In Canadian politics, true right-wing populism is a nonstarter

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Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford at Ontario PC Party 2018 Convention. Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

It must be frustrating for Andrew Scheer. I think about this. Doug Ford too. Less for Jason Kenney, since he's in Alberta, though even there, Edmonton has always irritated the right and Calgary isn't what it was either.

Elsewhere in the world, right-wing populism is having a moment. Leaders stigmatize outsiders and tell them to go back where they came from so the nation can reclaim its greatness or past imperial glory. They set up concentration camps to deal with asylum seekers. (I use the term in the technical, historical sense. There were concentration camps in many countries, including Canada; they weren't usually extermination camps.)

I'm not saying Scheer wants to do any of that but if he did, doubtless in a subtler version, it's not an option. It's a political nonstarter. Imagine trying to be a right-wing populist, or at least cash in on it electorally, without some version of racism in your quiver. It doesn't seem fair.

You can see their perplexity on climate. Here, you can't do outright denial or ridicule, à la Trump or Bolsonaro, so you make the tax-grab argument. Scheer calls carbon charges a "secret fuel tax." It's like calling military spending in the Second World War a secret armaments tax. War is war.

It can be frustrating for progressives too, whatever they may be. In Toronto they're reduced to hyperventilating because Ford wants to upload subways to the province! Egad. As if the city has done the job so brilliantly. That's a left-wing panic trigger? Or standardized prefab models for building public schools. I'm sure it's a handout to his big backers in real estate and construction but really, we're nowhere near Trump/Orban country.

I don't think you can attribute this … quirk to Canadian multiculturalism. Toronto is our only truly, fully multiculti city, where demographics, including "old stock Anglo" mix routinely and enhance each other's experiences.

I think it's more due to the absence of a deep, rich nativism. We were blessed with dominance by French and then British empires. There was no revolutionary rupture (When: Confederation? Statute of Westminster? Repatriation?) to lay down a bloody, heroic national myth. So go back to what exactly? And English-French bifurcation prevented a unitary nativism from emerging.

In fact, Quebec comes closest to nativism. There's an old stock ("pure laine") and a mythos available for racist models of exclusivism and othering. But it breaks in progressive and regressive directions (Quebec Solidaire, the CAQ). Most instructive is Maxime Bernier's right populist Tory breakaway: the People's Party of Canada. It's gone nowhere, and that includes Quebec.

If you talk with people from a place like the Balkans, as I have lately, you realize how odd Canadian politics is. The world has been Balkanized. We're saved by various factors, including our proximity to the U.S. which makes unmistakable how idiotic, the current (misnamed) conservatism is. Australia, for example, can see the U.S. but lacks our intimate exposure.

Red Toryism, a truly Canadian concoction, embodied this progressive (but not too) political culture. And Red Toryism is no more, killed off by Brian Mulroney when he decapitated Joe Clark's leadership. But even Mulroney, a born imperial sycophant mesmerized by Reagan and Thatcher, was Red Tory enough to defy them both on apartheid.

Stephen Harper was the truest believer in a 21st-century Canadian right. He tried building it with a mix of nationalism and quasi-racist dog whistles, an astute formula. Perhaps he sensed the coming of the moment we're now in. He had certifiable success but how disheartened he must feel, to be seen off by literal Liberals. We for some reason have the only truly liberal, Liberal party left. Echoes of Gladstone and Disraeli. It makes me feel for Harper.

What's progressive in Canada is an utter muddle. It clusters around the Liberals, NDP and Greens who together constitute a clear majority of public opinion. This defies the comparables elsewhere. It's indicative that it may do even better in the absence of leaders, like the Ontario Liberal Party at the moment, who are unofficial and have postponed choosing a leader, yet who lead much of the recent polling. Riddle me that.

It isn't the economy (stupid) or the multiculturalism either; it's the culture.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

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