From the Calgary School to the Freedom Convoy
Right-wing populism in Canada has changed. It used to be a libertarian response to Quebec nationalism. Now it is standing at the doors of Parliament, challenging the legitimacy of the Canadian state.
The arrival of a convoy of truckers, the Freedom Convoy, and their assorted hangers-on in downtown Ottawa seemed to take many Canadians by surprise. Canadian politics are peaceful. Canadians gleefully point out that no Canadian politician has been assassinated since Thomas D'arcy McGee in 1868. Political violence does not happen in Canada, and when it does, it casts a shadow for decades, as the October Crisis of 50 years ago still does. Those who watch Canadian politics closely, however, have suspected for a while that something on the populist right on the lines of the Freedom Convoy has been coming. (Certainly American Canadianists had it on their minds after January 6.) Amazingly, though, few in the Canadian political class seem to have thought this was coming, or that it was even a possibility. Laziness in Ottawa, both physical and intellectual, had quite a lot to do with it. For at least 40 years, weakening state capacity together with a deterioration in the quality of political leadership, both in government and opposition, have made Canada vulnerable to a violent challenge. At the center of this is the emergence of right-wing populism, more specifically what has been called authoritarian or ordered populism.
Many political scientists argue that Canada has a certain immunity from populism of the right. Gad Horowitz wrote of the “Tory touch” in his analyses of Canadian political ideology, claiming that Canadian conservatism was almost social democratic in its Red Toryism, and certainly different from the conservatism of American populist movements. The political voice of the Canadian right was the Progressive Conservative Party, which for most of the 20th century was only slightly to the right of the Liberals and along with them reflected what John Ibbitson calls the Laurentian Consensus, open to bilingualism, multiculturalism, the welfare state, and economic interventionism. More strident right wing views, when they appeared, were typically seen at the provincial level, such as the Social Credit governments in Alberta.
But the seeds for a strident and populist current in conservative political thought were planted in the way the Canadian West was settled. Under Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy during the last decades of the 19th century, the Prairies were to be settled in a way that would bind them politically to Central Canada and the Canadian federal state. This was done in a way that subordinated them, disadvantaged them with a tariff wall protecting Ontario and Quebec manufacturing, and denied them control over their natural resources, contrary to federal division of powers in the British North America Act that founded Confederation. Historians like W.L. Morton argued that the Laurentian corridor was simply presumed to be the important part of the country and that other regions were there to serve its needs for raw materials.
Similarly, regions outside the core felt less of a stake in maintaining a political equilibrium between English and French, thought to be part of the Laurentian deal between elites in Ontario and Quebec. This became more acute as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution led to calls for more explicit recognition of Canadian duality and constitutional reform, and even special status for Quebec. The 1982 Constitution Act and proposed Meech Lake Accord of 1987 spurred increased feelings of Western alienation, which led to an intellectual reaction after 1990 in the writings of the Calgary School and growth of the Reform Party of Canada. Works like David Bercuson and Barry Cooper’s Deconfederation focused upon Quebec nationalism and items like the proposed distinct society clause in Meech Lake, criticizing them not so much for ignoring the West as for being illiberal. Other writings by, for example, Rainer Knopff were skeptical of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and particularly of the power of the courts to invalidate legislation if they found it inconsistent with the Charter. Even the small far right focused on bilingualism and duality, accusing the Laurentian elite of wanting to francize the country through official bilingualism, and becoming notorious for the 1989 trampling of the Quebec flag in Brockville, Ontario. In 1994, Roger Gibbins delivered a lecture at Queen’s University in Kingston about the “new face of Canadian nationalism,” in which he noted that what was developing in the West was not just a reaction to Quebec nationalism, but also an ideology that should be interpreted in the broader North American context. Gibbins noted specifically that the new face of Canadian nationalism reflected cultural anxiety and hostility toward minorities.
The Reform Party was the parallel project in the political realm. Running on a slogan of “The West Wants In,” it was the first hint of what would grow into ordered populism in Canada, but the focus at this point was upon national unity and regional balance within Canadian institutions. Reform displaced the Progressive Conservatives as the political expression of the Canadian right, though it was most important for shifting the regional nexus of Canadian conservatism westward, away from Ontario and Quebec. Ultimately, after changing its name to the Canadian Alliance in 2000, the party merged with the Progressive Conservatives in 2003, forming the Conservative Party of Canada and subsuming the populist impulse back into the mainstream party system. With Reform/Alliance out of the picture and Quebec and constitutional issues muted after 2000, it seemed that rightist populism had lost its salience, and perhaps that the populist surge of the 1990s had caused Canada to get populism out of its system altogether.
But Canadian populism was only shifting. The 1990s were tranquil enough for Canada to be focused upon its domestic politics. Its main issues were national unity and budget deficits. The September 2001 terrorist attacks brought a sense of external threat into Canadian politics. 2008 brought the global financial crisis, and 2020 brought the coronavirus pandemic, all of which made the sense of anxiety and political instability grow. All three stimulated right wing populism internationally, leading to the election of populist leaders in a number of Western countries, along with the British vote to leave the European Union. All of this tension reverberated back onto Canada. Immigration became a more contentious issue after 2001, not only in Western Canada and suburban Ontario, but acutely in Quebec, leading to the reasonable accommodation and secularism debates. The 2015 federal election took it to a new level, with Justin Trudeau becoming the distrusted Liberal Central Canadian elite. The Conservatives shifted right with their return to opposition, and the People’s Party emerged, openly embracing ordered populism. As Graves notes, the factors of cultural backlash, value shifts, demographic shifts, fears over identity, polarization, and the use of social media all helped ordered populism to grow.
What through the 1990s was quaintly termed as “Western alienation” took on a more strident turn of its own, and it evolved into calls for independence for Alberta or multiple Western provinces. We can begin to see a struggle to synthesize Western alienation with ordered populism in works like the 2020 book Moment of Truth, written by a collection of Calgary School adherents, where old complaints about Canada’s economic arrangements, and the Canadian system’s overall bias against western natural resources, play up against cultural shifts that call Alberta’s membership in Canada into question. Significantly, unlike early Calgary School works that dwelt upon the constitution, Moment of Truth shows little interest in bilingualism or Quebec. In fact, the Canadian right’s shift into ordered populism is national in scope, even though it is most influential politically in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and draws upon the far right in the United States. The Idle No More trucking protests in 2019 showed a fusion between defense of the energy industry, a traditional Western and especially an Alberta issue, with the more typical ordered populist fixations.
The pandemic played a major role in invigorating ordered populism in Canada even further. As in other countries, it played to several themes, such as questioning and resenting elite leadership along with higher education and scientific and medical expertise. Populists directed their resentment onto vaccinations, rejecting vaccine mandates or in some cases opposing vaccination altogether, masking, and other public health measures. This has culminated in this month’s Freedom Convoy, which descended on Ottawa and other strategic locations around Canada, such as border ports of entry. The nature of the Ottawa occupation tells us a few things about the state of ordered populism in Canada in 2022. Truck drivers are emblematic of the working classes who are economically stressed, both by economic changes and pandemic pressures (both from employment loss and health measures), as well as culturally alienated and angry with a Liberal government. The anti-democratic and nihilistic aspects to this populism are at plan in the “memorandum of understanding” and the call for an extra constitutional change of government. We see once again the disappearance of duality as an issue, with Quebec participants mingling freely with protestors from elsewhere in Canada and no particular reaction to the presence of Quebec flags in the middle of protesting groups. The links between Canadian ordered populism and that in the United States, especially connected to Trumpism, have been manifest in the financial arrangements behind the protests and the interest that right-wing media in the United States have been paying to the situation in Ottawa.
Populism seemed to be something that the Canadian political system could manage and even relegate to the margins. However, the Ottawa occupation shows that the international wave of ordered populism is at play in Canada and exercising influence over conservative political parties, and that the Canadian state has weakened to the point that it is struggling to defeat an extra constitutional challenge. This reinforces the observation we have made elsewhere that once the pandemic ends, Canada needs to turn to deep repair of its institutions and political system.
Rovinsky, David J. "Canadian Language Policy in an Age of Restructuring," Current World Leaders: International Issues, 38, no. 6, December 1995, pp. 56-70.