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Duplication of Trump’s success unlikely in Canada, though ‘political campaign rulebook changing radically’

By Derek Abma      

Political experts say Canadians don't have the same tolerance for racism and bigotry as in the United States, but they also say Donald Trump has changed political campaigning rules.

While the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president seems to already be influencing Canadian politics, as seen with Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, experts says it's unlikely this kind of campaign could be as successful in Canada. Photograph by Gage Skidmore/The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States is bound to affect how politics is done in Canada, though experts say there are characteristics about Canada that make it less likely a candidate like Mr. Trump could be as successful here.

John Duffy, founder of public affairs and communications firm StrategyCorp, who was an adviser to former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, said Mr. Trump’s election will encourage more politicians to tap into “national populism” as a means of winning votes.

Populism is the tendency among portions of the population to seek political alternatives to the status quo, or what’s seen as the establishment or the elite. This movement has been around for a while, Mr. Duffy noted, as seen by the growth of the Reform Party in the early 1990s.

The “national” part of this equation, he said, is, at its mildest, an aversion to globalization and trade that gives foreign interests a degree of power in the domestic economy. At its most extreme, he said, it’s an appeal to ethnic nationalism.

“The largest political effect will be to stimulate the arrival of national populism at centre stage in Canadian politics,” Mr. Duffy said of the Trump win. “There’s a lot of folks in parties of the right across the country who have been kept in check by their leadership, who have argued to them, ‘This formula doesn’t sell. We can’t get elected on this.’ They now have a very powerful counter-argument.”

But Mr. Duffy said there are reasons why national populism is a tougher sell in Canada than in the U.S. For one, the idea of multiculturalism, which he called a “civil religion” in this country, is more ingrained here as compromises between different cultures is a tradition in Canada that predates Confederation.

“Canadians are deeply committed by every measure to this idea of who we are that is built around the idea of tolerance,” he said.

Also, he noted that Canada’s economic dependence on trade is deeper than in places like the United States and the United Kingdom, the latter of which had its own surprise vote this year when people there chose in a referendum to leave the European Union.

“Our business class and our public policy class and political class and a lot of people actually understand [the importance of trade to Canada], so there’s no go-it-alone Canadian economic path the way that there is, arguably, for Britain and for the United States,” Mr. Duffy said.

Nonetheless, he said Mr. Trump’s victory will be an inspiration to some politicians in Canada, particularly those in Ontario who saw nearby states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan vote for Mr. Trump.

“A national populist Conservative can now say Trump won all along the southern rim of the Great Lakes. Why can’t Trumpism win on the northern rim of the Great Lakes, which is Ontario?” Mr. Duffy said.

Conservative leadership candidate and MP Kellie Leitch (Simcoe Grey, Ont.) is one example of the Trump victory having an explicit effect on Canadian politics, Mr. Duffy said. The day after the U.S. election, Ms. Leitch sent a note to supporters saying that “our American cousins threw out the elites,” and it was “an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well.”

On Ms. Leitch, Mr. Duffy said: “That’s classic populism, but she’s added to it the national populist element with her call for the screening of immigrants [for Canadian values].”

As well, Kevin O’Leary has been openly been flirting with the idea of running for the Conservative leadership for some time. Like Mr. Trump, he is a wealthy businessman who has become well known in the mainstream partially through his involvement in reality-TV shows. However, Mr. O’Leary has tried to distance himself from Mr. Trump, particularly in relation to attitudes around cultural and religious diversity.

Will Stewart, managing principal at communications and public affairs firm Navigator, and a former staffer with the Conservative provincial government in Ontario in the early 2000s, said Mr. Trump’s victory contains lessons for politicians of all stripes.

“If [Mr. Trump] can take that approach and win against all odds, from a total political outsider, never having held elected office or military service in his past, and he’s able to win the most important, biggest election in world, than I think other politicians better look at it,” he said.

“More fringe candidates may try to appeal to overly simplistic base messages,” Mr. Stewart said. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen in Canada or not, but I do think that politicians in Canada are moving towards this idea that the political campaign rulebook that we’ve all been following for the past 50 years or so is changing radically in real time.”

Yet, he said what happened with Mr. Trump in the U.S. is unlikely to be duplicated in Canada.

“I don’t think Canadians have the same tolerance for racism and bigotry that we’ve seen in the United States,” Mr. Stewart said. “I hope Canadians don’t have the same patience for that.”

Anna Esselment, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, said Ms. Leitch and fellow Conservative leadership candidate and MP Steven Blaney (Bellechasse—Les Etchemins-Lévis, Que.)—the latter of whom has proposed a royal commission on Canadian identity and to ban public servants from wearing niqabs—signal that some politicians here have taken cues from the success of Mr. Trump in both the presidential election and the preceding Republican primaries.

However, she said there are characteristics about Canada that make it unlikely for a Trump-style campaign to be as successful here. For example, she said “economic insecurity” was a main factor in why Americans voted for Mr. Trump, and white males with high school education or less—an important source of support for Mr. Trump—are generally better off economically in Canada than in the U.S.

As well, she said higher education levels and increased urbanization in Canada, compared the U.S., create conditions that would make it harder for someone like Mr. Trump to succeed here.

However, Prof. Esselment noted how Mr. Trump’s victory in the U.S. was a surprise and it’s hard to completely rule out anything like that ever happening in Canada.

“Politics, and certainly election campaigns, they are not rational things,” she said. “We always think about politics as being rational, but the truth is, especially in campaigns, it’s very irrational and it’s very emotional, because emotions can move or mobilize voters. So I don’t think that we are immune.”

Mr. Stewart said it seems Ms. Leitch is taking a similar approach to Mr. Trump in positioning herself as an anti-establishment candidate. However, having known Ms. Leitch for many years, he said she should not be associated with the “racism” that emerged from the Trump campaign.

“I think she’s linking herself with this idea that it’s time for a big change in how politics is organized,” Mr. Stewart said. “But I don’t think that she’s linked herself with the racism and bigotry that we see out of Donald Trump.”

Mr. Duffy said national populism is a movement that has been seeing growth in Canada and elsewhere since well before Mr. Trump emerged as a likely winner of the U.S. presidential election. Signs of this were seen in the Brexit vote in the U.K. this year, the growing popularity of National Front Leader Marine Le Pen in France, and in components of last year’s Conservative Party election campaign in Canada that included proposals for a barbaric-practices hotline and a ban on niqabs for women taking oaths of citizenship or working in the federal public service.

Mr. Duffy said elements that are creating the conditions for national populism include globalization and technological changes that are hurting people economically, as well as a sense among white males in western countries that they have lost relative status.

He said the late Rob Ford’s victory to become mayor of Toronto is an example of populism being successful in Canada. However, he said that it was not national populism, noting that Mr. Ford had strong support among many cultural groups, including blacks and those of Indian descent.

Mr. Stewart said Mr. Trump’s presidential win isn’t so much a cause but a symptom of an anti-establishment political movement gaining traction in many countries.

“I think there’s generally this worldwide movement, certainly within western democracies, of shunning the institutional political class that has been in power on all sides of the aisle for a long, long time,” he said.

There’s also the question of whether Mr. Trump’s ability to lie and get away with it will encourage similar tactics in Canada.

“More politicians will be tempted to try it because now they will be able to say it worked for Donald Trump,” Mr. Duffy said.

Mr. Stewart said he doubts any politician in Canada could succeed the way Mr. Trump did in terms of having such a distant relationship with the truth.

“I actually think the media [in Canada] is more robust,” he said. “And I think Canadians are in a different headspace than the Americans are. I don’t think we’ve had the same history of race relations that they’ve had down there. I don’t think that Canadian society would put up with … let’s actually call it what it is, that’s bald-face lying.”


The Hill Times

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