OTTAWA — Ask whether populist politics could ever gain national traction in Canada and the answer is immediate: well, Rob Ford already did it in Toronto.
The now-deceased former mayor’s man-of-the-people appeal and his promises to “stop the gravy train” saw voters crown him king of Canada’s largest city in an electoral upset that many would later liken to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S.
Was it a one-off?
A new study by EKOS Research and The Canadian Press shows that the same world views held among Trump’s supporters still exist in the areas where Ford found a great deal of support in 2010, the suburbs around Toronto’s downtown.
The aggregation of polls covering more than 12,000 Canadians suggests those attitudes are equally in play in the suburbs of Montreal and Vancouver as well — raising the question of whether there too is a fertile ground for the same 21st century populism.
It’s what EKOS calls an “ordered” view of the world: people questioning the current political status quo, feeling economically and cultural insecure and believing neither they nor their children have a bright future and perhaps might even be slipping backwards.
Ford’s brother Doug is hoping to tap into those feelings in his current bid for leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party. At a rally to launch his campaign on Saturday night, that message resonated with supporter Kim King who said she doesn’t usually vote conservative but will this year.
“The poor is getting poorer, and there’s more of us than the rich,” she said.
“And while yes, you can say he’s a rich man representing the poor, the truth is, he still hangs out in the same places as the poor, and he still hangs out as one of the guys, and I think that’s where the appreciation comes from.
“The elitists, we only see them once every four years.”
Leadership races and municipal elections might be the most likely places for populist politics to manifest, suggests Michael McGregor, a Ryerson University professor who is the lead investigator on a national study of municipal elections.
In most municipal elections, there’s either no party system at all or the one that exists doesn’t align explicitly with the known organizations at the provincial or federal levels.
“It’s not ideological in the traditional sense — is there anything ideological about transit or garbage collection?,” he said.
“The other thing is that turnout at the municipal level tends to be lower. And when turnout is lower, elections are more susceptible to increases in turnout among certain groups. If there’s a group particularly hyped up about something they will turn up and turn the tide.”
That’s often the case with leadership races, he pointed out ,where candidates scramble to sign up members by appealing to narrow interests.
EKOS’ study to explore populist sentiment plotted attitudes along the open-ordered spectrum explicitly because the current political environment doesn’t cleave neatly between right and left, said company President Frank Graves.
It’s become a question of what kind of future people see ahead of them, he said. Those on the open side are optimistic, those on the ordered side less so.
“The debates, the things which are dividing people into these open/ordered camps, they are different (than those) which divide us historically on left and right,” he said.
So what to make of the recent mayoral race in Montreal?
The incumbent mayor, former Liberal MP Denis Coderre, had a party that bore his name while relative unknown Valerie Plante was running for Project Montreal, most often connected with the province’s sovereigntist and left-wing Quebec Solidaire party.
Some argued Coderre once had the winning populist touch, but lost it by championing projects like car races while Montrealers wanted fixes for public transit and housing.
He put forward few concrete policies during the campaign, and so Plante and her plans were able to capture the public’s demand for change.
She triumphed, largely on the support of people who’d place best on the “open” side of the spectrum, said Chris Erl, a PhD student at McGill University who studies municipal elections.
EKOS’ research suggests 46 per cent of Montrealers hold those views.
Digging deeper into Montreal, some of the most “ordered” were in boroughs with the least amount of diversity, a phenomenon that exists in other Canadian suburbs.
But populist sentiment isn’t the purview of Caucasians alone, despite a picture of the typical Trump voter, for example, as being white.
The northern populism at play in Canada seems far less connected to attitudes on immigration than it is to class status and anti-elite sentiment, EKOS has found. The data potentially challenge one of the commonly-held myths about populism in Canada — that Canada is too diverse for it to take root.
Put another way: Doug Ford’s anti-elite sentiment could well take him to the helm of the party, while in the federal Conservative leadership race of last year, the perception that Kellie Leitch was anti-immigrant tarnished her campaign.
Richmond, B.C. has a visible minority population of 75 per cent, and nearby Burnaby’s is 63 per cent. Both are included in EKOS’ ranking of the suburbs with the most “ordered” world view.
B.C. municipalities head to the polls later this year and whether changing political times will manifest in populist-style change is an open question.
Many of the suburbs around Vancouver where EKOS found the more ordered world view have had the same mayors for years.
In Vancouver, however, where about 51 per cent of those surveyed place on the open side of the spectrum, political change could be in the air.
Longtime city mayor Gregor Robertson isn’t running again, so his party is in search of a new leader.
Meanwhile, changes to campaign finance rules mean municipal politicians can no longer rely on a handful of major corporate or union donations, a move expected to force them to broaden their appeal.
James Moore, a longtime Conservative politician who left federal politics in 2015, called both together a potential game changer.
“It opens everything up,” he said.
– with files from Salmaan Farooqui in Toronto
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press