Canada stave off the West’s populist anger?

Why We Wrote This

While right-wing and anti-globalist populism plagues the West, it remains rarer in Canada. Canadian politics have taken a different path thanks to geography, to wars past, and to political decisions made centuries ago.

Laura Cluthé/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Workers at the General Motors assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario, head home after a shift. In the 1980s, some 23,000 people worked at the plant. The remaining 2,900 will be laid off when the plant closes at year’s end.

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Anger over diversifying populations and influxes of people from other countries is fueling populist movements around the world. But even with a scandal shaking Ottawa right now, the mood in Canada is not nearly as angry or explosive.

Many see acceptance rooted in the way the country was founded. After the British prevailed over New France in the Seven Years’ War, British officials signed the Quebec Act of 1774. It guaranteed French-speakers the right to maintain their religion and civil laws, laying the groundwork for what’s often called Canada’s “culture of accommodation.”

Multiculturalism has also been encouraged by geography. A cold mass of land bordered by two oceans and the most powerful country in the world across its entire southern flank, Canada has had to invite people to live here. Those it does invite are the “best and brightest” – one reason diversity, multiculturalism, and views toward immigrants rank so high in opinion surveys.

“Canada is way more of an idea than it is an ethnic identity or even a collection of myths,” says author Stephen Marche. “Multiculturalism really does have that power as a binding agent.”

Accusations of fraud and corporate favors, secret tapes, and political rivals expunged: For two months, the nation has been gripped by a scandal at the highest tiers of government. This week, after two prominent members were expelled from the ruling political party, one newspaper dubbed it the “Tuesday night massacre,” a reference harking back to the Watergate scandal.

No, this is not the United States, nor does it have anything to do with the Mueller investigation. This is Canada, under the leadership of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose “sunny ways” have been symbolizing all that is right about Canada – and all that seems to be going so very wrong in the rest of the world.

Now Mr. Trudeau’s office faces allegations that it pressured former Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to drop bribery and fraud charges against a Quebec engineering firm over its dealings in Libya. The scandal, which broke in February, has always been about far more than the charges at hand.

It started after a newspaper alleged that Ms. Wilson-Raybould, the first indigenous woman to hold that office, was reassigned for refusing to bend to the will of those at the top who wanted to shield the company, SNC-Lavalin, from prosecution. It has since turned into a he-said, she-said. And the optics couldn’t be worse for Mr. Trudeau, a self-defined feminist leader, and his narrative of a new way of governance: It looks like white male power punishing the new player for not doing politics as usual.

“Sunny ways” have definitely clouded over. In a recent poll by Ipsos, Mr. Trudeau’s approval rating fell to 40%, lower than President Donald Trump’s 43% approval rating.

Yet for Canadians, this is more than a story of the political fate of Mr. Trudeau or his Liberal party. It sits at the heart of how Canadians view themselves, and how the world views Canada – long touted as an exception in the era of the right-wing populist. An opinion piece this week in The Globe and Mail, which broke the original story, worried whether Mr. Trudeau has “channeled Trump.” It hints at the question many Canadians are asking themselves: Have we become what they are?

History suggests the answer is no.

Canadian politics have taken a different path than in the United States and many Western democracies, where anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiment has grown – and it’s not just because of Mr. Trudeau. There’s a much longer history that owes to geography, to wars past, and to political decisions made centuries ago.

That’s not to say there is no anxiety. This is an election year, and many political observers are worried about the populism creeping into public discourse in this normally restrained nation. Yet even the humblest Canadian will admit that the cleavages don’t run nearly as deep as they do elsewhere – the mood not nearly as angry or explosive.

Laura Cluthé/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
‘People are probably a little more gentle [in Canada]. ... I think that we’re used to not rattling people up; it’s just not our nature.’ – Mike Gray, owner of a sewing shop in Oshawa, Ontario

Mike Gray sits in his Singer sewing shop in early January in downtown Oshawa, which was rocked by economic news in late November when General Motors announced a five-plant closure across North America, including its last assembly line here. He says he believes Canada won’t be torn apart and politics won’t turn mean-spirited as it has south of the border. “I think it’s just the way we were brought up,” he says. “People are probably a little more gentle. ... I think that we’re used to not rattling people up; it’s just not our nature.”

Loyalists and rebels

It’s become almost a parlor game: Canadians and Americans comparing the differences in national character. Americans are the brash and boastful (at least according to the view up here) while Canadians are the polite and pleasant. The election of Mr. Trump in 2016 after a boisterous campaign, compared with the election of Mr. Trudeau in 2015 after a more muted national plebiscite, did nothing to dispel these views.

But the differences in character, caricatured or not, show up in other measures as well. One recent Canadian study compared 40 million tweets among Canadians and Americans. The idea was to explore what language choices reveal about stereotypes of national temperament. The researchers found that Canadians tend to use words that are positive, such as “great,” “amazing,” “awesome,” “thanks,” and “beautiful,” while Americans’ tweets skew more negative, with words such as “hate,” “tired,” or “bored.”

“What may be coming out here, if this is a reflection of Canadian culture and our choices, may be that Canadians are more invested in a sort of friendly and accepting identity,” says Bryor Snefjella, one of the study’s researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

The differences in national persona, in some ways, extend all the way back to the Revolutionary War. The rebellious members of the 13 Colonies fought to carve out their own identity and country, while those who wished to stay the subject of the British crown fled north. “Loyalists,” essentially anti-revolutionaries, shaped the foundation of English-speaking Canada, with the values of “peace, order, and good government” dominating the early political culture, while those in a fledgling America infused their guiding charter with words such as “unalienable Rights” and “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Laura Cluthé/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
David Paterson, vice president of corporate affairs for General Motors Canada, stands outside the GM corporate headquarters for Canada in Oshawa, Ontario.

To this day, Americans seem more comfortable engaging in a fiery populism. Stephen Marche, a Canadian author, wrote an essay called “Canadian Exceptionalism.” In it he argues that one of the key differences behind the divergent paths of Canada, compared with the U.S. under Mr. Trump, lies in the conservative parties of each nation. Although Canadian Conservatives have taken up wedge issues, especially around immigration, in their quest to regain power, he says it is nothing like what he hears from some far-right elements of the U.S. Republican Party, in which “there really is a sense of wrecking the whole thing,” he contends.

Anger over diversifying populations and influxes of people from other countries is fueling populist movements around the world. In Europe, it’s helped push Britain into unknown territory as it stumbles out of the European Union. From Hungary, to Turkey, to the Philippines, authoritarian leaders have risen to office, greatly expanding their powers, in part over concern about controlling borders and a backlash to the “others” in society.

Those voices exist in Canada, too – and in an election year are reverberating more loudly than ever – but the country has a longer history in tolerance-building, forming a multicultural ethos that views immigration as a pragmatic response to an aging population and declining fertility. When the Canadian government announced plans to attract 1 million newcomers in the next three years this winter, it was to very little opposition. New figures show Canada surpassing the U.S. in the number of refugees it resettled in 2018 for the first time in 72 years.

One of those newcomers arrived on a rainy night in December.

‘Accommodation and compromise’

The usual crowd has congregated outside customs at Toronto Pearson International Airport. They are there to greet passengers of Turkish Airlines Flight 17 from Istanbul.

Among those waiting are Lana Delmaestro, her husband, and their young son. The youth holds a homemade poster with a maple leaf drawn in red marker and the name “Alaa.” They intently watch the sliding doors for a Syrian refugee they’ve never met, but whom the family sponsored with a group of other Canadians.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Lana Delmaestro (l.) and Paul Zurbrigg (holding the sign) welcome Alaa (c.), a Syrian refugee they are sponsoring, at the Toronto airport.

By now, these airport scenes – of Canadians holding their flags and “welcome” signs as they meet refugees they’ve helped bring to Canada through the country’s private sponsorship model – are commonplace. In fact, the Delmaestros are one of three groups of people waiting for Syrian refugees on this flight alone.

Ms. Delmaestro hugs Alaa when she walks through the main arrival area, dressed in a black sweatshirt and maroon headscarf after a long journey from Jordan. She hands the young Syrian an Ikea bag with a winter coat and boots. Then Ms. Delmaestro turns to her son, still holding his sign, and repeats something she’s told him over and over since they decided to sponsor a refugee family, legally committing to a year of supporting her financially and emotionally: “This is the most important thing our family will ever do.”

Many see this acceptance rooted in the way the country was founded. After the British prevailed over New France in the Seven Years’ War, British officials signed the Quebec Act of 1774. It guaranteed French-speakers the right to maintain their religion and civil laws, laying the groundwork for what’s often called Canada’s “culture of accommodation.”

Peter Russell, author of the 2017 book “Canada’s Odyssey,” argues that the “incomplete conquest” of French-speaking Canada as well as its indigenous peoples created a series of “nations” within the country that formed the foundation of a high level of tolerance for diversity today.

Bicultural tensions between English and French, the “endemic fault line of Canadian politics,” adds author Erna Paris, has required compromise at every facet of Canada’s political life. As Quebecois identity strengthened in the 1960s, then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (Justin Trudeau’s father) set to quell tensions with an official policy on multiculturalism in 1971. It codified in essence that no one religion or ethnicity was more important than another. “Accommodation and compromise have been the modus vivendi of nationbuilding in this country,” says Ms. Paris.

Multiculturalism has also been encouraged by geography. A cold mass of land, bordered by two oceans and the most powerful country in the world across its entire southern flank, Canada has had to invite people to live here. Unlike the uncontrolled immigration from Mexico and Central America to the U.S. or from Northern Africa to Europe – which fuels perceptions of chaos and crisis – Canada relies on a highly-controlled points system based on language ability, age, and skills. Its immigrants are the “best and brightest” – the most educated immigrants among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries – which is one reason diversity, multiculturalism, and views toward immigrants rank so high in opinion surveys.

“Increasingly I feel [Canada] has its own momentum, and it’s just going off on its own route. It’s not just not-London, not-New York, which is what it always was,” says Mr. Marche. “Canada is way more of an idea than it is an ethnic identity or even a collection of myths. Multiculturalism really does have that power as a binding agent.”

Mr. Russell argued in his book that modern Canada “might be more like a civilization than a nation-state.” “As an example of how diverse peoples can live together in freedom and peace,” he writes, “this loose never settled alliance of peoples called Canada could replace empire and nation-state as the most attractive model in the twenty-first century.”

A different kind of populism

That does not mean populism doesn’t exist here.

In fact, the Reform Party, a right-wing populist movement founded in the late 1980s, predates America’s tea party movement. Today Canadians will immediately point to Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, who won on a decidedly populist platform last spring. Or to Quebec, where Premier François Legault ran as an outsider in the fall. He promised language tests for new immigrants and has proposed secular restrictions on religious symbols for some public-sector employees, both interpreted largely as anti-Muslim policies. To the extent that Canada gets “illegal immigration,” most of it flows through the border Quebec shares with the U.S., giving space to new populist faces.

Far-right groups are here too. Hate crimes have also increased in recent years, according to federal statistics. Before the New Zealand mosque shootings, Canada suffered its own shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six in 2017. And the shame of the federal government’s policies toward Canada’s indigenous peoples, and what many see as a halfhearted attempt at reconciliation, hangs heavy – made worse by the ouster of Ms. Wilson-Raybould from the Liberal Party.

Charles Krupa/AP/File
A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer (l.) tells migrants they’re about to be arrested for crossing illegally from Champlain, New York, into Quebec, Canada. Illegal entries have been rising in Canada.

Trump admirers exist here as well. Ken Montgomery, a truck driver in Oshawa, is one. He says he hates Mr. Trudeau because Mr. Trudeau hates Canada. He wishes a Trump-like figure would emerge on the national scene. “We need it,” he says.

This doesn’t surprise Frank Graves, the president of Ekos Research, who says that it’s denial to think that Canada is immune from the nativist forces kicking up elsewhere. He measures attitudes between “open” versus “ordered” – ordered implying those with pessimistic economic outlooks or anti-elite sentiment, or the kind of worldview that fueled a political backlash in the U.S. – and counts 30% of the population holding such attitudes. He says the SNC-Lavalin affair could intensify resentments, leaving Canadians with the impression that the justice system is two-tiered.

Still, far-right populism in Canada is different than in the U.S. Mr. Graves calls it a “northern populism.” Its key distinction – apart from not being as well-developed, nor as widely embraced as it is in the U.S. or Europe – is that it is not racially charged.

“Unlike the United States, where populism is bounded by race and typically the attraction to [it] is restricted largely to white Americans, in Canada we don’t see that particular boundary. The boundaries are more rooted in social class,” he says. Mr. Ford, for example, does not invoke race or ethnicity in his campaigns and in fact drew heavy support from nonwhite neighborhoods that ring Toronto.

Mr. Graves sees reasons for concern, though. Even though Canada has been held up as a success story on immigration – and polls show Canadians becoming more accepting of foreigners – a vocal minority who oppose the influx of outsiders is growing louder. And politicians are listening.

Better protections for workers

Maybe so, but Dan Carter isn’t one of them. Lean and silver-haired, he is the new mayor of Oshawa, sworn in just days after GM announced its plant closure, what he says is the No. 1 issue at city hall.

The assembly plant has been in Ottawa since 1953 – a sprawling icon of Canadian manufacturing. The American carmaker itself has been operating in this town, east of Toronto, for more than 100 years. In the 1980s some 23,000 people had company jobs. Now there are only 2,600 unionized jobs left at the plant. And all of those will be gone by the end of this year.

Laura Cluthé/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
‘I understand the anger, and I understand the frustration. ... [But] this moment is calling for the best of us.’ – Dan Carter, mayor of Oshawa, Ontario, on the closing of a GM plant

Resistance to the shutdown exists, with protests and social media campaigns like #SaveOshawaGM. But the anger is not an outright backlash against mainstream politicians or even globalization – the kind that flipped many Rust Belt states to Mr. Trump in 2016. Instead it remains narrowly focused on the U.S. company itself. “Greedy Motors,” read one sign at a protest in January.

In fact, anger might not even be the right word. Donna Lindsay is waiting in the parking lot for her daughter to get off work. Ms. Lindsay worked at the plant for 35 years, until she retired in an earlier round of downsizing. Yet when asked who she is upset with, it’s not immigrants or refugees who could be competing with Canadians for jobs. It’s not politicians either, local or federal. “It’s not their fault. It’s GM’s fault,” she says. Then she qualifies her feelings even more: “I’m not angry. I’m sad and hurt.”

Steven High, a history professor at Concordia University in Montreal, has interviewed workers in former industrial regions on both sides of the border and notes some key differences in the way workers react to economic disruptions.

The first centers around blame. When closures happened in previous decades, Canadian unions would rail against the U.S.

“A lot of the Canadian unions would wrap themselves in the Canadian flag with a discourse around American bosses and Canadian workers,” he says. After decades of free trade and globalization, that kind of rhetoric doesn’t bring a response from the government the way it once did, though the culprit – in this case a U.S. company – remains the same.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters
Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, the union that represents General Motors workers in Canada, addresses people protesting GM’s plan to close its assembly plant in Oshawa at a rally in Windsor, Ontario.

Canadian workers are also better protected, which helps quiet some of the vitriol over layoffs. Rates of unionization, which were similar in both countries in the 1960s, are about three times as high in Canada today as in the U.S., giving members a progressive working-class voice to represent them. Canadians have a stronger safety net, too – with universal health care and more affordable education – which further softens the blow of losing a job.

Still, disillusionment among the working class may be rising. Deindustrialization has happened later in Canada, and Mr. High theorizes that means discontent could just be lagging. “We haven’t seen this rupture and the polarization like across both Eastern and Western Europe and the United States,” he says. “But I think we’re seeing that rupture starting to emerge.”

‘We are our brother’s keeper’

The closure of the plant in Oshawa does mark a milestone, but it doesn't have to become an anti-globalization narrative, says the mayor. “It doesn’t get us anywhere to say ‘they’re making it somewhere else in the world.’ That’s why we’re able to buy TVs for $400,” he says at city hall in early January.

While GM still maintains a footprint here, with its corporate headquarters for Canada and a research center for alternative-fuel cars and other technologies, the assembly plant was long vulnerable to closure, says David Paterson, vice president of corporate affairs at GM Canada. He says it was running at 30% below capacity.

The company says it will retrain workers who seek new employment, and has already been approached by firms looking to hire. The company is also partnering with community colleges to identify future jobs and the training required to fill them.

Mayor Carter says a diversified economy and strong employment can help buffer the blow. But residents also need a vision for their future. In some ways that’s an easier sell than it might be in the U.S., he says. “We in Canada look at things a little bit differently. We believe that we are our brother’s keeper,” he says.

Yes, the GM closure is bad, he acknowledges. “And I understand the anger, and I understand the frustration.”

“But we need to set the environment where people understand that we’re going to get through this storm ... that whatever we face we’ll still be able to succeed,” he says. “This moment is calling for the best of us.”

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