Canada’s Left Shouldn’t Cede Populist Politics to the Right

The discontent that fomented the Freedom Convoy was caused by problems around wages, housing, and health care — problems for which the Left has long had solutions. The Canadian left needs to step up and take these issues back from reactionary populists.

Freedom Convoy protesters gather near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, February 7, 2022. (Amru Salahuddien / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Two months ago, a convoy of extremist truckers and their allies occupied Ottawa. For most of February, the country’s capital was under siege, as occupiers harassed locals while a complacent, credulous, and often sympathetic police service did nothing. Poor communication and planning between local, provincial, and federal governments permitted convoy occupiers to further entrench themselves.

The occupiers were ostensibly in town in the name of ending vaccine mandates. In fact, they were there in service of sundry grievances and commitments that ran the gamut from COVID restrictions and labor and affordability issues to blatant white nationalism. The catchall promotional frame from the occupiers was the Right’s favorite abstract noun: freedom.

Now another convoy is being organized, Rolling Thunder Ottawa, slated to descend upon Parliament Hill on April 29. It remains to be seen whether anything will come of this copycat protest. It may be that Freedom Convoy energies have been exhausted, at least for the moment. In March, the convoy made a brief tour around Ottawa, but failed to win much media attention or engage many participants. Nonetheless, the threat of resurgent occupiers needs to be taken seriously. So too does the fact that, although they’ve left Ottawa, the members of the convoy are still out there, nursing their grievances, bound together on social media networks and by organizing tools.

Some of the occupiers, no doubt, have flocked to the Conservative Party leadership campaign of Pierre Poilievre, a quasi-populist ideological firebrand committed to the libertarian politics of Thatcherism. In February, Poilievre said, “I’m proud of the truckers and I stand with them.” His campaign is anti-statist, anti-tax, anti-mandate, and pro–oil and gas — seemingly custom built for the occupier crowd.

Poilievre is also speaking to the anger, frustration, anxiety, and grievances of younger Canadians, especially when it comes to housing affordability. Millions of Canadians have been priced out of the ownership and rental markets while the country stutters on supply, allows big capital to buy up units at leisure, and refuses to build sufficient nonmarket and public units.

Over the course of the pandemic, the Left has largely been missing in action. Thus far, there has been no political force challenging the rise of Poilievre. As he and the lurking convoy movement build upon their shared affinities, the Left seems to have abandoned the field. Canada’s institutional left — to the extent that it exists — appears to be unable or unwilling to speak to the populist impulses of those who are drawn to the movement but who may yet be reachable. It has thereby left a political space ripe for a pro-youth, pro-worker agenda in the hands of cynical right-wing operators.

The convoy organizers and their supporters, along with Poilievre and his, are making political hay out of issues that are normally the Left’s bread and butter — issues such as good jobs, housing, health care, and sick leave. While many who support convoy politics may be beyond reach — extremists who cannot be reasoned with nor converted — it would be foolish for the Left to cede this ground entirely. Indeed, the Left should pursue a policy of conversion, one that can redirect the anger of these folks. In an article that advocated for “an inclusive left-wing populism,” Emma Jackson counseled exactly this policy, and laid out lessons that the Left can take from the convoy.

Much like Reagan Democrats in the 1980s — working-class voters who abandoned the Democratic Party for Ronald Reagan — disaffected workers now flock to support Thatcherites like Poilievre who promise “freedom.” This is a cohort of voters who are looking for a political home that will offer them solutions to the myriad problems they face day to day. The Left seems uninterested in offering them solutions. As a result, they are no longer looking to the Left for a home. And the Right is happy to serenade them with its siren song.

It doesn’t help, of course, that in Canada the consultant class dominates the country’s social democratic party, as Martin Lukacs argued in his critique of the New Democratic Party’s parliamentary support deal with the governing Liberals. The NDP seems terrified of its own shadow and scared of socialist politics — even fearful of the word itself. The party seems more interested in asking, “Why can’t we all just get along?” than in throwing its hat in the ring of political contestation and fighting for the constituents of the Left.

Making matters worse, the party is also riven by competing provincial interests in jurisdictions where it can form government by gravitating toward the center and caving to the interests of capital and industry — such as the oil and gas industry in Alberta. From time to time, the party makes Faustian bargains for small gains — such as NDP premier John Horgan supporting the Site C dam in British Columbia — but in the long run, these bargains undermine any shot at a coherent left movement across the country. Such deals often undercut grassroots mobilization and take the wind out of the sails of any intellectual and organizational apparatus that might back them. Because of this, the party is incapable of responding to the political travails of the day. The party is stranded outside looking in, while voters are picked off, one by one, by unsavory alternatives to an unabashedly left politics of anger recognition and problem-solving.

Reaching new voters requires the Left solve at least two problems. The first is finding a way to reach out to disaffected workers and communities without giving an inch to racists, sexists, xenophobes, homophobes, and anyone who practices the politics of identitarian exclusion. The second is resisting the urge to resort to liberal “third way” politics. The Democratic Party’s response to Reagan Republicanism in the United States and the Labour Party’s path to power in the United Kingdom in the 1990s offer us no lessons other than what not to do. In the same way that they failed to solve problems in the past, third way politics won’t solve contemporary problems.

Canada’s dormant left must find a way to connect with and convert young, disaffected voters and older, angry populists. This is the only way to forestall the politics of retrenchment, hate, and extremist violence that so often attend moments of political strife caused by widespread hardship. But doing so requires an unapologetic commitment to left socialist politics premised on transferring power from the market to workers and expanding the welfare state beyond the constraints of liberal orthodoxy in a program of structural transformation. The best time to adopt such a program was before the rise of toxic populism and Thatcherite libertarianism. The second-best time is now.