Canadians are privileged to live in a world where their overseas stereotypes are mostly flattering. A video went viral the other day showing shoppers calmly walking into a Halifax, Nova Scotia, Best Buy. “The most Canadian Black Friday ever,” they called it. Canadians eat this sort of thing up. It’s particularly delightful to the disproportionately center-left personalities who dominate the country’s media, political and academic establishments as it helps validate their rule.
Yet an endless cycle of foreign compliments and ballooning self-regard has also prevented Canada’s elite from offering an honest answer to a pressing question: Is Canada poised to experience a nationalist-populist movement of the sort sweeping the rest of the democratic world? Can a nation so multicultural and immigrant-heavy (Canada ties with Germany for the G8’s highest per-capita immigration rate) hope to escape the racial and religious tensions that have consumed Europe and the United States?
If you believe Canada is, as journalist Michael Booth once said of the Scandinavians, run by “almost nearly perfect people,” then the answer is obviously “yes.” And indeed, many Canadian attempts to wrestle with the topic have teetered on braggy self-parody. A recent article by Jonathan Kay, editor of Canada’s strenuously patriotic magazine The Walrus, proclaimed simply “Canadians are better than other people.”
“Canadians are deeply committed by every measure to this idea of who we are that is built around the idea of tolerance,” agreed John Duffy, a prominent establishment figure in the world of Canadian politics and journalism, in a recent interview. Essayist Stephen Marche has perfected a theory of “Canadian Exceptionalism,” which holds that “Canada has never lived by national pride, or by a numinous sense of blood and soil.”
Yet such confident conclusions are always asserted, not substantiated. In contrast to the sunny claims of those at the top, polling data reveals a Canadian public deeply wary of how immigration has transformed the culture and identity of a country that was, as recently as 1981, around 96 percent white.
One poll found 68 percent of Canadians agreeing “minorities should do more to fit in with mainstream Canadian society” — an affirmation rate higher than Americans. More than two-thirds of Canadians consistently support either capping or reducing Canada’s immigrant intake, and a 2015 poll found 41 percent of Canadians willing to admit they think their country lets in too many visible minorities. Even Justin Trudeau’s embrace of Syrian refugees, broadcast across the world as a case study of Canadian compassion, was deeply divisive at home. Trudeau was elected in 2015 promising to welcome 25,000 Syrians before the end of the year; 60 percent said they were opposed to him fulfilling the promise.
Numbers like these suggest obvious opportunity for Trudeau to be challenged on a platform of immigration skepticism akin to Donald Trump, France’s Marine LePen or any European populist. The fact that it hasn’t yet happened reveals less about inherent Canadian wonderfulness than the closed structures of Canadian democracy.
It costs around $15 a year to hold membership in one of Canada’s three dominant political parties, and it’s been estimated only about 1 to 2 percent of voters actually do. This means candidates for public office, from the prime minister on down, are selected by an infinitesimally small slice of the Canadian public, usually bearing idiosyncratic beliefs and priorities.
Once nominated, Canadian politicians are subject to exceedingly strict “party discipline” from their party bosses, and expected to speak and vote unanimously with the leadership under threat of expulsion. Diversity of opinion is explicitly restricted, and through consensus of the party leaders, a number of topics have been successfully exiled from Canadian political debate. Abortion is one. Immigration is another.
Canada is thus vastly different from the United States, with its open primaries, or Europe, where forgiving electoral systems allow dissident parties easy entry to parliament. Effective populism requires infrastructure, and Canada offers little. For some Canadians seeking to shake up their system, the only promising possibility appears to be Kellie Leitch, a former cabinet minister running to be the 2019 prime ministerial candidate for the Conservative Party. Though many on the right — let alone ‘alt-right’— regard her skeptically, given her previous moderate persona, Leitch has consciously crafted her candidacy in a nationalist-populist mold, demanding “values tests” for immigrants and railing against “elites” who oppose her.
Her opponents have expressed exaggerated revulsion at such flagrant taboo-breaking. “We don’t need this karaoke version of Donald Trump,” quipped one, while another highlighted Leitch’s recent endorsement by something called the “Council of European Canadians.” All have contrasted their pro-immigration bona fides.
Leitch’s people know her ideas are popular, yet it’s a testament to the undemocratic nature of Canadian politics that an accurate read of the public mood isn’t a prerequisite for success. If she loses, enormous symbolism will be read into her loss by the usual sorts, and a frustrated country will be told, once again, that its anger doesn’t exist.
J.J. McCullough is a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver. He often appears on Canadian television and has written for the National Post, Toronto Sun, Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post. He is a columnist at Loonie Politics.