With the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the rise of far right and neo-fascist groups in various Western liberal democracies, it is reasonable that people would ask about social characteristics that contribute to the return of, and/or growth of, fascism and to ask if it could happen, or is happening, in their country. Such is the case in Canada, where many progressives are asking if a Trump could emerge and assume control of government. How is a period of questioning authority giving rise to authoritarianism?
Note that this is not about the emergence and mobilization of neo-fascist groups -- these are clearly already present in Canada. Nor is it about manifestations of white supremacy (even fundamental ones) -- that is also clear in the context of a settler colonial state. Rather, it is whether a far-right populist or outright fascist party or politician could assume the reins of formal political power --government power -- federally or provincially.
In his new book, Michael Adams, founder of polling firm Environics and the Environics Institute, pursues answers to this question through a close reading of polling data over more than a decade. Since 1992, Adams has been tracking in surveys 10,000 Canadians. His surveys look at demography, history, and context. Notably, before election night, Adams had a sense that Clinton might not win.
Adams asks what are the factors that could make Canada victim of xenophobic populism on a mass scale? How might that relate to populism against economic inequality, free trade impacts, job loss, declining quality of life, etc.?
This article is based on a reading of Adam’s book and on participation in his recent Q&A session on the book, which took place at Simon Fraser University on January 17, 2018. The work addresses issues of some importance in the present period of authoritarian reaction. It leaves many questions unanswered.
We can start with history, and in particular the xenophobia in Canada’s history. Adams notes that in looking at understandings of Canadian history there are two Canadas. On one hand are the myths of compromise in Canadian history. This includes fables about Champlain and relations with Indigenous people, tales of the peaceful co-existence between English and French, and so on.
On the other hand, there is a second Canada, one that is highly racist. Indeed, the history of xenophobia is strong in Canada. One can reference the whole ongoing history of settler colonialism, the head tax against Chinese migrants, internment camps for Japanese, Italians, Germans, the “None is too many” refusal of Jewish refugees during the Nazi period, through to Islamophobia today. And there is more, this is by no means exhaustive.
Adams notes that in the late-1940s, polling in Canada found strong sentiment that no Germans, no Jews, no “non-whites” of any background should be allowed to migrate into Canada. That sentiment held in polling up through the 1960s.
There were some shifts in social values in the 1950s, notably the questioning of religion and religious dominance in Quebec. In 1967 there was a change in immigration laws, from explicitly xenophobic and racist to more openness. Quebec nationalism and pushes for bilingualism and biculturalism took shape in 1971 in the form of a formal policy of multiculturalism that has evolved through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (even if promise is not met by reality).
The 2016 census showed that 22 per cent of Canadians were foreign born. There were 50-60 communities of 10,000 or more. Adams suggests that at this number it is less easy (not impossible) to marginalize or scapegoat specific groups. Throughout most of Canadian history most migrants were passing through. Migration to Canada was used as a stepping stone to get into the “better gig” in the United States. Now 85 per cent stay and become citizens.
The top cities in Canada hold 55 per cent of the population. Canada is highly urban in residence. According to Adams, in Toronto 80 per cent are foreign born or first generation. In Vancouver it is about 75 per cent.
Attitudes and anxieties
Surveys in Canada put Clinton as first choice and Jill Stein of the Green Party as the second choice in the last election. Trump came a distant third.
Polls today still show Canadians as fearful of The Other and racist. In specific contexts that is sometimes tempered by tendencies to so-called reasonable accommodation (when people are confronted with specific policy effects in specific contexts like school or workplace, for example). Polls show concerns about migrants adopting values quickly but also concern over the actions of politicians to force people to adopt values and practices. Stephen Harper lost the last election on “barbaric cultural practices,” the snitch line, and face coverings and the citizenship oath.
In the United States there is a dual rise in racism and sexism. In 2016 in the United States, 50 per cent agreed with the idea that the father should be the master of the house. In Canada that number was 23 per cent. The proportion in the U.S. has actually been rising since the 1960s. Significant shifts are noted with the election of Ronald Reagan and the instituting of neoliberalism. The questioning of the New Deal social programs under Reagan was mobilized with a reaction against feminism and anti-racism from the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Adams notes a diversion in patriarchal values between Canada and the U.S. (which were not that long ago much closer).
What sociologists call status anxiety, specifically for white males, in the U.S. is expressed in a reaction against feminism and anti-racism (rather than against the economic or political systems of exploitation and oppression). White guys, who have been relatively stable economically, are reacting to fears over lost status (perceived or real).
Adams argues that it is institutionally more difficult for xenophobic populism to take hold in Canada (in formal politics). In the 2015 election, 46 members of parliament were foreign born. Of the 46, five to 20 per cent of their riding is of their group background so they have to get votes from many groups. In the U.S., populations are more electorally segregated (gerrymandering, etc.). There, the 26 least populace states have 52 senators. They represent less than 25 percent of the population but half of the Senate. Wyoming has as many senators as California.
In the United States, 70 per cent think that government programs are the problem. In Canada, two-thirds think that taxes are well spent, but that the wealthy do not pay their proper share. In Canada, respondents would expand health care rather than shrink or cut it. In the United States many poll respondents want the government off their health care.
In 2017, in Canada there was one mass shooting (four or more victims), in Quebec City. In the United States there were more than 273 (the number at the time Adams finished his book).
In Canada, 92 per cent of the population attend public education. The U.S. is more fractured. This contributes to more social mobility in Canada.
Canadians have done better than U.S. workers over the last 15 years. Adams reports that the bottom quintile of income in Canada are two times as well off as in the U.S.
Famed sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, in earlier studies of political differences between Canada and the United States, looked at unionization. Even today, in the U.S., only about 10 per cent are in unions. In Canada the number is over 30 per cent (with some 60 per cent public sector). Adams argues that there is a difference in mental posture with the safeguards of unions. There is a what Adams terms a more Darwinistic existence in the United States for the working class because of low unionization rates. This is coupled with, and amplified by, an opposition to social programs (signs of some social solidarity or what sociologist Emile Durkheim calls a conscience collective).
The Free Trade Agreement (between Canada and the United States) and North American Free Trade Agreement (including Mexico) had impacts and have played a role in sparking Trump’s support. Jobs left the United States after China joined the WTO and there was massive offshoring of U.S. production.
There is a fragmentation in social trust. Trust is higher in more privileged groups. It is lower among non-elite groups (less educated, etc.). This is seen in Canada and the U.S. (and in other liberal democracies as well).
The weakening of a social solidarity or conscience collective leads to scapegoating of others. Who will be the targets of blame? Who will stand as allies against targeting? Workers in U.S. manufacturing industries are very vulnerable. But sexism and racism are still the major motivators in support for Trump.
The bottom two or three quintile in the U.S. live in a Darwinistic universe and they are presented with no real answers to their problems. They are locked into class and all that appears left is changing the entertainment. Which is why some turned to Trump -- he would shake things up or, at least, be an entertaining change while doing nothing (which is more than the other options offered).
There are in Canada conditions that can and do provide grounds for far-right and neo-fascist growth and which nurture these tendencies. There are also social factors that might provide some buffer to the assumption of political power by a Trumpist equivalent. But we cannot rely on that, and much damage can be inflicted outside of formal electoral success.
Some ask, is there a minority group that is small enough that they could be made the scapegoat in Canada? In Canada there is already a historic core of hatred toward Indigenous communities among dominant groups, an ongoing structure of settler colonialism. Even in polls, Adams suggests a 50/50 split between support for Indigenous people and/or “reconciliation” and racist calls for colonial “integration” and “getting over” colonial impacts. And Indigenous people rightly feel targeted (as they are, regardless of what non-Indigenous people might imagine). There are also strong experiences and feelings of racism and targeting by police among Black people in Canada. Canada is built on white supremacist and genocidal foundations.
There are caveats about polling results. Social acceptability concerns can influence poll responses. Machine polls show 20 per cent or more xenophobic responses than human polls. People hide xenophobia more to human questioners. The reality is likely worse than expressed in polls.
In answer to the question, “Can it happen here?” the conclusion must be, well, “yes.” And some features of it are already happening here. We can point to the open mobilization of neo-fascist groups like the Soldiers of Oden” as one example. The related question is whether there will be the social response and resilience to deal with it.
Notably, Adams reports that in polls no one says it cannot happen here. Very many people seem legitimately concerned that it has, is, or will happen.
Further reading: Michael Adams. 2018. Could it happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit. Toronto: Simon and Schuster.
Jeff Shantz is a writer, poet, photographer, artist and activist who has decades of community organizing experience within social movements and as a rank-and-file workplace activist. He currently teaches social justice, critical theory, state and corporate crime, and community advocacy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C.
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