Photo: Parti Conservateur du Québec Flickr.
Now that we’ve had a close look at the United States and soon-to-be-former President Trump, how do our own right-wing populists measure up? Luckily, Canadian right-wing populists have provided us with evidence of where they stand in the form of three major speeches in recent months. On August 23, Saskatchewan MP and recently departed federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer bade farewell to party members:
The Liberals are all candy before supper … Then all you’re left with is a stomach ache and a serious case of buyer’s remorse … They believe that bigger government and more state intervention will somehow solve all the world’s problems. Conservatives fight for those who don’t have powerful lobbyists getting insider deals. We fight for the men and women who don’t have well-connected friends in Ottawa, who are too busy raising their kids and working hard to attend the cocktail circuit.
The Soviet bloc and eastern European countries all had the same rhetoric. Their policies were supposed to help the poor and promote equality – the exact same rhetoric that the left is using today, but all it caused was misery … It may be tempting to use the government to address the challenges society often faces, but once invited inside, the government is a terrible houseguest … After all, no one ever got shot trying to jump the wall into East Berlin or paddle the raft to get to Cuba.1
Long live comrades Stalin, Castro and Trudeau.
The people of Saskatchewan enjoy Saskatchewan Medical Services, Saskatchewan Government Insurance, SaskTel, SaskPower and SaskEnergy. You’d think Scheer would have noticed that, even with all those awful houseguests, Saskatchewan continues to have elections and – I know from personal experience – you don’t need to jump a wall to get out. Still, we’re told Donald Trump got good mileage, especially in southern Florida, out of comparing Joseph Biden to Hugo Chávez, so maybe Scheer isn’t as ridiculous as he appears.
In the provincial election held on October 26, Scott Moe led the Saskatchewan Party to its fourth majority government in a row, taking 48 of 61 seats and nearly 62 per cent of the vote. In his victory speech, Moe politely acknowledged the NDP (13 seats and 31 per cent). But he kept his most heartfelt declaration for the recently formed Buffalo Party of Saskatchewan, formerly the recently formed Wexit Saskatchewan Party (no seats and 2.65 per cent):
To those voters I want to say, “I hear you,” and I want to say, “This government hears you.” We share your frustrations and we share many of your objectives. We are not happy with the federal government either. You have my word that we will continue to stand up for Saskatchewan as we have always done. There is no government in Canada that has advocated more strongly against a federally imposed carbon tax than the government of Saskatchewan. Together with Alberta we have been steadfast in our opposition to Bill C-69, the no-more-pipelines bill, as well as Bill C-48, the no-more-tankers bill … So tonight, I offer you this: We will be unrelenting in defending our Saskatchewan industries and our Saskatchewan people. We’ll defend them here in Canada and we will defend them around the world. We will always stand up for a strong and independent Saskatchewan.2
The next day Moe clarified: “Saskatchewan should be ‘taking care of ourselves to the degree that we can.’”3
Question 1: On October 30, 2020, which Canadian political party leader said the following?
Private sector union membership has collapsed. In the 1950s, one in three private sector workers were union members. Today it’s closer to one in twenty-five.
Increasingly, especially for younger people, a job can be a dead end, an endless cycle of contract work, with no benefits, no security, no obligation on the part of the employers. Do we really want a nation of Uber drivers?
Free markets alone won’t solve all our problems. GDP growth alone is not the be-all and end-all of politics. The goal of economic policy is more than just wealth creation.
We need policies that build solidarity, not just wealth.
It’s time Canadians took inequality seriously.
___ Justin Trudeau (Liberal) ___ Jagmeet Singh (NDP)
___ Annamie Paul (Green) ___ Elizabeth Rowley (Communist)
___ Erin O’Toole (Conservative)
Answer: Erin O’Toole.4 Does it turn out the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is some kind of Marxist-Swedophile?
Question 2: Which policies did Erin O’Toole suggest would help to promote equality?
___ Increase taxes on corporations ___ Inheritance tax
___ Raise the minimum wage ___ Job creation program
___ Make it easier to form unions ___ National housing program
___ Pharmacare program ___ Guaranteed income
Answer: None of the above.
Here are a few more things O’Toole told his audience:
Middle-class Canada has been betrayed by the elites on every level. Political elites. Financial elites. Cultural elites. These elites have only one set of values, centred on unchecked globalization, political correctness, while middle-class Canadians have had another set rooted on family, home and nation.
Full-time employment, a regular, steady salary, a pension, these sound straight out of a bygone era. A generation ago, married couples, with steady jobs and with homes they paid off before they retired, assumed their kids would flourish. Now we’ve come to accept those as quaint notions from a distant past.
Exploiting understandable concerns for the environment, want to implement vast green energy experiments and operate the sharpest leftward shift of the federal government since Pierre Trudeau.
In 2014, Canada’s National Research Council was hacked by China and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property appears to have been stolen. Think of this as your intellectual property: gone, to your competitor, at no cost and at no consequence.
O’Toole seems to have gone further than other right-wing populists in his use of left-wing criticisms of capitalist excesses. But his attack on the elites is standard populist rhetoric, as is his condemnation of “unchecked globalization” and “political correctness.” Then there’s the glorification of our idyllic past, the middle-class family and the military (“I was 18 years old when I joined the armed forces to serve Canada”).
It’s become clear that a great many voters are willing to overlook a great many personal shortcomings if a candidate’s program suits. Trump’s behaviour is, of course, a clear example, as is Scott Moe’s shady driving record.5
Populist politicians are always supporting ordinary people against “Political elites. Financial elites. Cultural elites.” However, the strongest characteristic of liberal voters is not their economic or social status but that they live in cities. In the United States, city dwellers were most likely to vote Democratic, followed by suburbanites. There were fewer in small towns and fewer still in the countryside. It seems surprising that in these days of increased social media penetration and focus, the strongest characteristic of politically similar groupings is physical proximity. It’s interesting to note too that “Americans living in the predominantly red counties of rural America have the worst internet access in the country.”6
Canada’s Atlantic provinces lack big cities and are sparsely populated. They often elect Conservative governments, but they don’t elect right-wing populists. When asked if Prince Edward Island would support Saskatchewan’s court challenge of the federal carbon tax, Conservative Premier Dennis King was forthright: “In no way, shape or form should anyone suggest that we are joining , because we’re absolutely not … Islanders want us to work towards carbon neutrality. They want us to do it responsibly in a common-sense way.”7
For the populist right, domestic enterprise rules. As Moe promises, “We will be unrelenting in defending our Saskatchewan industries and our Saskatchewan people. We’ll defend them here in Canada and we will defend them around the world.” We’ll defend our Saskatchewan industries against taxes of all kinds, and against those fighting climate change and COVID-19.
It’s said that farmers will do anything to help a neighbour. I believe that is literally true. There seems, however, to be a reluctance to help a metaphorical neighbour – in the next town, province or country – who might be suffering from climate change, COVID-19, foreign wars, poverty or statistical racism. If we want to engage in honest discussion with supporters of the populist right, at least we know where to find them. We’ll probably want to choose our battles carefully.
2 Watch Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s Victory Speech, October 26, 2020.
3 Arthur White-Crummey, Scott Moe Walks ‘Fine Line’ by Backing Independence, Not Separation, Regina Leader-Post, October 28, 2020.
4 Canadian Club – Erin O’Toole – Leader, Conservative Party of Canada. October 30, 3030.
5 Moe has had three driving incidents. In the third, a woman was killed. Moe claimed he couldn’t remember the incident. The RCMP gave him a ticket for driving without due care and attention (Scott Moe, Wikipedia).
6 Joe Friesen, Decoding the U.S. Election: What Data Reveal about who Voted for Biden and Trump, Globe and Mail, November 7, 2020, Tom Wheeler, 5 Steps to Get the Internet to all Americans (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, May 27, 2020).
7 Kevin Yarr, P.E.I. Intervening in Saskatchewan’s Carbon Tax Court Challenge, CBC News, July 5, 2019.
What happened to social democratic Saskatchewan?
Saskatchewan’s CCF-NDP MLAs used to be elected almost entirely in rural districts, but now they come almost entirely from Regina and Saskatoon. If you look at the electoral maps of 1991 and 1999, for example, you’ll see the stark transformation (fiures 1 and 2). In the recent provincial election, the NDP won the support of close to 50 per cent of voters in Saskatoon and Regina and fewer than 25 per cent of voters almost everywhere else.a
I asked Jim Harding what happened. Harding, a much respected longtime activist, environmentalist and friend, said the NDP needs to move to the left and become more environmentalist. I agree, I said, but that doesn’t explain why the party lost support in the countryside. Well, he said, CCF-NDP voters were always pretty socially conservative.
Click! A light goes on. We’ve heard of the Social Gospel. We know that Tommy Douglas was an ordained Christian minister, as were J.S. Woodsworth, William Irvine and Stanley Knowles. Agnes Macphail could not have been a minister, but she “was swept up in the evangelical movement in the early 20th century.”b It would have mattered to rural voters that many CCF-NDP leaders were also religious leaders. But most of my generation of leftists, good atheists that we were, dismissed these religious proclivities as relics of an earlier age. We pretended they didn’t matter.
In 1961, the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress joined forces to create the NDP. The focus on the working class no doubt helped the NDP in the cities, but the left was changing in other ways: a growing focus on “underprivileged minorities,” including women and gays and lesbians, and on abortion rights and samesex marriage. These were, to put it mildly, not of particular interest to religious rural folk.
a 2020 Saskatchewan general election, Wikipedia.
b John Douglas Belshaw, Social Gospel, in Canadian History: Post-Confederation.