Bricker and Ibbitson on populism: What about Canada?
Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson - in their February 10 Globe and Mail commentary - get it half right when they say the current tsunami of populism in western countries is largely an expression of cultural, as opposed to economic, insecurity. This works as a generalization, but their premise fails to acknowledge the genuine dislocation that is caused by globalization and free trade agreements, nor it does account for Canadian exceptionalism.
In the case of Canada and the United States, each has suffered job losses in the manufacturing sector over the past thirty plus years due to two factors: automation and freer trade. Canada suffered job losses after the Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 1988, such as in the furniture business in southwestern Ontario. After the North America Free Trade Agreement in 1993, the United States lost jobs to Mexico, the “giant sucking sound” Ross Perot referenced in the 1992 U.S. presidential election campaign.
Once China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, the United States saw hundreds of thousands of jobs migrate to China and other low wage countries. A trip through the so-called rust belt in the mid-west is tragic testimony to the rapid and devastating consequences of disappearing trade barriers. A proud testament to capitalism’s creative destruction celebrated in economics textbooks.
Canada has not experienced nearly the same proportion of job losses as the U.S., as our economy was much less dependent on manufacturing. Also, our more activist governments have made investments in areas hit by foreign competition (e.g., increased funding for colleges, universities and hospitals, the location of government offices). Indeed, the paragon of reinvention is the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge triangle, where myriad high-tech spinoffs of the University of Waterloo now inhabit those abandoned furniture factories.
Laissez faire governments in the U.S., in turn, leave the rust belt to rust, while voters seethe and respond to anti-free trade appeals from populist politicians, with (in the case of Donald Trump) the added spice of xenophobia and nativism.
Mitigating the impact of automation and the re-balancing of comparative advantage when trade barriers come down is the role of government. Canadians who have honoured “peace, order and good government” from day one encouraged governments to help smooth the transition. American ideology has been more laissez faire, especially after Ronald Reagan, in the 1980s, declared the government to be “the problem, not the solution.”
But the more significant problem with the Bricker-Ibbitson hypothesis is its failure to understand Canadian exceptionalism when it comes to history, institutions, demographics, policies and values. As I argue in my recent book, Could it Happen Here: Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit, Canada has been on a unique trajectory since the 1960s when it comes to immigration and integration. We abandoned an immigration policy that favoured Caucasian Europeans in 1967 for one that privileged skills and education, and we adopted multiculturalism as a policy in 1971. Since then, the world has come to Canada. In the latest 2016 census, 22 per cent of Canadians were foreign-born and another 20 percent were first generation.
These folks settle in our cities. The residents of Canada’s largest metropolitan region, Greater Toronto, are now 78 per cent first or second generation. Vancouver is 70 per cent. What’s more, fully 55 per cent of Canada’s population has settled in these multicultural cities. Almost nine in ten immigrants become citizens. Citizens vote. Some become candidates. And some of these candidates win elections. In the House of Commons, 46 of the 338 individuals elected to serve as MPs in 2015 were foreign-born. Our Minister of Immigration is from Somalia and the Minister of Defence came from India.
This degree of civic participation is not even dreamed about in Europe or the U.S. The foreign-born in Congress are largely the children of military stationed abroad (e.g., Senator John McCain, who was born in Panama, or Senator Ted Cruz, was born in Calgary to a Cuban dad and an American mom).
Those 46 members of parliament are represented in all parties except the Bloc Quebecois, which had a foreign-born MP until 2015. And when I say `all,’ I include the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), with nine. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Immigration Minister Jason Kenney understood the new Canada enough to eschew the anti-immigrant undertones of the CPC’s Reform Party roots. The Tories embraced multiculturalism through their ten-year tenure, only to stumble in 2015 with a not-too-subtle attack on Muslims via Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander’s “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line.
In our polling and social values research, Canadians have said for many years that they believe immigrants are good for the economy; that they do not take away jobs from other Canadians; and that and they are not more likely to commit crime. Respondents also say they feel immigrants and Canadian-born residents make equally good citizens.
Our latest tracking further shows that Canadians are now more accepting of refugees than at any previous time when we’ve posed this question on our surveys. The only cloud on the horizon is that Canadians worry that immigrants do not adopt Canadian values as quickly as they should. This concern, of course, is felt most keenly among those who rarely meet immigrants, as well as Quebecers who fear niqabs are a sign of patriarchal religious oppression -- something they eschewed two generations ago.
We do have a rich history of parochialism, racism and xenophobia in Canada, and we certainly have plenty left in our national DNA. In a recent international Gallup poll, 20 per cent of Canadians say they admire American leadership, presumably the speech and actions of President Trump. But I would conclude that the 76 per cent who do not admire current American leadership will not be receptive to appeals to anti-immigrant xenophobia and nativism. Unless we adopt proportional representation, the minorities feeling left behind by social change will have difficulty finding a political party to fully represent their views, although they will still have AM talk radio and the echo chamber of the internet to vent their rage.
Even Ontario’s PC leadership aspirant Doug Ford, who wishes to channel his late brother’s populism, shies away from appeals to racism. His anti-elitism will likely choose other targets as he attacks the Liberal government for its profligacy: the carbon tax, and the elites (including the disgraced Patrick Brown) who tried to foist this idea on his party. He will be a made-in-Canada populist, more a reincarnation of former premier Mike Harris and his Common-Sense Revolution than an example of the global status anxious cultural populism of which Messrs. Bricker and Ibbitson talk.
We are not better than Americans or Europeans, but our experience, our demographics, our institutions and our policies are different. It will be a brave political party that attempts to govern our country by trying to divide us.
Michael Adams is founder and President of the Environics Institute for Survey Reseaerch
Like what you're reading? With our bi-monthly e-newsletter, you can receive even more with the latest details on current projects, news, and events at the institute.