A few weeks into last fall’s Canadian federal election, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals seemed to be in trouble. Having called an early campaign for no particular reason besides it looking politically opportune, a swift spike in the polls for the Conservatives briefly made defeat a genuine possibility.
But then, something happened. Irate crowds, showing up to protest the government’s COVID-19 policies, began to appear at the prime minister’s campaign stops. Soon enough, some in the crowds were tied to the far right and nativist People’s Party of Canada (Parti populaire du Canada, PPC) led by former Conservative cabinet minister Maxime Bernier. Flailing since the beginning of the campaign, the Liberals suddenly had a narrative.
Denouncing “anti-vaxxer mobs” and linking them to his Conservative opponent, Trudeau also used one French-language interview to make an even stronger statement about anti-vaxxers: a group, he said, that “[didn’t] believe in science/progress” and was “often very misogynistic and racist.” (Trudeau’s comments, as far as I can tell, never properly penetrated the Anglo-Canadian mainstream. Try searching the websites of major newspapers for coverage of the interview and you will mostly come up short. What you will find, however, is a deluge of content related to them from right-wing media outlets in Canada and abroad.)
As a short-term electoral strategy, it worked: the Tory surge failed to materialize and the prime minister, albeit with fewer overall votes than his Conservative opponent, narrowly kept his job. The far-right PPC, meanwhile, ultimately raked in hundreds of thousands of new votes.
As a Canadian who has spent the past several years writing about US politics, the chain of events spanning last year’s election to this month’s self-described “Freedom Convoy” protests has left me feeling an ominous sense of déjà vu. This is not owed to some naive concern that the protests signal the beginnings of proto-Trumpian politics north of the border: Canada has been a hotbed of far-right activity for years, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise.
Rather, it’s because I see a replication of an odious and all too familiar culture war dynamic pitting finger-wagging urban liberals against an ever-radicalizing right wing that pretends to stand up to elites and speak up for workers.
There can, of course, be no doubt about the reactionary bent of the crowd that has spent the past week occupying much of downtown Ottawa or the far–right backgrounds of its leaders. Whatever ostensible connection these protests have to labor issues or the trucking industry, it’s clear they’ve in practice become a more ecumenical expression of right–wing politics in the COVID era and have drawn in a range of converts, including openly racist and extremist elements. It’s also clear they’ve successfully mobilized people less immersed in the traditional right-wing milieu (a fact that became quite evident to me when I surveyed the large demonstration in my own city of Toronto last weekend).
By most measures, they have also been alarmingly successful, notwithstanding low turnout from actual truckers and overwhelming opposition from Ottawa residents. Already besieged after his failure in last fall’s election, the Conservative Party’s weathervane leader Erin O’Toole has been shown the door — with right–wing MP Pierre Poilievre currently the front-runner to replace him. Well over 100,000 people donated millions to a GoFundMe campaign before it was shut down. While the country’s most well-known banker invokes “sedition,” meanwhile, the protests have won plaudits from right-wing media across the globe, inspired copycat actions, and even been endorsed by the world’s richest man.
The uncomfortable reality is that even fake, astroturfed populism can mobilize real popular support. Far-right politics do not exist in a vacuum or arrive suddenly like a random weather event. They flourish in conditions of economic hardship and social alienation and are often aggravated by the cynical behavior of traditional political elites eager to distract from their own failures.
The current moment in Canada is no exception. Nearly two years into the pandemic, the country remains in a quasi–state of emergency, but the language of togetherness and social solidarity of its early months are long gone — along with many of the benefit programs that supported people throughout the initial lockdowns. Even as the highly infectious Omicron variant has rampaged across the country, elected leaders (including Trudeau himself) have continued to place blame for the pandemic squarely on the unvaccinated. Though it’s since been abandoned, the premier of Quebec even floated the idea of a punitive new health tax on anyone who refuses a jab.
Access to rapid COVID testing has, until recently, mostly been a Wild West, available to those willing and able to pay. Canada, meanwhile, has joined the chorus of wealthy countries siding with Big Pharma to resist a global patent waiver that would allow the mass production of vaccines and their delivery to people in the developing world (helping to reduce the prospect of future variants). As millions lost their jobs or risked infection performing essential work for low pay, the nation’s most elite corporate executives continued to get richer.
While those in white-collar employment are able to work from home, inadequate income supports are leaving some low-wage workers with no choice but to go to work even when sick. As no less than an MP from Trudeau’s own party pointed out this week, public health directives remain confusing, and it’s unclear what, if any, benchmarks the federal government has set for the phasing out of the various restrictions currently disrupting daily life.
Right-wing populism, whatever its champions might say to the contrary, has no solutions to offer here. But a key lesson of American politics since 2016 is that reactionary sentiment cannot be beaten back through shame and moral condemnation, and will continue to gain steam in the absence of a strong populist left alternative to the COVID culture war. For a variety of reasons, millions of Canadians have yet to be vaccinated. We simply can’t afford to write them all off as irredeemably backward deplorables nor leave any more of them to be organized by the Right.