From polls to protests: the search for a Trump-like political movement in Canada

Trump could happen here, but where, exactly?

OTTAWA — When chants of “lock her up” — an echo of anti-Clinton vitriol from the U.S. presidential election — erupted last December during a protest at the Alberta legislature, observers quickly flagged it as evidence of the Trump effect in Canada.

But 21st-century populism knows no geopolitical bounds.

Witness the struggling town of Smith Falls, Ont., where local residents stood up during a public meeting last month to demand that the town take part in a provincial project that would provide everyone with a guaranteed income.

When it comes to finding Canadian examples of the sentiment that fuelled Trump’s improbable election win, where to look — or what to look for — isn’t always clear.

In the Populism Project, The Canadian Press is exploring the factors that led to Trump’s victory, and testing them against Canada’s economic, social and political climate to see whether the same kind of political upheaval could happen here.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits down with Trump for the first time, a meeting that might end up setting the tone for the relationship between the two leaders and their countries for the next four years.

It could get awkward: some see Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ political stylings as an antidote of sorts to the U.S. president. A recent column by influential New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof was titled “Canada, Leading the Free World.”

But in the same way Trudeau has supporters abroad, many in Canada are Trump fans, too. And true to form, many of them are in Alberta.

In the weeks after the U.S. election, an Ekos poll of some 1,949 Canadians found that 57 per cent of those respondents who identified as Conservatives approved of how Trump had handled the job to date. Trump support was highest in Alberta.

At the same time, the federal Conservatives were experiencing a surge in support themselves, wrote Ekos president Frank Graves.

“The underlying demographic trends reflect some of the same demographics behind Trump’s victory in the United States: less emphasis on seniors and more emphasis on men, those in their middle-life cycle, those without a university degree, and those who live in more rural areas.”

The people who attended the anti-carbon tax rally at the Alberta legislature last year were genuinely frustrated, said Insights West pollster Mario Canseco.

One minute, the Conservatives are in power in both Alberta and in Ottawa and the oilpatch is going gangbusters. The next, the oil economy is collapsing, the NDP is running the province and Calgary has a progressive mayor.

“From an ideological standpoint, they lost everything,” said Canseco. “Now you’re in a situation that makes you feel like you’re being oppressed in a way.”

On markers like income inequality and wage rates, Canada has been performing better than the U.S. for a while — evidence for some that Canada is less vulnerable to the same degree of political upheaval.

Tell that to people like Darlene Kantor.

At 52, Kantor manages rental properties in Smiths Falls, a job she ended up in after working as an apartment-complex cleaning lady. Her disability payments — she has seizures — were no longer enough to cover her costs for rent and food.

Kantor said while she personally abhors what she see as Trump’s prejudice towards minority groups, she can understand why alienated voters might rise up en masse to elect a brash political outsider.

She feels her government is failing her too.

When Kantor heard that Smiths Falls could be part of an Ontario pilot project that would see whether people a guaranteed income could help alleviate poverty rates, she wanted in.

When at first the town council refused, she and one other woman interrupted the next meeting in protest. That led to a public consultation that drew an estimated 250 people, according to local media reports.

And that led to town council agreeing to put their city forward as potential site for the test program.

The fact politicians listened gave her hope, Kantor said in an interview. But the real test will come later this spring when the Ontario government releases its list of which cities will qualify for the program.

“We’ll see in April if the politicians are listening to us,” Kantor said. “If they aren’t, then it will just mean more protests.”

The most notorious example of how municipal politics can foster populism is probably Rob Ford, the late Toronto mayor whose political success hinged on an anti-establishment campaign carefully crafted to position him as a man of the people.

Ironically, it’s the diversity of cities like Toronto that all but guarantee any federal populist movement might never get far.

Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are now home to more than one-third of all Canadians, with a combined population of 12.5 million, almost half of whom live in the Greater Toronto Area, the 2016 census found.

The census also shows that the neighbourhoods that surround those mega-cities are getting bigger by the day.

Toronto and its surrounding suburbs account for nearly 70 federal ridings, said Darrell Bricker, the chief executive officer at Ipsos Public Affairs. The city’s diverse makeup — about half are foreign born â€” suggests the nativist sentiment adopted by Trump would never resonate there. 

Trump’s messages about problems with trade, safety and security and morality, however, are a different matter.

“Those policy ideas don’t necessarily have a specific impact just on Canadians who aren’t immigrants, it could have an impact on immigrants too,” Bricker said.

“It’s this idea that it’s racially determined that becomes difficult.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version omitted Darrell Bricker’s first name and title.

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