Populism is a political ideology or movement that champions the idea of “the people,” usually in opposition to an established elite. It is often considered a right-wing ideology, but there are left-wing populists as well. Populism has a long history in Canada and continues to be an important factor in Canadian political culture and public life. In Canada, there have been right-wing populist parties (e.g., Social Credit Party, Créditistes, Reform) and left-wing populist parties (e.g., United Farmers of Alberta, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation). Although populism can be difficult to define, all populists claim to speak on behalf of ordinary people who have been let down in some way by an elite establishment.
People versus Elites
All forms of populism explain the distribution of power and operation of basic social institutions in terms of a basic antagonism between "the people" and "power elites." As in socialism, varieties of left-wing populism identify large capitalist firms and mainstream political parties as the power elites. They see "the people" as a natural coalition of wage workers, farmers, the poor and the middle class.
Varieties of right-wing populism, like most conservative ideologies, support minimal regulation of the market economy. For them, the power elite is some combination of state bureaucrats, interventionist politicians, "special interest" groups who propose more state intervention in social and economic life, and, occasionally, financial interests. According to right-wing populists, "the people" are all those citizens who are not represented by special interests.
Left-Wing Populism in Canada
Canadian left-wing populism emerged primarily from farmers' movements in Ontario and the three Prairie provinces in the first half of the 20th century (e.g., the United Farmers of Canada, Saskatchewan section, the Non-Partisan League, and the United Farmers of Alberta). Through these movements, activists often gained experience with direct democracy and formed farmers' and consumers' co-operatives to combat big business. Labour activists between 1880 and 1930 were also distinctly left-populist, as they attempted to build cross-class coalitions against big business and Liberal or Conservative parties.
Canada's classic expression of social-democratic populism was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), formed in 1932. The CCF brought together farmer and labour movement activists from the Prairies and other regions. It criticized capitalism and proposed state ownership and planning, as well as a generous welfare state. The CCF formed North America's first social democratic government in Saskatchewan under Tommy Douglas in 1944 and held power there for 20 years. Successful social democracy in Canada has always incorporated cross-class populist appeals.
In Quebec, the Parti Québécois combined participatory left-populism with Québécois nationalism under René Lévesque's leadership in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the 1990s, New Democratic Party leaders Glen Clark in British Columbia and Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan used left-populist strategies and won second terms for their governments. Their campaigns portrayed other parties as instruments of big business that would slash social programs. Traditionally, the federal NDP has promoted a left-populist message, with varying degrees of success.
Right-Wing Populism in Canada
The best representative of historical right-populism is the Social Credit League of Alberta, which formed governments under William Aberhart (1935–43) and Ernest Manning (1943–68). Social Credit initially blended unorthodox economic theory, antagonism toward central Canadian banks, fundamentalist Christianity and authoritarian leadership. It gradually evolved into a party that promoted conservative social values, opposition to national social programs, and business-like administration. In Quebec, from the 1940s through the 1960s, authoritarian right-populist parties included Maurice Duplessis' provincial Union Nationale party and the federal Créditistes party led by Réal Caouette.
The Reform Party led by Preston Manning was the voice of right-wing populism in Canada in the 1990s. The party wanted an elected Senate, drastic budget and tax cuts, replacement of existing social welfare programs with private charity, defence of traditional family values, and no constitutional "distinct society" status for Quebec. It proposed the use of referenda on issues such as official languages, capital punishment, affirmative action and deficit financing by governments. According to the Reform Party, this would neutralize the political influence of special interests and "old-line" parties. In the 1997 federal election, Reform became the official opposition. But with all of the party's 60 MPs from the West, and no serious chance of any seats from Quebec, Reform lacked credibility as a national, alternative governing party. In 2000, it formed the short-lived Canadian Alliance Party in an attempt to “unite the right.”
Conservative provincial politicians also used the language of populism in the 1990s. Alberta premier Ralph Klein and Ontario premier Mike Harris promised to "fight the establishment" or the "special interests," waging a "common sense revolution" on behalf of "ordinary citizens."
In the 21st century, populism became used increasingly to describe political developments around the world. In the United States, for example, right-wing populism was linked to the election of Donald Trump as president. In Canada, right-wing populism contributed to the elections of Toronto mayor Rob Ford in 2010, Ontario premier Doug Ford in 2018 and Alberta premier Jason Kenney in 2019. In federal politics, Maxime Bernier founded the People’s Party of Canada, referring to it as “smart populism.”
Although some conservative politicians have used the language of populism to gain power, their policies have in fact centralized power in their governments or turned it over to private elites in the marketplace. Tax cuts, social service reductions and getting tough on law-and-order issues are presented as giving power back to the people, who are conceived more as consumers than citizens. The welfare state is portrayed as the unaccountable scourge of hard-working taxpayers, i.e., "the people." In this scenario, social welfare recipients, the poor and holders of secure union jobs are the people's enemies and back-to-basics government is the people's only hope. Contemporary right populists build their appeals on middle-class insecurities about employment, status, security and future well-being.
Maxime Bernier, 2017. Bernier, formerly a member of the Conservative Party, founded the People’s Party of Canada in 2018.
Populism has experienced a revival in Canadian political culture and ideological competition. As in other Western societies, many Canadians increasingly distrust politicians, political parties and governments and feel great insecurity concerning the future. With populist sentiments on the rise across Canada and around the world, more politicians will borrow the style and language of populism. However, the main goal of traditional populist politics — that is, grassroots control by citizens over the major institutions in their lives — is much harder to deliver in our complex globalized political economy.