Reimagining Populism to Reveal Canada's Right-Wing Populist Zeitgeist
IN THIS ARTICLE
Through an examination of recent populist political formulations in Canada, this paper argues that prevailing understandings of right-wing populism are incomplete insofar as they occlude expressions of right-wing populism through regional and economic formulations of ‘the people’ that exist outside of ethnic or cultural conceptions of ‘the nation.’ Thus, counter to the prevailing popular narrative, this paper contends that Canada is not immune to right-wing populism and that such populism can exist without overt ethnic or culturally based exclusions in its construction of ‘the people,’ even while social exclusions, hierarchies, and inequalities may be perpetuated or even expanded through it. In making this argument, this paper defends the utility of Cas Mudde’s definition of populism as a ‘thin-centred’ ideology, since it facilitates the important task of identifying and differentiating the content of particular populist formations. It is precisely this content dimension of populism that is crucial to identifying the distinct influences that populism has on parties, party systems, and electoral outcomes. Analytically grappling with the content of populist articulations is concluded to be necessary to avoid creating the conceptual blind spots responsible for the erroneous belief in Canadian populist exceptionalism.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States has had a dramatic effect on the framing of politics globally. Suddenly, it seemed as if ‘right-wing populism’ was all around, its long commented-on rise in Europe now taking on a new exigency. For Canada’s part, the country would now be cast as one of the few stalwarts advancing liberal democratic notions of openness and inclusivity in the midst of a rising tide of nativism and right-wing populism.1 Canada proudly took in 30,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 while others closed their borders; Canada has continued to commit itself to multilateralism while others degraded such methods; Canada had seen no significant populist parties emerge to contest its national liberal democratic consensus. Indeed, with its strong centrist tendencies, sturdy belief in the rule of law, and ostensibly entrenched multiculturalism values, many a commentator could present Canada as somehow immune to this populist turn.2Yet, key to this framing of Canadian uniqueness is a particular understanding of right-wing populism itself. Associated with both fervent faith in the free market and openly ethnic-exclusionary political discourse, right-wing populism has in many ways become defined by the nativist rhetoric of many of its ascendant proponents, in contrast to its arguably more egalitarian and emancipatory left-wing formations. Although populism is often conceived of as a rejection of neoliberalism, its right-wing formations generally only object to the ‘globalization’ elements of neoliberalism, but otherwise advance neoliberalism’s faith in the justness of markets and morals over redistributive social justice.3 Indeed, this rejection of redistributive state interventions and bureaucracy is seen to move hand-in-hand with the reactionary elements of right-wing populist formations, as they redouble homogenous ethnic and cultural conceptions of the state.4
However, this conflation of ethnic-exclusionary politics, right-wing economics, and right-wing populism creates a conceptual gap which masquerades behind the celebratory assertions of Canadian liberal distinctiveness. While Canada may be highly resilient to explicit nativism or the emergence of a Trump-like figure, it is not immune to populism of any form. Indeed, Canada has a long history of populist political formations, tracing back to long before the current global Zeitgeist.5 Prevailing understandings of right-wing populism, as will be shown below, occlude its expression through regional and economic formulations of ‘the people’ that exist outside of ethnic or cultural conceptions of ‘the nation’, thus preventing the recognition of right-wing populism in Canada.
While social exclusions, hierarchies, and inequalities may be perpetuated or even expanded through this Canadian populism, these ethnic and/or culturally based exclusions are not foregrounded in these populist constructions. Thus, this paper will contend, with reference to the Canadian populist experience, that prevailing understandings produce a fatal blindness, and that right-wing populism can exist without overt ethnic or culturally based exclusions in its construction of ‘the people’. This paper will proceed by defending a content specific definition of populism as a ‘thin-centred’ ideology, emphasizing this conceptualization’s ability to identify distinctly populist yet content-diverse formations of populism. The argument will continue by outlining the essence of the mistaken understanding of right-wing populism in Canada, demonstrating the precedent-setting role of the Reform Party of Canada, and finally by demonstrating how this overt ethnic/cultural exclusion-free populism operates in the Canadian context.
Populism, What Populism?
Populism is a term that has come to mean notably different things to different people. Indeed, as Moffit and Tormey note, remarking upon its contestability might be the only solid common point of departure that all scholars could agree on.6 And in common parlance, the word can easily become as meaningless as ‘terrorism’: a label attached to any cause the speaker wishes to delegitimize and present as a threat common to all. Nevertheless, the term is not without utility, provided it is aptly defined.7
This paper will adopt Cas Mudde’s definition of populism as: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”8 This ideology is ‘thin-centered’ such that it “can be easily combined with very different (thin and full) other ideologies.”9 The ‘core’ of populism, however, exists in ‘the people’, who are “are neither real [so not a class or an objective category] nor all-inclusive, but are in fact a mythical and constructed sub-set of the whole population.”10 This definition is useful, given that it provides a clearly identifiable populist dynamic while also allowing for a diversity of populist formations. This does not imply that political actors or voters must be sorted into clearly defined roles as ‘populist’ or ‘non-populist’, but rather that the expression of a populist ideology can be identified through the reification of the ‘common sense’ of ‘the people’.11 Furthermore, this conceptualization facilitates understanding “that the emergence and endurance of populism is linked to both supply-side and demand-side factors,” such that the adherence of constituencies to populist ideology, and the development of party ideology to meet their needs, plays an important role in explaining political occurrences.12
But as was stated, this is hardly an uncontentious definition. Moffit and Tormey contend that this notion of ‘thin-centered ideology’ cannot properly apply to populism because populism lacks the same substantive content possessed by other thin-centered ideologies, such as ecologism or feminism.13 They argue instead for an empirical approach, using ‘family resemblances’, wherein populism is conceived of as a political style found in the combination of appeals to ‘the people’, assertions of crisis and breakdown, and displays of “bad manners” by leaders espousing it.14 However, while the use of ideology, ‘thin-centered’ or otherwise, may present some conceptual difficulties, it does allow for a more comprehensive understanding of populism. Both populism as political style and populism as thin-centered ideology allow for the appearance of populism across the ideological spectrum, however, the ‘family resemblances’ approach leads populism as political style to focus on identifying similarities and trends, rather then significant content-based contextual deviations or particularities.15 It is exactly these such deviations that are important in examining the Canadian case.
Meanwhile, scholars like Weyland and Jansen have advocated for leaving the contentious grounds of the content of populism in favour of its methods. Weyland contends that populism “is best defined as a political strategy,” a means of directly mobilizing large numbers of unorganized supporters through charismatic leadership to effect political change.16 Jansen continues in this strain, asserting that populism ought best be conceived of as a means, something that is practiced, as a “political project” which mobilizes the marginalized into visible political action, “while articulating an anti-elite, nationalist rhetoric that valorizes ordinary people.”17 However, this shift away from content to ‘strategy’ or ‘means’ not only fixates populism into a particular form and context, but avoids the important task of distinguishing the content of specific populisms. As the Canadian case will demonstrate, distinguishing between the content of different populist formulations is key to explaining political occurrences.
Far more adaptable is the concept of populism advanced by Laclau and Mouffe, wherein populism is distinctly “not an ideology,” but instead a “way of doing politics.”18 Such populism consists in the construction of an “internal frontier” dividing society into two camps, creating a political subject that is united with others through an “equivalential chain” that, through an “empty signifier,” binds together a set of different social demands into a common cause, a “people.”19 This “relation of equivalence” does not collapse all identity, but rather “eliminates the separation between the demands,” creating the effect of unity without destroying difference.20 Rather, it is to the extent that these demands share a common oppositional force that “these differences can be substituted for each other.”21 This conception allows for a wide diversity of populist formulations, however, in permitting this breadth, it sacrifices analytical utility. It equates populism with politics itself, since both put “into question the institutional order,” and consequently populism comes to be contrasted with mere administration, rather than other sorts of politics.22 Since all ideologies interpellate some kind of agent group, this blurs various ideologies into an incoherent populist “way of doing politics,” leaving no distinctly identifiable populist construction of ‘the people.’ Moffit and Tormey highlight this issue as well, noting that the “slippage” between populism, hegemony, and politics, as well at the problems of methodological applicability, undercut the utility of this conceptualization of populism.23
Still, this blurriness by itself does not discard the utility of this conceptualization of populism since it still facilitates understanding how a political actor can interpellate electorally advantageous constructions of ‘the people’ through a careful drawing of the ‘internal frontier’. Indeed, it provides a level of flexibility denied by populism as Mudde defends, since this conceptualization jettisons the possible presumptions of ‘thin-centered’ ideology. However, given that it lacks the capacity to identify specifically populist political manifestations in a narrow sense, it presents a poor foundation for interrogating the presence of right-wing populism in Canada. Intersecting these conceptualizes might provide theoretical possibilities, however, using a standard strict definition of populism enables this paper to found itself on ‘well-tread’ theoretical ground, rather than creating its own, possibly self-fulfilling, definition.
Yet even in defending populism as a ‘thin-centered’ ideology distinguishable by its ideological content, there remains a conceptual problem: if populist formations can appear across the political spectrum, as this definition and others allow, then naturally they will take on distinct forms. Thus, at a basic level, there exists a propensity to distinguish between right-wing populism and left-wing wing populism. Right-wing populism is generally associated with nativist, exclusionary, if not racist politics.24 It is tied to figures such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Marine Le Pen. Chantal Mouffe, in her efforts to defend a left-wing populist movement, contends that right-wing populism is concerned with the restoration of national sovereignty, which is “reserved for those deemed to be true nationals,” thus excluding “numerous categories” in their construction of ‘the people’, who are instead conceived of as “a threat to the identity and the prosperity of the nation.”25 Nancy Fraser contrasts a hierarchical, exclusionary and divisive “reactionary populism” with an egalitarian and unifying “progressive populism” in a binary mirroring a right/left divide.26 Meanwhile, some conflate the whole of populism with this exclusionary feature, in that all types of populism share “an emphasis on outside forces and groups that disadvantage the territory and/or places occupied by the people.”27 However, as this paper contends, this conception of right-wing populism as fundamentally exclusionary along ethnic or cultural lines leads to serious blind spots in recognizing manifestations of right-wing populism.
The blindness resulting from prevailing conceptions of right-wing populism is clearly demonstrated in Canada, where the lack of success of explicitly ethnic or culturally exclusionary politics is assumed as evidence that right-wing populism both has not and cannot take root here. Perhaps the best example of this sort of misconception is Michael Adams’s Could it Happen Here. Adams uses a vast array of statistical data comparing the popular social values of the US to those in Canada, to make the case that a Trump-like figure could not succeed in the Canadian political context given Canada’s effectively more “global and tolerant outlook, as well as a rejection of the politics of division.”28 Indeed, he argues Canadians “don’t want to fight to see who is right” but rather “want to talk and talk, to see who can stay awake long enough to have the last word.”29 Thus, even if Canada has had occasional “flings with polarizing populists… we always seem to muddle our way back to the middle.”30 The implicit assumption in the argument is that the propensity of racist, patriarchal, and other exclusionary values are a necessarily part of right-wing populism, or moreover, that President Trump represents the archetype of right-wing populism.
But this sort of argument certainly sounds compelling. How else does one explain the dearth of successful nativist parties in Canada? Certainly, the failure of Kelly Leitch’s openly nativist populist campaign bid for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, or the dismal performance of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, overtly populist and skeptical of multiculturalism, seem (on the surface) to accord with this notion of Canadian exceptionalism to the right-wing populist Zeitgeist. Standard scholarly explanations for Canadian exceptionalism will buttress such observations, where the success of Canada’s points-based immigration system, combined with strong official multiculturalism and relative geographical ‘isolation’, work to undercut the other supply and demand factors that would encourage nativist politics.31
Indeed, as Ambrose and Mudde observe, Canada is oddly free of nativist or exclusionary politics despite the fact that “the most popular theories of far right [populist or otherwise] party success” indicate that “Canada should prove a fertile breeding ground for anti-immigrant mobilization” given its high levels of immigration, comparatively higher levels of unemployment, and historically unstable party system.32 They argue this exceptionalism is a result of Canada’s “unique multiculturalism policy, which is based on a [potent interaction and] combination of selective immigration policy, comprehensive integration policy, and strong state repression of dissent on these policies.”33 Recent 2019 poll data from the Environics Institute seems to confirm this point precisely: 63% of Canadians disagree with the statement that “immigration levels are too high,” while 80% believe the “economic impact of immigration is positive” and 64% hold that Canada does not accept “too many immigrants from racial minority groups.”34 Thus, at a surface level, it may appear that Canada is impervious to right-wing populism based on its citizens’ unique set of (ostensibly firmly set) values.
However, such a conclusion is fallacious insofar as it assumes that right-wing populism cannot appear outside of explicitly ethnic and/or culturally exclusionary forms. Rather, what all the above indicates is that nativist constructions of ‘the people’ will be unsuccessful in Canada, so right-wing populism must modify its approach. Consequently, Canadian forms of populism have focused on criticizing a system of power “backed by ‘special interests’ and their political agents, and protected by institutions portrayed as insensitive to the appeal and interest of ‘the people’.”35 It is a criticism of a system of government that does not work for the ‘everyman’, or according to the ‘common sense of the average Canadian.’36 Though still presenting opposition to “a generous immigration policy and official multiculturalism,” these right-wing populists have used “the language of economics and fiscal restraint as oppose to appeals to ethnic identity or social concerns.”37
Right-wing brands have been forced to abandon using a more nativist definition, as Gordon, Jeram, and van der Linden have argued, because of the “fracturing of the anti‐immigration vote due to Quebec nationalism,” splitting any possible national nativist cause, which has “helped reinforce a broad partisan consensus around mass immigration.”38 The resulting split in support, stemming from separatist/nationalist divisions, “has forced conservative parties” to treat urban ridings with high levels of immigrants as “crucial swing ridings” in order to be electorally competitive enough to form government.39 Furthermore, multiculturalism maintains its popularity in no small part due to its connection to Canadian nationalism: it has come to play a key role in articulating how Canada is not like the US.40 And while this multiculturalism can still exclude in its own ways, such as by defining what is ‘tolerable’ and what makes a ‘good’ immigrant, it does not make for an explicitly exclusionary nationalism, but rather prides itself (however self-servingly) on its inclusivity. Additionally, the fundamental lack of any country-wide conception of a “homogenous ethnic heritage or nationalism in Canada,” places a permanent limitation on the possibilities of “culturally-based populism” of the kind seen in Europe and the US.41 Thus, any right-wing populist movement cannot advocate an explicitly nativist conception of ‘the people’ without making itself electorally and popularly weak by giving up on key constituencies, central ideas of Canadian identity, and confronting the long-held understanding of Canada as a heterogenous society since Confederation. Right-wing populist parties must then adapt their approach, as the Reform Party of Canada demonstrates.
‘Reforming’ Right-Wing Populist Appeals
The Reform Party of Canada has come to have lasting implications for Canadian politics which have far surpassed the party’s limited electoral relevance. Indeed, it has established the dynamics that any right-wing party, populist or otherwise, must contend with in the Canadian political landscape.42 Created in 1986, Reform had its electoral breakthrough in 1993 Federal election, becoming the “dominant right‐of‐centre party in English Canada.”43 Emerging from the “longstanding heritage of western discontent” aimed at Ottawa from the prairie provinces, it was the latest iteration of regional populism.44 Indeed, as Budd observes, “many of the most well-known and successful populist movements in Canada have been organized around regional/provincial interests where right-wing politicians and parties have positioned themselves as opponents of an unaccountable and out-of-touch federal government.”45 But Reform broke new ground for such movements, not only in becoming a major political force federally, but also in breaking from apparent consensus on core issues of Canadian identity. Reform dared to voice criticism at Canada’s immigration and multiculturalism policies, though it avoided openly nativist positions.46 It also advanced a “culturally defined nationalism… more complex than a simple anti-immigrant impulse” seen in its objections to turban wearing RCMP officers and special status for Quebec.47 A key part of what brought Progressive Conservative Party voters over to the Reform Party was their lone stance against the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, since it had “been constructed behind closed doors by unaccountable political elites and would have given enhanced rights and increased power to native peoples, Québécois nationalists, and ‘special interests’ such as feminists.”48
However, despite these apparently explicit exclusionary elements, Reform’s conception of ‘the people’ was tactically more inclusive. In its earlier formations, it cast Western Canadians as ‘the people’, excluded and disadvantaged by the federal system.49 However, this was quickly altered to establish appeal along economic lines: ‘the people’ would be conceived of as “ordinary, hard-working citizens duped by a coalition of old line parties, special interests and rent-seeking federal government bureaucrats into financing an unfairly redistributive and freedom-denying welfare state.”50 Reform constructed a neoliberal frame, casting the market as “a neutral distributor of economic and social values,” and consequently asserting that “the costs of state-directed redistributive policies are borne disproportionately by individual property-holders through confiscatory taxation.”51
These state policies benefited ‘special interests’ (which would not include those who advocated for a smaller state) and government bureaucrats supported by ‘old line parties’, a ‘corrupt elite’ benefiting at the cost of ‘the people’.52 Reform thus established a broad conception of ‘the people’, one not defined according to any particular overtly nativist conception, but open to self-inclusion by anyone who did not conceive of themselves as beholden to membership of a ‘special interest group’. That is to say, anyone who believed that “citizen identities based on anything other than region, or one's status as a 'taxpayer',” encourage the growth of “market-threatening, tax-heightening and bureaucracy-building mediation by organized interests” could be a part of this ‘people’.53 This ‘people’ was thus to be “empowered as individuals by removing mediating institutions and organized group representation in the policy process.”54
Ripples in the Pond
Nevertheless, Reform’s regionalist roots and elements of “conservative extremism” would prevent it from expanding beyond the west.55 However, its peculiar populist formulation influenced its heirs on the right of the Canadian political spectrum. In 2000, the Reform Party “rebranded itself” as the Canadian Alliance in an effort to become more competitive outside western Canada, yet it continued to strain under tensions between its more nativist roots and more pragmatic capitalist elements that hoped to broaden the party’s appeal.56 The Canadian Alliance’s 2003 merger with the Progressive Conservatives to form the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) under Stephen Harper, in an effort to unite the right, helped mute these more nativist underpinnings.57
As Laycock observes, “by 2000, it was clear that right-wing populists had to increasingly speak the language of inclusion with a multi-cultural accent,” an understanding which was demonstrated by the CPC in its efforts “to win over the leadership of immigrant communities across urban Canada.”58 This populism of the CPC under Harper has been studied in a number of capacities: Sawer & Laycock speak of “market populism,” Kelly & Puddister contends for a “penal populism,” while Carlaw articulates an “authoritarian populism.”59 But what unites these various conceptions is a carefully constructed populist discourse that, as Snow and Moffitt call ‘mainstream populism’, uses “a less extreme version of populist discourse as a particular means to an end” thus evoking a ‘pure people’ and ‘corrupt elite’ “for electoral success and party-building.”60 Reform’s populist formulation was never able to break out of Western Canada; in order to for the CPC to have a chance at forming government, they would need to alter their formulation to include new, key constituencies.
This task would be taken up by Jason Kenney, the then Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism of the CPC minority government in the latter 2000s. His efforts helped to create a populist conception of ‘the people’ that included key ‘ethnic’ electoral cleavages, while also “implementing highly exclusionary policies in many realms of citizenship and immigration.”61 There needed to be enough socio-cultural undertones to retain Reform voters, but these also needed to be muffled enough (this is, not explicit) to attract votes from ‘New Canadians’.62 As was mentioned above, the Quebec nationalist vote split nativist sentiments at election time, forcing the CPC to make an outreach campaign, headed by Kenney, in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver ‘ethnic ridings’, which helped deliver a decisive CPC majority in 2011.63 The tactic thus seems to have worked, given that the Canadian right was, after languishing as a minority government unable to win many urban seats outside western Canada for much of the 2000s, able to form a majority government for the first time since 1993.
A populist discourse was constructed which was explicitly ‘anti-expert’ and ‘pro-taxpayer’.64 ‘The people’ were still “all subject to excessive taxation, regulation, and state intrusion,” but no longer associated with any sort of nativism.65 This was a strategic alignment between newcomer preferences for lower taxes, pro-business policies, and personal security with Reform’s populism which was already popular among party supporters.66 Corrupt (or at least, self-serving) elites were seen in bureaucracies and among academics who spoke out against the CPC government’s tougher criminal sentences and child care credit.67 The notion of “substantive equality requiring significant state intervention within a moderately generous welfare state,” was thus divorced from “the dominant narrative about multiculturalism and diversity.”68
The former could be challenged without seeming to impinge upon the latter. A ‘pure people’ was thereby constructed which could include citizens of any ethnic or regional background, thereby taking up Reform’s mantle in a more tactical capacity. Exclusionary politics were still there: concerns over ‘barbaric cultural practices’, ‘fraudulent refugee claims’, etc., but these were kept in a precise balance with a wider notion of ‘the people’ to maintain sufficient support.69
It could be argued that this sort of populism seems altogether more tactical than ideological, which would present a problem for the definition of populism used here. Indeed, Budd contends that “the ideological approach has trouble accounting for these populist displays by non-populists [such as Harper and the CPC], representing a significant incongruence between theory and empirical reality.”70 Laycock and Weldon support this point, arguing that these moves by the CPC constitute “‘real politic’ strategy rather than substantial ideological transformation,” as it “involved a careful re-calibration of the Reform party’s exclusionary conceptualization of ‘the people.’”71 However, these critiques make two errors. Firstly, they assume that political actors must be sorted into one of two distinct groups: populists and non-populists.
However, Mudde is clear that even “quintessential contemporary ‘populists’ do not always use a populist discourse” and may not “at every time” be populist.72 Separations into clear camps are therefore misguided, since it is justifications through a constructed ‘pure people’ versus ‘corrupt elites’ that distinguishes populist articulations, not the identification of an actor as populist. Secondly, these objections assume that ideology must be authentically held by party elites for it to be an ideological construction. Yet regardless of whether Harper and his advisors held society to be divided into a ‘pure people’ and a ‘corrupt elite’, it would seem that an electorally significant portion of CPC voters did. Thus, whether instrumentally or not, ideology was still very must at play, as it was the content of this populist formulation of ‘the people’ that made all the difference.
Fool Me Once, Shame on You. Fool Me Twice…
Nevertheless, the precariousness of the balance in this populist formulation was demonstrated during the 2015 election, where a serious miscalculation by the CPC campaign helped deliver the final blow to the re-election of this long-governing party. A proposed ban on the wearing of the Niqab during citizenship ceremonies, combined the prospects of a ‘barbaric cultural practices hotline’ and talk of ‘old-stock Canadians’, while intended to serve as a wedge issue to drive voters towards the CPC, seriously damaged CPC support among those key New Canadian constituencies.73 Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s highly publicized ‘a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian’ heckle of PM Harper during the Munk leaders debate, regarding the prospect of empowering the government with the ability to revoke Canadian citizenship, brought this overstep to a dramatic head.74 The delicate balance of stratified Canadian-ness within a populist formulation of an economically-founded people thus crumbled, which was compounded by the frustrations that had build up over the past nine years to lead to sound electoral defeat to the Liberal Party of Canada.75
But a valuable lesson was learned. This was displayed in part at the federal level. It can be seen in the substantial negative reaction among CPC members to Kelly Leitch’s campaign for leadership of the CPC. Using a right-wing populist discourse which was highly reminiscent of President Trump’s own form, Leitch deviated from “an economic discourse of tax-payers and undeserving welfare recipients” in her constructions of ‘the people’ in favour of “a cultural definition of the people based on a highly gendered discourse that positions immigration as a cultural and physical threat to gender equality and the safety of women.”76 Her proposed ‘Canadian Values Test’ for prospective immigrants positioned her as a defender of a “homogenous Canadian people” against “elites and dangerous others,” thereby abandoning the Harper era balance act.77 In targeting multiculturalism through “cultural concerns,” rather than on “economic and anti-egalitarian terms,” Leitch highlighted those Reform-born exclusionary formulations of ‘the people’ which had proved to limit the Reform Party and defeat the CPC, leading to her sound rejection.78
Similarly, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada (PPC) appears to have been aggressively targeted by the CPC during the 2019 Canadian election in order to rebuff these more explicitly exclusionary right-wing populist formations of ‘the people’. Bernier had also been a contender in the 2016-2017 CPC leadership race but had formed his own party after defeat in the final round of voting, now making himself out to be a populist ‘man of the people’. Often remarked upon for the xenophobic, racist, or otherwise exclusionary comments of its members, and its radical-right campaign platform elements, the PPC came to be a pure and unrestrained reactionary right-wing populist movement of the likes of early Reform.79 There now seems to be sufficient evidence that the CPC contracted a private organization to run a “seek and destroy” campaign against the PPC in 2019.80 This populist movement threatened to steal away those Reform party elements from the CPC voter base, upsetting the necessary balance for CPC electoral victory, thus requiring action. Nevertheless, it is not only in these smaller ways at the federal level that this understanding of the necessity of economic-based populist formations appears.
The Zeitgeist Unfolds
The potency of right-wing populist formulations that can avoid explicit ethnic or cultural exclusions through economic formations of ‘the people’ has certainly been on bold display across the provinces in Canada. No further need one look than the Progressive Conservative Party government of Premier Doug Ford in Ontario. Ford’s 2018 campaign “largely avoided the type of nativist and xenophobic rhetoric of populist leaders in the United States and Western Europe” focusing instead on “a conception of ‘the people’ using an economic and anti-cosmopolitan discourse centred upon middle class taxpayers and opposition to urban elites.”81 Ford’s campaign “intended to draw upon popular discontent with the political status quo,” framing their campaign promises “as part of a broader effort by Ford to put ‘the people’ ahead of political elites who he accused of unfairly benefitting from government waste and mismanagement to the detriment of taxpayers.”82 Thus ‘the people’, made up of exploited taxpayers, could be formed in opposition to “the political establishment” and “radical special interests,” all without any explicit exclusionary appeals.83 In this way, existing exclusionary social hierarchies could become masked though neoliberal discourse, and thereby perpetuated or expanded without ever being made explicit.84 The lessons of Reform and the balancing tactics of the CPC are thus in full play in Ontario.
Still, a further advantage exists at the provincial realm, in that regionalism can buttress right-wing populist economic formulations of ‘the people’. Jason Kenney, at the helm of the United Conservative Party of Alberta (UCP), has demonstrated this with great enthusiasm. Operating what some have called “extractive populism,”85 Kenney has taken up the strategy he helped implement while in Harper’s federal cabinet. As one group of authors describe it, the UCP establishes ‘the people’ as a cross section of working Albertans and the extractive oil sector through “symbolic nationalization,” whereby the interests of for-profit oil extraction become one and the same as Albertans: the prosperity of the former equating to the prosperity of latter.86 This prosperity is cast as being under attack from external forces, especially so-called foreign globalist elite-funded environmental special interests.87 And with Premier Kenney’s stoking of separatist flames to incite regionalism-based support, it is not difficult to add Ottawa and the “Laurentian elites” to this populist construction of the ‘corrupt elite’.88 Indeed, claims of Alberta constituting a “culturally distinct region” that has been exploited for oil at a cost of all Albertans’ prosperity through the “colonial power structure” in Canadian federalism, like those made in the UCP member-written Buffalo Declaration, do much to help construct an ostensibly inclusive economic and regional ‘pure people’ for populist rhetoric.89 It is thereby an easy task to garner broad-based support and implement neoliberal pro-extractive policies through a right-wing populist discourse, even as social inequalities are exacerbated.
It should be noted, however, that the right-wing populisms of the CPC, Ford, and Kenney have not (yet) taken root across the whole of Canada. Conservative-leaning premiers from Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, to Manitoba’s Brian Pallister, to New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs have all, by most accounts, avoided such ideological additions. Indeed, provinces such as British Colombia and Nova Scotia seem altogether disconnected from the recent rise of Conservative provincial governments across Canada. Nevertheless, while it remains to be seen if CPC-inspired right-wing populist formulations of ‘the people’ will be successfully adopted in these provinces, given the propensity of Canadian political parties to articulate their policies in terms of the interests of ‘the middle class’, the discursive material for articulating such an ideology certainly exists. Quebec, meanwhile, stands in a unique position, given its continued experience with Québécois nationalism. Certainly, the current Coalition Avenir Québec government lead by François Legault makes itself out to be a right-leaning populist party, seen especially through its Notwithstanding Clause-invoking Bill 21, which bans the wearing of religious symbols by public-funded employees on the job.90
The populism at play in Quebec therefore seems to be of a more openly nativist brand, involved as it is in nationalist politics where ‘the people’ are framed as ‘the Québécois nation’. It is also this combination of factors that makes this populist ideology distinct in form from the trends observed in this paper, setting it outside the scope of the present examination. Nevertheless, it is notable that no successful populist movements have emerged in Canada, save for those that use economic and/or regional constructions of the people. And while Quebec’s populism is informed by a different context than the populism seen in Ontario or Alberta, it too must work to avoid outright exclusionary rhetoric, seen in its defense of Bill 21 on the well-tread path of preserving Quebecois distinctiveness and secularism within an English-dominant Canada.91
The Canadian experience therefore presents a strong basis to conclude that current conceptions of right-wing populism are incomplete. Right-wing populism need not come in explicitly ethnic or culturally exclusionary forms, but rather can construct ‘the people’ on an economic and/or regional basis. This is not to say that such populist formations do not operate within or perpetuate ethnic and/or cultural exclusions; rather, it is to say that right-wing populism should not be limited to only where such exclusions are prominent or explicit in populist formulations of ‘the people’. Right-wing populism in Canada blurs between the standard divisions of right and left-wing populism: its ‘people’ is broadly inclusive rather than nativist, yet it rejects state intervention to correct social injustices and defends market distributions. Thus, the failure to consider non-overtly exclusionary populist formations leaves a gap in theorizing manifestations of right-wing populism, which manifests here as a widespread belief in Canadian immunity. This gap can only be closed by removing unhelpful conflations and reconceiving, in more dynamic terms, what identifies populism as distinctly right-wing.
This examination furthermore demonstrates the value of considering populism as a ‘thin-centered’ ideology, and therefore more than mere style, means, or system-changing politics. As a ‘thin-centered’ ideology, populism can join with other ‘thicker’ ideologies which may increase their attractiveness to key constituencies through its epistemological appeals in an effort to create a winning coalition. Simultaneously though, this conception of populism draws attention to, and is able to grapple with, the ideological content of the particular constructions the ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’ which, as was shown in this paper, are key to explaining the successes and failures of different populist movements. Finally, by refraining from using Laclau and Mouffe’s broader characterization of all political action as populist articulations of some underdog against some power, this conceptualization is able to identify distinctly populist discourses, and thus distinguish the particular influences of populism, of any political leaning, on parties, party systems, and electoral outcomes.
Canada may indeed have a certain measure of ‘exceptionalism’ to it. This peculiarity manifestly does not make it immune to right-wing populist formations, but it does clearly influence them. Context is consequently key for understanding populist expressions. While the world may be experiencing a populist Zeitgeist, to which Canada is no exception to, it must be remembered that such a Zeitgeist itself has ‘thin’ content to it. Insofar as populism, of a right or left persuasion, is treated as a monolithic experience, blind spots will emerge.
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1.) Brian Budd, “The Populist Radical Right Goes Canadian: An Analysis of Kellie Leitch’s Failed 2016–2017 Conservative Party of Canada Leadership Campaign,” in Populism and World Politics: Exploring Inter- and Transnational Dimensions, ed. Frank Stengel et al. (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019): 138.
2.) “Liberty Moves North: Canada’s example to the world,” The Economist, 29 October 2016.
3.) See Nancy Fraser, “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump – and Beyond,” American Affairs 1, no. 4 (2017) and Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (New York: Verso, 2018), for a contrasting of neoliberalism with populism. See Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (New York: Colombia University Press, 2019) for a discussion of the connections between neoliberalism and the ‘Trump’ phenomenon.
4.) See Ziya Öniş & Mustafa Kutlay, “The Global Political Economy of Right-wing Populism: Deconstructing the Paradox,” The International Spectator (2020) and Albana Shehaj, Adrian Shin, & Ronald Inglehart, “Immigration and right-wing populism: An origin story,” Party Politics (2019) for recent examples.
5.) J. F. Conway, “Populism in the United States, Russia, and Canada: Explaining the Roots of Canada's Third Parties,” Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique 11, no. 1 (1978): 99-124.
6.) Benjamin Moffitt & Simon Tormey, “Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style,” Political Studies 62, no. 2 (2014): 382.
7.) Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 12.
8.) Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 4 (2004): 543.
9.) Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” 544.
10.) Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” 546.
11.) Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” 545. See also: Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, 23.
12.) Cas Mudde & Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America,” Government and Opposition 48, no. 2 (2013): 154.
13.) Moffitt & Tormey, “Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style,” 383.
14.) Moffitt & Tormey, “Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style,” 390-394.
15.) Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, 13.
16.) Kurt Weyland, “Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics,” Comparative Politics 34, no. 1 (2001): 14.
17.) Robert Jansen, “Populist Mobilization: A New Theoretical Approach to Populism,” Sociological Theory 29, no. 2 (2011): 82.
18.) Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (New York: Verso, 2018), 11.
19.) Ernesto Laclau, “Populism: What’s in a Name?” in Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, ed. Francisco Panizza (New York: Verso, 2005): 43-44.
20.) Laclau, “Populism: What’s in a Name?” 46.
21.) Mouffe, For a Left Populism, 63.
22.) Laclau, “Populism: What’s in a Name?” 47.
23.) Moffitt & Tormey, “Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style,” 384.
24.) Budd, “The Populist Radical Right Goes Canadian.” See also: Alexandre Blanchet & Mike Medeiros, “The secessionist spectre: the influence of authoritarianism, nativism and populism on support for Quebec independence,” Nations and Nationalism 25, no. 3 (2019).
25.) Mouffe, For a Left Populism, 23-24.
26.) Nancy Fraser, “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump – and Beyond,” American Affairs 1, no. 4 (2017)
27.) John Agnew & Michael Shin, Mapping Populism: Taking Politics to the People (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 22.
28.) Michael Adams, Could it Happen Here: Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit (Toronto, ON: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 150.
29.) Adams, Could it Happen Here, 153.
30.) Adams, Could it Happen Here, 153.
31.) Joshua Gordon, Sanjay Jeram, & Clifton van der Linden, “The two solitudes of Canadian nativism: Explaining the absence of a competitive anti‐immigration party in Canada,” Nations and Nationalism online (31 Oct 2019): 7.
32.) Emma Ambrose & Cas Mudde, “Canadian Multiculturalism and the Absence of the Far Right,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 21, no. 2 (2015): 230.
33.) Ambrose & Mudde “Canadian Multiculturalism and the Absence of the Far Right,” 214.
34.) Environics Institute, “Focus Canada – Fall 2019: Canadian public opinion about immigration and refugees: Final Report,” 3-5.
35.) David Laycock, “Populism and the New Right in English Canada,” in Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, ed. Francisco Panizza (London: Verso, 2005), 172.
36.) Laycock, “Populism and the New Right in English Canada,” 173.
37.) Brian Budd, “The People’s Champ: Doug Ford and Neoliberal Right-Wing Populism in the 2018 Ontario Provincial Election,” Politics and Governance 8, no. 1 (2020): 174.
38.) Gordon, Jeram, & van der Linden, “The two solitudes of Canadian nativism,” 3.
39.) Gordon, Jeram, & van der Linden, “The two solitudes of Canadian nativism,” 11.
40.) Randall Hansen, “Why Both the Left and the Right Are Wrong: Immigration and Multiculturalism in Canada,” PS, Political Science & Politics 50 no. 3 (2007): 714.
41.) Budd, “The Populist Radical Right Goes Canadian,” 141.
42.) David Laycock, “Populism and Democracy in Canada’s Reform Party,” in Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? ed. Cas Mudde & Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 46.
43.) Gordon, Jeram, & van der Linden, “The two solitudes of Canadian nativism,” 4.
44.) Lawrence Mayer, Erol Kaymak, & Jeff Justice, “Populism and the triumph of the politics of identity: The transformation of the Canadian party system,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 6 no. 1 (2000): 82.
45.) Budd, “The People’s Champ,” 173.
46.) Gordon, Jeram, & van der Linden, “The two solitudes of Canadian nativism,” 4. See also: David Laycock & Steven Weldon, “Right-Wing Populism, Conservative Governance, and Multiculturalism in Canada,” in Political Ideology in Parties, Policy, and Civil Society, ed. David Laycock (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2019): 72.
47.) Mayer, Kaymak, & Justice, “Populism and the triumph of the politics of identity,” 84.
48.) Laycock, “Populism and Democracy in Canada’s Reform Party,” 48.
49.) Laycock, “Populism and Democracy in Canada’s Reform Party,” 49.
50.) Laycock, “Populism and Democracy in Canada’s Reform Party,” 50.
51.) Darin Barney & David Laycock, “Right-Populists and Plebiscitary Politics in Canada,” Party Politics 5, no. 3 (1999): 324
52.) Barney & Laycock, “Right-Populists and Plebiscitary Politics in Canada,” 324. See also: Laycock, “Populism and the New Right in English Canada,” 186.
53.) Barney & Laycock, “Right-Populists and Plebiscitary Politics in Canada,” 326.
54.) Laycock, “Populism and Democracy in Canada’s Reform Party,” 49.
55.) Laycock, “Populism and Democracy in Canada’s Reform Party,” 48.
56.) Gordon, Jeram, & van der Linden, “The two solitudes of Canadian nativism,” 4.
57.) Gordon, Jeram, & van der Linden, “The two solitudes of Canadian nativism,” 4.
58.) Laycock, “Populism and Democracy in Canada’s Reform Party,” 65.
59.) Marian Sawer & David Laycock, “Down with Elites and Up with Inequality: Market Populism in Australia and Canada,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 47, no. 2 (2009): 133-150.
James Kelly & Kate Puddister, “Criminal Justice Policy during the Harper Era: Private Member’s Bills, Penal Populism, and the Criminal Code of Canada,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society / La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société 32, no. 3 (2017): 391-415.
John Carlaw, “Authoritarian Populism and Canada’s Conservative Decade (2006–2015) in Citizenship and Immigration: The Politics and Practices of Kenneyism and Neo-conservative Multiculturalism,” Journal of Canadian Studies / Revue d’études canadiennes 51, no. 3 (2017): 782–816.
60.) Dave Snow & Benjamin Moffitt, “ Straddling the divide: mainstream populism and conservatism in Howard's Australia and Harper's Canada,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 50, no. 3 (2012): 274.
61.) Carlaw, “Authoritarian Populism and Canada’s Conservative Decade,” 786.
62.) Laycock & Weldon, “Right-Wing Populism,” 73.
63.) Gordon, Jeram, & van der Linden, “The two solitudes of Canadian nativism,” 10.
64.) Snow & Moffitt, “Straddling the divide,” 284-285.
65.) Laycock, “Populism and Democracy in Canada’s Reform Party,” 52.
66.) Snow & Moffitt, “Straddling the divide,” 285.
67.) Snow & Moffitt, “Straddling the divide,” 281-283.
68.) Laycock & Weldon, “Right-Wing Populism,” 79.
69.) Snow & Moffitt, “Straddling the divide,” 283.
70.) Budd, “The People’s Champ,” 173.
71.) Laycock & Weldon, “Right-Wing Populism,” 73.
72.) Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” 545.
73.) Laycock & Weldon, “Right-Wing Populism,” 79-80. See also: Gordon, Jeram, & van der Linden, “The two solitudes of Canadian nativism,” 11.
74.) “Video: 'A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian': Harper, Trudeau spar over right to revoke citizenship,” The Globe and Mail, 28 Sept 2015; updated 24 Aug 2018.
75.) Barbra Messamore, “Justin Trudeau and Canada’s 2015 Election,” The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs 105, no. 1 (2016): 82-83.
76.) Budd, “The Populist Radical Right Goes Canadian,” 139.
77.) Budd, “The Populist Radical Right Goes Canadian,” 143-144.
78.) Budd, “The Populist Radical Right Goes Canadian,” 157.
79.) Douglas Quan, “Nothing but a ‘vanity project’: People’s Party of Canada is likely dead, experts say,” National Post, 22 Oct 2019.
80.) Elizabeth Thompson, “'Seek and Destroy' campaign against People's Party didn't violate elections law: commissioner,” CBC News, 9 Jan 2020.
81.) Budd, “The People’s Champ,” 171-172.
82.) Budd, “The People’s Champ,” 175.
83.) Budd, “The People’s Champ,” 176-177.
84.) Budd, “The People’s Champ,” 179.
85.) Shane Gunster, “Extractive Populism and the Future of Canada,” MONITOR by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives 26, no. 2 (2019): 14.
86.) Gunster, “Extractive Populism and the Future of Canada,” 14.
87.) Gunster, “Extractive Populism and the Future of Canada,” 14-15.
88.) Sarah Rieger, “Alberta addresses separatist sentiment by studying measures that would give province more autonomy,” CBC News, 9 Nov 2019; updated 10 Nov 2019.
89.) “The Buffalo Declaration,” 20 Feb 2020, https://buffalodeclaration.com/the-buffalo-declaration: 1, 3, 5.
90.) Kevin Dougherty, “Quebec’s ‘kinder, gentler’ populism,” iPolitics, 14 Feb 2020.
91.) Benjamin Shingler, “What's in Quebec's secularism bill: Religious symbols, uncovered faces and a charter workaround,” CBC News, 28 Mar 2019; updated 28 May 2019.