Populism has an important past and contemporary presence in Canadian political culture and public life.

Réal Caouette, politician
Caouette became a national political force as leader of the Québec Social Credit movement (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-87201).

Populism has an important past and contemporary presence in Canadian political culture and public life. As a multi-faceted and highly malleable political ideology, populism mixes elements of core political ideologies, like socialism, liberalism and neo-conservatism, opposition to powerful elites in public life, and advocacy of more real power for "the people." This focus on "grass-roots" participation makes populism an important element of political protest movements.

All populisms explain the distribution of power and operation of basic social institutions in terms of a fundamental antagonism between "the people" and "power elites." Varieties of left-wing populism follow socialism, social democracy or reform liberalism in identifying large capitalist firms and mainstream political parties as the principal homes of 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 typically follow conservatives in supporting minimal regulation of the market economy. For them, the power elite is some combination of state bureaucrats, interventionist politicians, "special interests" proposing more state intervention in social and economic life, and occasionally, financial interests. "The people" in this perspective are all citizens not represented by special interests.

Canadian left-wing populism emerged primarily from farmers' movements in Ontario and the 3 Prairie provinces (eg, the United Farmers of Canada, Saskatchewan section, the Non-Partisan League, and the United Farmers of Alberta). Activists in these movements often gained initial experience with participatory democracy and combatting big business in farmers' and consumers' co-operatives. In attempting to build cross-class coalitions against big business and Liberal or Conservative parties, much labour party activity in Canada between 1880 and 1930 was also distinctly left-populist.

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 offered a moderate socialist critique of capitalism, proposals for state ownership and planning, and advocacy of a generous welfare state. While never more than a third party federally, the CCF formed North America's first social democratic government in Saskatchewan under T.C. Douglas in 1944, and held power there for 20 years. Successful social democracy in Canada has always incorporated cross-class populist appeals.

New Democratic Party leaders Glen Clark in British Columbia and Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan showed left-populist colours, winning second terms for their governments in 1995 and 1996. Their campaigns portrayed other parties as social program-slashing instruments of big business. In Québec, the Parti Québécois combined participatory left-populism with Québécois Nationalism under René Lévesque's leadership in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since then, its nationalist agenda has been combined with more mainstream economic and social policies, to its union supporters' dismay. The federal NDP suffered a serious setback in the 1993 election, and now has difficulty drawing public attention to its often left-populist message.

New social movement organizations, such as environmental and women's groups, are currently more innovative and effective than the federal NDP as left-populist political forces. While not anti-statist, they increasingly rely more on local mobilizations of citizens on specific issues to achieve their goals of enhanced citizen power against business and bureaucratic elites. Contemporary left-populism has far greater suspicion of centralized state power, bureaucratic institutions and political parties than traditional social democracy.

Historical right-populism was most notably expressed in the Social Credit League of Alberta, which formed governments under William Aberhart (1935-43) and Ernest Manning (1943-1968). Social Credit initially blended unorthodox economic theory, antagonism towards central Canadian banks, fundamentalist Christianity, a technocratic faith in experts, and authoritarian leadership. It gradually evolved into a party promoting conservative social values, opposition to national social programs, and business-like administration. In Québec from the 1940s through the 1960s, authoritarian right-populism was prominent first in Maurice Duplessis' provincial Union Nationale party, then in the federal Créditistes party led by Réal Caouette.

The Reform Party led by Preston Manning is now the pre-eminent Canadian vehicle of right-wing populism. The party advocates an elected Senate, drastic budget and tax cuts, replacement of existing social welfare programs by private charity, defence of traditional family values, and no constitutional "distinct society" status for Québec. It proposes the use of referenda to neutralize the political influence of special interests and "old-line" parties on issues such as official languages, capital punishment, affirmative action, and deficit financing by governments. 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 Québec, Reform still lacks credibility as a national, alternative governing party. Like William Aberhart and his father Ernest Manning, Preston Manning practises an authoritarian leadership style and centralized control over his party.

In an interesting historical twist, conservative provincial politicians now often seek legitimacy for their political agendas by courting pollster-created populist images. Premiers Ralph Klein or Mike Harris promise to "fight the establishment" or the "special interests," waging a "common sense revolution" on behalf of "ordinary citizens," whom pollsters have shown are thoroughly alienated from politics as usual. More often than not, these conservative governments' policies have 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. Contemporary anti-statism achieves a populist style by portraying the redistributive welfare state as the unaccountable scourge of hard-working taxpayers, ie, "the people." Contemporary right-populists target social welfare recipients, the poor and holders of secure union jobs as the people's enemies, and present a lean and mean, back-to-basics government as the people's only hope. They build their electorally potent appeals on well-founded middle-class insecurities about employment, status, security and future well-being.

Populism has thus experienced a revival in Canadian political culture and ideological competition. As in other western societies, distrust of politicians, political parties and governments, insecurity concerning the future, and decreasing citizen deference to authority increasingly characterize Canadians' attitudes towards political life. With populist sentiments on the rise across Canada, more politicians will borrow the style and rhetoric of populism. In a complex globalized political economy, the substantive goal of traditional populist politics, grass-roots control by citizens over the major institutions in their lives, is much harder to deliver.

Further Reading

  • David Laycock, Populism and Democratic Thought in the Canadian Prairies (1990); André Blais and Elizabeth Gidengil, Making Representative Democracy Work (1991); Trevor Harrison, Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada (1995); Neil Nevitte, The Decline of Deference (1996).