In Canada, reactions to the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections were varied, ranging from fear and shock to jubilation. But, it was a sense of self-satisfied complacency that seemed to dominate, at least over social media.
Canada’s official Twitter account offered a simplistic contrast between Trump’s nativism and Canadian multiculturalism. There was a collective pat on the back after news emerged that Canada’s immigration website crashed because of increased traffic from the United States. To top it all off, a map of Canada, which included the United States’s “progressive” west coast and northeast, generated a lot of interest among Canadians.
What these reactions fail to capture, however, is the seriousness of what happened in the United States and its implications for Canada.
Donald Trump’s victory is part of a broader, global socio-political shift that extends to Europe, as well as other places. Political theorist Chantal Mouffe describes this trend as a crisis of representative democracy. Triggered by neoliberalism’s failures, this crisis has given way to right-wing populism (and to a lesser extent, left-wing populist movements). Despite recent setbacks, the far-right is seizing control over political discourses and imagination across the European continent.
While Canada may not be confronting these trends to the same degree, the country is suffering from many of the same factors that triggered the rise of right-wing groups elsewhere. Canada has sluggish economic growth, record household debt, a continuous rise in precarious employment, and one in seven citizens who live in poverty. No major Canadian political party appears prepared (or willing) to seriously challenge the dissolution of workplace protections and income inequality.
Canada is certainly no stranger to racism, but white nationalists are more openly organizing in communities across the country following Trump’s victory. This includes more audible rallying calls against Muslims, as well as the alleged climate of fear perpetuated by “the authoritarian left” and “political correctness.”
Amongst progressives, there is also growing disillusionment with the government. Following a year-long honeymoon period with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration, discontent has become more pronounced. Critics claim Trudeau has failed to fulfill promises of electoral reform, environmental protection, improvements to state-indigenous relations, and an ethical foreign policy.
While progressives could turn to the New Democratic Party (NDP), the party is without clear direction or leadership. Having gradually shifted toward the center and away from its socialist roots, the NDP is unlikely to mount a meaningful challenge to the neoliberal consensus. Without a viable left-wing option, the circumstances are ripe for a right-wing populist party to swoop in.
Canada’s Conservatives may be trying to do just that. After its defeat in the 2015 parliamentary elections, the party is hoping to shed its image as a group of rich white men and embrace populism..
As part of its campaign strategy in 2015, the party made the niqab an election issue, thereby appealing to prejudices against Muslims, and questioned the compatibility between “Muslim culture” and “Canadian values.” Kellie Leitch, who is a contender for Conservative leader, has already begun to deliver Trump’s anti-establishment and nativist message directly to Canadians. Fellow leadership hopeful and defender of “Canadian values” Chris Alexander, recently addressed an anti-carbon tax rally in Edmonton organized by Rebel Media, Canada’s answer to Breitbart. A
nd then there’s Kevin O’Leary, a theatrical, no-filter investor and television personality who is looking to add his name to the leadership race. The parallels between him and Trump extend beyond O’Leary’s resume to his cultivated image as a straight-talking, anti-elitist candidate who would run the country like a private business.
Even if they are not as pronounced as in the United States and Europe, the necessary elements for a right-wing populist sweep are currently present in Canada. Canadians would do well to take this reality very seriously.