October 20, 2018 11:00 am

Rage against the elite: A primer on populism in Canada

Both Doug Ford and Jason Kenney have been called populist but what does that mean? Is there a populist movement underway in Canada? University of Alberta political scientist Laurie Adkin weighs in.

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Donald Trump is perhaps the most visible, but he’s not the only example of the wave of populism sweeping Western democracies.

Populist parties have recently won elections in Ontario and Quebec. And Jason Kenney is trying to repeat the feat with his United Conservative Party in Alberta.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is populism the new norm in Canada?


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So what exactly is populism? 

We asked University of Alberta political scientist Laurie Adkin to help us sort it out.

“Populism is essentially any kind of discourse or political movement that constructs an opposition between the people and the elite,” she explains.

“It tries to say that there’s this homogeneous people, they’re all the same, they have a common interest and that interest is somehow being betrayed or denied by the elite.”

Listen below: On Global News’ original podcast, This is Why, Niki Reitmayer examines this question with the help of Michael Adams, president of The Environics Institute and author of Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.

Is there a difference between American and Canadian populism?

Adkin: “In Canada there’s been a bit more resistance in the political system and the political culture to populism than there has been in the United States.”

READ MORE: Obama unloads barrage of attacks on state of Donald Trump’s presidency

“The form of populism in the US has many similarities with what we’re seeing in Western Europe and across Europe today. It has strong elements of a kind of ethnic nationalism, elements of white supremacism, Christian Zionism, Islamophobia.”

“There’s a very strong anti-immigration aspect to it, and a view that immigration is the cause of many of the problems people are experiencing.”

“That has not advanced as far in Canada, although the type of populism we’re hearing in Canada now has similar characteristics as in the United States, but it’s not as loudly heard or as widespread within the political party system. It has kind of a base within the Conservative parties in particular, and number of sources in the media that are framing this world view, like Rebel Media.”

WATCH: Ex-PM Harper: Canada not immune to tide of populism

Canada’s populist PM

Former prime minister Stephen Harper describes his politics as populist conservatism. His new book, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption, looks at what he sees as tension between elites and everyday people.

In an exclusive interview with Global’s The West Block, Harper describes what today’s populism looks like to him:

“A revolt of the mass of the people who don’t identify with the views of big institutions, be they governments, or corporations, or media, or entertainment industry, representing the mass of the people challenging established assumptions about globalization, immigration, markets, trade, etc.”

READ MORE: Failure on Trans Mountain expansion could drive populism: Stephen Harper

“I’m saying in the book that we have not just the rise of populism, we have – increasingly, I see the spectrum realigning, as almost populism on one extreme, elitism on the other.”

Populism right, populism left

Although the current wave of populism is benefiting parties on the right, Canada has also seen left-wing populism.

Adkin cites the CCF and United Farmers of Alberta, and the 1930s Social Credit movement. “Examples again where politicians have constructed an opposition between the people and an elite which is seen to be corrupt or untrustworthy or exercising poor judgement, poor leadership.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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