Populism and the Canadian ‘Precariat’

I have written, perhaps too often, about my fears for the future of the liberal-democratic, capitalist, secular and rules based “new world order” that was created by StLaurentKarsh001the men who worked for and around US Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and British Prime Minister Churchill … one of those men was Canada’s Louis St Laurent, first as our wartime and post war 190477_600foreign minister and then as prime minister until 1957. My greatest fear is that a rude, crude form of devil-take-the-hindmost, me first (America First!) populism has taken hold … and not just in America. I think (I hope) I understand the roots of the fears which drive good, otherwise thoughtful people into the arms of the ranting and raving populists like Marine LePen and, of course, President Donald J Trump.

Now, I see that two noteworthy liberals, Frank Graves, who is president of the Ottawa-based EKOS Research Associates and a fellow of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy,and former journalist Michael Valpy who is a senior fellow of Massey College and a senior fellow in public policy at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, have addressed the issue from a Canadian perspective in an article in MacLean’s magazine.

They begin by saying that “As Canadians, we sit atop the continent, watching as our neighbours slide into cultural civil war. It has become easy to just be appalled as America becomesriven, with social media and antagonistic rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum erasing themiddle ground. There are two Americas, incommensurably separated on the fundamental issues of the day: climate change, the economy, social issues like health and education, employment, the media, immigration in particular … [an issue that has consumed me, too] … and globalization and free trade … [and] … We’ve learned more and more about the populism that has fuelled this complicated moment as the fracture in America races like wildfire throughout Western democracies. It is the biggest force reshaping democracy, our economies and public institutions. It is the product of economic despair, inequality, and yes, racism and xenophobia. It is an institutional blind spot, largely denied or ridiculed by the media, and by the more comfortable and educated portions of society.

Photo on 2018-12-05 at 10.15Those interested in an alternative but still complementary view of the origins of the populism and its future in Canada should read former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new book, ‘Right Here, Right Now‘ which deals extensively with the matter but from a somewhat different perspective.

The shifts in the democratic world order over the last decade,” Messers Graves and Valpy write, “have increasingly prompted social scientists to discard the left-right political spectrum in favour of an “open-ordered axis,” or what The Economist calls drawbridge-down vs drawbridge-up thinking. The former are cosmopolitan-minded people, in favour of diversity, immigration, trade, and globalization, and who are optimistic about the future; they’re guided by reason and evidence-based policy, and believe that climate change is a dominant priority. Drawbridge-up people, with an “ordered” worldview, are largely parochial, and they have reservations about diversity, are deeply pessimistic about the economic future, believe more in moral certainty than reason and evidence, are disdainful of media, government and of scientific expertise, and are convinced that climate change is trumped by the economy and their own survival.” Prime Minister Harper (p. 47) called them “anywheres” ~ the people who can function and, indeed, who thrive in our globalized world, and the “somewheres,” who he said are far more likely to be nationalists because their future hinges on the situation in the place where they live and work. Graves and Valpy say that the drawbridge-up or somewhere notion “is metastasizing in Western societies, including Canada’s, especially among the political right. EKOS research from 2017 suggests about 30 to 40 per cent of adult Canadians are drawn to it.

Meanwhile,” Frank Graves and Michael Valpy continue, “research over the last 10 years has found that Canada, like the United States, is turning into a society fissured along fault lines of education, class and gender. These are social chasms defined by the concentration of wealth at the top of society and, for everyone else, by economic pessimism and stagnation; by a comfortable feeling on one end of the societal teeter-totter, and a fear on the other end that a subscription to the middle-class dream might no longer be available … [and, somewhat scarily] … Although there has been a recent uptick for the first time in 15 years, the portion of Canadians who self-identify as middle class since the turn of the century has declined from 70 per cent to 45 per cent, a stark number that mirrors America’s—signalling that Canadians have a deeply pessimistic view of their personal economic outlook. Only one in eight Canadians thinks they’re better off than a year ago. Only one in eight thinks the next generation will enjoy a better life. And EKOS finds that, by a margin of two to one, Canadians believe that if present trends with inequality continue, the country — this country! — will see violent class conflicts.” In fact Stephen Harper suggests that 21st century Conservatives need to broaden their appeal from their traditional small town, main street and suburban base and reach out to the larger, disenchanted, working class … which some analysts suggest is exactly what Donald Trump did.

Graves and Valpy explain that “Ordered populism has already become an illusive, misunderstood theme in provincial elections in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario. Indeed, Doug Ford and his Ontario Progressive Conservatives won thanks to a preponderance of working-class, male electoral support—but a closer examination of the vote shows that male millennials, against expectation, supported Ford in significant numbers and had a high turnout. Millennial women, meanwhile, preferred the New Democratic Party by a margin of 25 points, and the millennial women who didn’t vote NDP largely stayed home. Millennial men split their votes between the NDP and Progressive Conservatives, and they led females millennials by 10 points in turning out to cast ballots.” It’s not, in other words, just angry, old, white men who support the populist causes. They go on to say that “Survey evidence strongly suggests that these are young men angered by the economic realities they face, and they are hit the hardest by what is happening in Ontario’s economy. A joint study by United Way Toronto and York Region and Hamilton’s McMaster University on poverty and employment precarity in southern Ontario reports that only 44 per cent of millennials in the region — the heartbeat of Canada’s economy — have full-time, permanent jobs, that the majority have not found work that provides extended health benefits, pension plans, or employer-funded training, and that formerly high-paying blue-collar jobs there are rapidly vanishing. The lack of good jobs, coupled with the social catastrophe of affordable housing and the resulting need to delay family formation, is resulting in anxiety and depression that disproportionately affects millennial men—making them ideal targets for the appeals of ordered populism.” This is exactly the point Stephen Harper makes, too and I discussed it, earlier when discussing liberalism and the fate of the ‘precariat ~ a new ‘class’ described by Professor Guy Standing of the University of London as those “whose voice will soon be at the centre of Canadian life. It is the precariat, the growing mass of Canadians who are in precarious work, precarious housing and hold precarious citizenship: the perpetual part-timers, the minimum-wagers, the temporary foreign workers, the grey-market domestics paid in cash, the young Canadians who will never have secure employment, the techno-impoverished 10696419whose piecemeal work has no office and no end, the seniors who struggle with dwindling benefits, the indigenous people who are kept outside, the single mothers without support, the cash labourers who have no savings, the generation for whom a pension and a retirement is neither available nor desired … [and] … The precariat consists of millions of people struggling to come to terms with lives of unstable labour and unstable living, lacking an occupational identity or career. They rely on money wages, which are stagnant and volatile, putting them in constant fear of unsustainable debt. The politicians have ignored the precariat, which may account for 40 per cent of the adult population in Canada. In some countries, it is more; it is growing everywhere … [and, worse] … the precariat has been losing citizenship rights – civil, cultural, political, social and economic. As such, they are becoming supplicants: They must ask for favours and benefits, satisfy bureaucrats and depend on discretionary decisions that subject them to discomfort, indignity and even homelessness.” It is that ‘class’ which Prime Minister Harper says needs Conservatives‘ help and understanding.

Frank Graves and Michael Valpy get this, too, and they say that “What is happening challenges the conventional view that the youngest adults of Canadian society—the millennials, now Canada’s largest electoral demographic—operate with roughly similar, progressive views and values … [and, they add] … Another assumption in need of challenging is the idea that Canada’s ordered populism, like its American counterpart, is a besieged white citadel. In fact, our northern brand is as much the choice of multicultural new Canadians as of white native-born Canada. A significant chunk of new Canadians, many of them non-white, indicate they will vote Conservative in next year’s federal election — even though 65 per cent of Conservative supporters told EKOS this year that Canada admits too many non-white immigrants. And while a majority of Canadians are open to immigration, the intensity of the opposition is red-hot, including in other parties: 20 per cent of New Democratic Party supporters and 13 per cent of Liberal supporters also believe too many non-white immigrants are entering the country.” There are, they suggest two possible explanations for this:

  • First, new Canadians may bring with them into the country strains of social conservatism that make them hostile to issues like same-sex marriage and what they see as immoral, too-liberal sex education, an inflammatory issue in Ontario over the past couple of years. Thus, what they see as an assault on their values may be more important than a party trying to appeal to voters who want fewer of them in the country;” and
  • Second, where neighbourhoods are ethnically homogeneous as many are around the core of Canadian cities—white, brown or otherwise—populism holds appeal. Where there’s more diversity, it doesn’t. As social scientists have discovered, communities which have the least contact with minority groups are the most hostile to them.

I’m not sure about those reasons, there is considerable evidence that Stephen Harper believed the first one, but the consequences could be huge because as the authors say that “The looming federal election could be a spark for all the populist tinder largely being ignored in Canada. In the 2015 federal election, voting differences by gender for all age groups were flat. Now the federal Conservatives hold a 17-point advantage among men from all age groups other than seniors —a huge change in three years. Federal Conservatives also hold an advantage over Liberals and New Democrats with voters who self-identify as working class, and the party has overwhelming support from non-university-educated Canadians, the group most likely to feel left behind by the disappearance of blue-collar industries.

Mix that with some thoughts by Lorne Gunter in the Ottawa Sun who writes that “There is one thing that could defeat the Liberals next October – their juvenile mismanagement of Canada’s economy … [he explains that] … The economy shrank unexpectedly in September and the annualized rate of GDP growth fell to 2% in the second quarter versus 2.9% in the first quarter. With inflation at 2.4%, that means we’re spinning our wheels. The economy isn’t growing fast enough to create lots of new jobs and small-business start-ups … [and, he adds] …  of course, this mediocre performance occurred before the price of Canadian oil fully hit historic lows and before General Motors announced it was restructuring 2,800 Oshawa, Ontario assembly line jobs out of existence … [and we know that] … A tepid economy is often deadly for governments. People feel their jobs are at risk. They worry any income gains they make will be stolen back by inflation or taxes or expanding government debt (which drive up interest rates).

Messers Graves and Valpy conclude by saying that “Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper led a party supported by the economically comfortable. His successor, Andrew Scheer, leads a party of the economically unhappy, of the new economy’s losers, a base increasingly comfortable with raising the drawbridge even as the Liberal government announces Canada will admit an additional 40,000 immigrants by 2021, bringing the annual number of new, mostly non-white arrivals to 350,000. Any campaign rhetoric that confuses this new support with its old party will only exacerbate the anger—and for the angry to find comfort in populism’s temptations … [and they say] … What we do know is that Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government, with its populist strains and its vague campaign promises, is what many angry young men voted for. Maybe they didn’t vote for its policies; maybe, in their anger, they just voted to burn the house down, even if the history of populist movements show they’ve rarely worked out … [and, they conclude, looking through a very progressive lens] … We can try to understand why it’s happening. We can insist that governments tackle inequality and affordable housing. We can build a future that preserves progress for all of us but addresses the real injuries of those who have embraced populism, while also refusing to bend INLINE-8-743x545to their fear, anger and ignorance. But letting populism burn the house down benefits nobody—and we can’t just ignore the smell of gasoline in the air.” Doug Ford didn’t really “try to understand why what’s happening;” he, rather like Donald Trump, just saw where the mob was heading and he rushed out front to lead it there.

Stephen Harper explains the ‘problem’ well enough and his prescriptions should be comfortable and familiar to Conservatives. The outcomes of the liberal order ~ open markets, free(er) trade, globalization and increased immigration ~ he says must be seen as tools, not as ends in themselves. These tools must be used to rebalance the benefits of the liberal world order ~ which some believe are unfairly advantageous to Asia, especially ~ in order to ensure that the ‘precariat‘ in the West, which sees itself as being, uniquely, disadvantaged over the last 40± years, gets a share.

The Liberals’ commitment to climate change over economic growth,‘ Lorne Gunter says and “their decision to kill two major pipelines (Energy East and Northern Gateway), their new impact assessment legislation (Bill C-69) to make future megaprojects next to impossible, their showy commitment to gender equality and their obsession with meaningless intellectual fashions such as “deliverology,” all send signals to investors that the government isn’t serious and that Canada is no longer a trustworthy place to put money.” Those same things frighten the Canadian ‘precariat,‘ and Prime Minister Harper’s “somewheres” and the drawbridge-up folks and make them look elsewhere for solutions … that solution will, most likely, be the Conservative Party of Canada if it can make coherent promises to:

  • Cut taxes and leave Canadians’ hard-earned money in their own pockets;
  • Make the immigration system work for Canadians ~ which means choking off the flow of unwanted, illegal migrants;
  • Sign trade deals that will bring better jobs here to Canada;
  • Build pipelines to both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts; and
  • Look after Canada’s environment, especially the lands worked by our First Nations.


Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

24 thoughts on “Populism and the Canadian ‘Precariat’

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