Revolution is impossible until it’s inevitable — Leon Trotsky
Last summer in Surrey, B.C. Justin Trudeau claimed that “excessive populism and exaggerated nationalism” were responsible for a rise in political cynicism “all around the world.” Trudeau evidently had Donald J. Trump in mind as the chief populist-nationalist-cynic. Then, a couple of weeks ago in the House of Commons, he informed his colleagues: “The reality of populism, and its siren song in our democracies these days, is a desire to listen only to themselves and to people who agree with them, and not to people of another perspective.” Few among Canada’s elites would find anything to argue with in Trudeau’s words; he was merely restating the self-evident.
Having just delivered remarks on the importance of listening to people with another perspective, Trudeau then left the House for a meeting with leaders of the three parties whose “perspectives” were closest to his own – the hard left, the loony left and the Quebec separatists. The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and head of the House’s second-largest caucus, Conservative Andrew Scheer had, Trudeau said, “disqualified himself” because he had dared to describe Trudeau’s speech as a “word salad” that ignored the reality of a “mob” of “radical activists…trampling over the legal system which has governed this country for more than 150 years.” The outrageous and hypocritical snub caused barely a ripple of controversy. Clearly Trudeau was projecting and Scheer had another perspective. But was it a populist one?
C2C Journal readers may recall the remarks of Paul Stanway a few weeks ago: “If you are unsettled by the CBC’s ‘narrative’ of populism as an alien, existential Trumpist threat to democracy, you will find comfort (or at least useful context) in Preston Manning’s timely reminder that populism has been a feature of Canadian politics of all stripes for generations.” More accurately, I would say, populism has been a part of Western Canadian politics for about a century. Populists would include the leaders and followers of the United Farmers, Social Credit, Progressives, CCF (later NDP), and most recently the Reform Party.
Of note, none of these was ever a major political force in Laurentian Canada or farther east (with the partial and arguable exception of the NDP, which briefly ran Ontario and federally once held the balance of power in a Laurentian-based Liberal government). Moreover, none of these populist political movements came from nowhere. Rather, they were all responses to a long train of abuses from Laurentian Canada. Populism is clearly a symptom indicating that an affected group of citizens has had enough.
Also quite recently, my colleague and friend Tom Flanagan discussed the “victory formula” put together (with Flanagan’s help) by Stephen Harper. Flanagan’s analysis included a discussion by Michael Lind of the “populist revolt” of the heartland again the “overclass.” Lind called this “an on-going counter-revolution from below” against the managerial elite accustomed to command from above. In the UK’s recent Brexit-dominated election, that meant the Midlands and the North against London and the South. In the United States it meant fly-over country against the bi-coastal elites, and in Canada against the Laurentian elite and their smug outposts in the Lower Mainland and the southern offshore islands of B.C.
Harper himself was not instinctually a retail politician, let alone a populist, but he despised most of the Laurentian elite and he genuinely cared about regular people. In his 2018 book Right Here, Right Now, Harper relied on a similar distinction between “somewhere” and “anywhere” made by David Goodhart, a British journalist. Flanagan’s conclusion was sensible enough: the federal Conservative Party “needs to make room for the concerns of heartland populist voters” whose most salient attributes are a favourable attitude towards markets and an unfavourable one towards the political correctness of their self-described social and political betters in the “overclass.”
Perhaps the CBC and the Liberals are correct to fear populism as a challenge to the Laurentian consensus that has for so long justified Laurentian paramountcy in Canada’s political, cultural and economic life. Perhaps as well a Canadian version of the populism of President Trump could threaten the Laurentian way of politics.
Consider, first, what Trump has done in and to America, and next what a Canadian Trump might do here. Notably, Trump has used social media to circumvent the mainstream outlets. In Canada, these would include the CBC first of all, but also all the lesser but willing recipients of taxpayers’ largesse. Moreover, Trump has adapted his rhetoric to the twitterverse: vulgar and unsubtle, of course, but hard to misinterpret, and certainly effective. Perhaps, as supporters claim, even his much-derided spelling mistakes have been deliberate.
Most important, Trump has been willing – eager – to fight. When attacked, he hits back twice as hard. Often he strikes pre-emptively, attacking or, even more effectively, neutering an opponent with a withering put-down. He has been a serial provocateur, instigating controversies on topics ranging from illegal immigration to the capacity of toilet tanks, keeping the left and America’s elites in turmoil and the focus on him. This also keeps his supporters motivated and emboldens them to fight their own fights at the local and individual levels. It has turned the political tide in the U.S.
Saying that a Canadian Trump would be sharply criticized for such tactics is greatly understating the likely response. He (or, far less likely, she) might well be buried in the all-out assault to keep populism out of Canada. The cries of “racist” from the full gamut of grievance groups would be a deafening din. Enterprising human rights lawyers would be lined up to haul such a person before a compliant human rights commission. Lord knows, there are plenty of them around. There is, accordingly, zero doubt that anyone contemplating a right-of-centre populist approach would face a steep, rocky and perilous mountain to climb.
Still, it may be worth the effort. For, looking beyond his daily tactics, such as his superb ability to troll his antagonists, Trump’s actual policies provide a great contrast to those of the Trudeau Liberals. They suggest that the field of policy would be a target-rich environment for a Canadian conservative populist.
In place of the destruction of the Alberta economy and 100,000 unemployed oil workers (before the impact of the coronavirus), the Trump Administration has facilitated creation of 4 million jobs and the U.S. becoming the world’s largest producer of crude oil, petroleum liquids and natural gas – a net energy exporter for the first time since records have been kept. In place of the “Trojan horse” carbon tax, Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord and engineered tax cuts that resulted in the repatriation of some $300 billion in corporate profits in just the following quarter. In place of dithering and kow-towing to the People’s Republic of China (which, in the case of the Wuhan virus, almost certainly got some Canadians infected), Trump has confronted the Chinese, imposed a cost for their theft of American (and Canadian) intellectual property, and did not hesitate to shut down travel from the world’s most populous country when his own countrymen’s lives were at stake.
Of course Trump is controversial: how could any president or prime minister who sought to disrupt government business-as-usual or, to use more colourful language, “drain the swamp”, not provoke fear, loathing, criticism, and worse precisely from the threatened political class and denizens of the Deep State, and their media allies, whose ways and means he wants to extinguish? As Machiavelli said, this is what every new prince must not fear doing. And Trump clearly relishes the task.
In Canada, the identification of populism with President Trump and Trump with an existential threat to Canadian “values” suggests that anti-populism today is largely an updated version of age-old anti-Americanism. Such sentiments have long centred in Laurentian Canada. So it has been relatively simple for Laurentian Canadians to combine envy of Trump’s successes with a pretended disdain for his demotic style. Add to this toxic mix a residual dislike of Alberta and increasingly of Saskatchewan for, once again, having forgotten their proper place in the country, and the nexus among anti-populism, anti-Trump and anti-Western attitudes is forged with bonds of steel.
Even before the twin-disruptions of February – the blockade of railways and pipelines by radical activists and the escalating effects of COVID-19 – an Environics poll taken in late January raised concerns about declining support among Canadians for the institutions of government. Quebec and B.C. remained the most satisfied with the way things were going, Alberta the least. One must be mindful of how these growing divisions might influence a conservative populist surge.
Might the disruptions create or greatly enhance the opportunity for a Canadian populist conservative to overcome the guaranteed elite opposition? And if populist success is confined to the “somewhere” (i.e., the heartland), what might the implications be for the country’s future? While there may not (yet) be a Canadian Trump, it seems to me there are scattered elements that may coalesce and cohere in the future and constitute a genuine populist conservative initiative. Let’s see what is involved, and what raising a few Trumpian questions might bring to light.
There’s no doubt the February disruptions constituted a major crisis for Canadian foreign and domestic politics. David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, speaking at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s annual dinner in February, noted that “we have a China lobby” in Canada, “one that includes a who’s who of former ministers and mandarins.” The very heart of the Canadian Deep State. In Mulroney’s opinion, they have served themselves well, but not Canada’s interests.
A strong and effective foreign policy, Mulroney remarked, is an outgrowth of a strong and effective domestic policy, “meaning a sound economy, healthy national institutions and national infrastructure, and yes, the willingness to invest, and invest significantly, in our own security and defence.” David Mulroney is no populist, but those are very Trumpian remarks. For these would be policies that put “Canada first” – the way Trump has consistently put “America first”, while in his addresses to the UN and the World Economic Forum in Davos repeatedly urging other world leaders to put their own countries first.
A strong and effective foreign policy, Mulroney went on, would also mean respecting India as it is, and “not as it exists in our imaginations” – say, as a stage for a costume party. A strong and effective foreign policy would mean forging more “ambitious” relationships with Japan and Korea and especially with Taiwan, even in the face of Communist China’s objections. It also would mean joining Australia and New Zealand “as charter members in a global community of democratic middle powers, all of whom have a stake in pushing back against Chinese coercion, pressure, and interference.” Mulroney was clearly charting a path that was parallel to, but independent of, Canada’s major ally.
By mentioning New Zealand and Australia, two partners in the “Five Eyes” intelligence coalition, Mulroney was also taking aim at Huawei. In the third week of February, the National Post ran a lengthy story on the Chinese telecom company. Brian Shields, a cyber security specialist, had discovered several years ago that Nortel, the once-famous but long defunct Canadian telecom company, had been successfully hacked by “Unit 61398” of the People’s Liberation Army in Shanghai. CSIS had warned Nortel, which evidently ignored the advice. And while Shields would not go on record as confirming that the chief beneficiary of the PLA activity was Huawei, a normal commonsensical world would never regard the rise of the Chinese company and the destruction of Nortel as mere coincidence. (Huawei is known to have stolen the key hardware secrets of Cisco, for example.)
The Liberals have not yet decided on whether Huawei can participate in the construction of a 5G network in this country. This is a major foreign and security policy decision because 5G is not just a bigger and faster 4G. With 4G the network has a core and a periphery: the core stores and processes data and sends it to the periphery where towers and antennae direct the data to end-users. With 5G there is a single complex net, so that a key participant such as Huawei cannot be cordoned off, as the British seem to think, and confined to the periphery. There is no periphery.
The Americans know this and so do we. They also know that Huawei is an arm of the Chinese surveillance state. It is a spy agency, or might as well be. If Canada is so foolish as to invite Chinese spies into our homes, the Americans, with good reason, will shut us out of intelligence-sharing. No one wants China as a “sixth eye”. If that were not a sufficient reason to throw Huawei out of the country, ask yourself: who besides Huawei will benefit if Canada is supplied with Chinese 5G? A few university labs, some senior law firms and lobbyists, and a couple of foolish, unpatriotic telecoms, that have all been suckered by the Chinese bearers of large monetary gifts and sinister, threatening rhetoric. One shouldn’t have to be a conservative or a populist to reply: too bad for them. But in today’s Canada, one probably does. That, too, would be a Trumpian response.
February also saw the cancellation of Teck Resources’ Frontier oil sands project. It would have meant $20 billion in investment for four decades of prospective operation, $70 billion in revenue for governments, 7,000 construction jobs at an absolutely critical time in Alberta, plus 2,500 permanent jobs. But 10 years of regulatory process and negotiations costing a reported $1 billion, and the endorsement of 14 First Nations were not enough. The Liberals will say that Teck cancelled the project and the government didn’t reject it. Right. Just like TC Energy Corp. cancelled Energy East.
Don Lindsay, CEO of Teck Resources, stated the obvious when explaining why the company withdrew its regulatory application. “Questions about the societal implications of energy development, climate change and Indigenous rights,” he wrote, have not been resolved. (Indeed, a less diplomatic man would have said the Trudeau government has done all it can to exacerbate the entwined conflicts.) Of the three, climate change is central: “The promise of Canada’s potential will not be realized until governments can reach agreement about how climate policy considerations will be addressed in the context of future responsible energy sector development.”
Without clarity and with capital being mobile, future investment will prove impossible. That is, Teck’s withdrawal was further proof of Canada’s politically induced uncertain investment climate. Uncertainty has a terrible effect on the wider economy because investors are in the business of making long-term decisions about allocating scarce capital. And that is truly a zero-sum game, since you only make any given allocation once. As Joe Oliver, a former federal finance minister, recently wrote in the Financial Post, because of fiascos such as Teck, “sovereign risk in Canada’s energy sector is comparable to a banana republic.” And that is just how the activists behind #shutdowncanada want it.
A few weeks later, Warren Buffett pulled a $4 billion plug on an LNG project in Quebec: sovereign risk at work, this time in Laurentian Canada. There is irony here because the planned source of natural gas was the West. What if a Western Trump had raised the issue of a social licence to export natural gas to a hostile jurisdiction such as Quebec?
The largest source of the February disruptions, however, began in the woods in northern B.C. but found its most dramatic expression on the CN main line near Belleville, Ontario and further east in Quebec.
Ellis Ross, a former chief of the Haisla First Nation and sitting Liberal MLA for the riding of Skeena, recently posted a Facebook video. His words were powerful and moving. “I can guarantee right now,” Ross said in it, “there’s a fourteen-year-old Aboriginal kid out there taking his first drink of alcohol or sucking on his first joint. He’s on his way to prison. That’s his road map. But I can guarantee you those activists who are going to stop development in your territory do not care about that kid. They don’t care if that kid commits suicide. But if you save that kid, show that kid there’s a better future out there, get him into a trade, get him into a course, show him a work site, show him there’s a better future in terms of getting a house, a job, going on vacation, buying a truck, then you’ve done your job.”
When asked by a Vancouver Province reporter, Mike Smyth, about the post, Ross explained, “I was that fourteen-year-old kid.” He made an obvious observation: the anti-pipeline people are “standing in solidarity with keeping Native people poor.” As the now-defunct Marxists used to say, they are “objectively” racist and anti-First Nation, whatever their “subjective” proclamations of solidarity and support. A Trumpian conservative would point out the obvious: pipeline opponents are callous, uncaring, hypocritical and, arguably, actual racists in their calamitous effects if not their self-professed caring sensibility.
Ross also criticized the anti-pipeline people for being paid for by Americans keen on shutting down the Canadian oil industry. He was then denounced by Peter McCartney of the Wilderness Committee as supporting a “gross and stupid” conspiracy theory. The extensive documentation by Vivian Krause of the link between American environmental foundations and the front-line protesters in B.C. and Alberta, for example, is more than a conspiracy theory. Her work is called evidence.
The old Marxists had a term for the likes of McCartney and his environmentalist allies: compradors. Only instead of helping the foreign bourgeoisie, they facilitate the foreign anti-pipeliners and anti-First Nation racists. Fodder for a Trumpian tweetstorm, photo ops with Ross and other pro-development Indigenous people and speeches in Davos and at the UN. And a building block in the foundation for rejection of the ruinous UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Five of the 13 Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs apparently hold views regarding the Coastal GasLink pipeline to Kitimat, which is to traverse their traditional territory, that are different from, and opposed to, the views of the elected chiefs and their constituents, the many Wet’suwet’en who voted for them. Prior to the invention of subjects and citizens as political categories, the politics of bands, clans, and tribes across the face of the Earth was wonderfully complex, as it remains among the Wet’suwet’en.
What we know from published reports is that five male hereditary chiefs removed that dignity from two female members of the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition, Darlene Glaim and Gloria George. The women favoured building the pipeline; the men who replaced them do not. Moreover, the men who replaced Glaim and George were criticized by Wet’suwet’en leaders such as Gary Naziel for not having followed traditional laws.
According to Naziel, three of the five do not even legitimately hold the title they claim, namely hereditary chief. “They did not get their names the proper way. They took them,” he told a Globe and Mail reporter, rather than earned them. If that were not bad enough, the usurpers spoke with the media without consulting the subchiefs. “This makes them dictators,” Naziel said. Worse, “they are changing [the traditional laws] to suit their own purposes, to benefit themselves.”
So far as I can tell, apart from invoking clichés about preserving sacred territory, there have been no discussions about why the hereditary chiefs opposed the pipeline. If Naziel was correct, that meant only two out of 13 legitimate hereditary chiefs and no elected chiefs opposed the pipeline. A Trumpian populist would raise the obvious question: who got to the traditional chiefs?
In this context, our notional Canadian Trump would have a few pithy observations to make regarding the mainstream media’s coverage of events in the B.C. woods. The Globe’s reporter, Nancy MacDonald, did not, apparently, ask the obvious follow-up question: how are the traditional chiefs benefitting themselves? Is anyone providing them with “gifts” to oppose the pipeline? If so, who were they?
So far as I know, only Lawrence Solomon, writing in the Financial Post earlier this month, even raised the question: were “the hereditary chiefs…in the pockets of the anti-pipeline Tides Foundation?” And if Solomon is correct, how much did Tides pay them? Nor were there any follow-up questions to discuss how men with dubious claims to hereditary chieftainships were able to strip female members of the Matrilineal Coalition of their titles. No one raised the issue of sexism exercised by pipeline opponents either inside or outside the Wet’suwet’en community. A Trumpian would.
In Ontario, matters were more cut and dried. The Ontario Provincial Police, charged with enforcing an injunction to clear the tracks of lawbreaking “protesters”, declared: “The proper exercise of police discretion should not be confused with a lack of enforcement.” Nor, of course, should it be confused with the entirely contemptible exercise of discretion due to social pusillanimity and political cowardice.
You don’t have to be a Trumpian conservative populist to point out that nobody has a right to disrupt the main line of the CN, CP or any other form of public infrastructure. Nor is there a right of individuals, Wet’suwet’en or not, to demand the withdrawal of police from Canadian and B.C. territory. In addition, a Trumpian populist would instinctively side with the unseen but uncounted “little people” damaged by the political theatrics while actively seeking out a confrontation with the media-savvy, elite-educated and politically trained activists – the more venomous their behaviour, the better. We are probably still some way from such a scenario in Canada; perhaps a rather long way.
Confronting such issues rather than attempting to talk them into temporary abeyance is urgent, however. They are particularly poignant because neither in B.C. nor in Ontario and Quebec were First Nations protesters acting alone. Troy Young, a Wet’suwet’en, said that the non-Wet’suwet’en environmentalists are just the latest group of outsiders to tell them how to live. If they succeed, “it will be one of the biggest cultural appropriation in B.C. history.” Which is to say: more evidence of anti-pipeline racism.
In the mainstream media, Gary Mason, writing in the Globe and Mail in late February, noted that “what happened to the Wet’suwet’en dispute a long time ago” was that “it was co-opted by others who saw the hereditary chiefs as perfect cover.” Mason did not name names. Who are these “others”? What are we to make of the obvious implication, that the hereditary chiefs (and sub-chiefs) are so naïve or so stupid as to afford these “others” cover without being aware of it? Of course Mason was too polite or too naïve to ask if these “others” had provided the hereditary chiefs with “gifts” in advance of their cooperation. Perhaps that is the real cultural appropriation Troy Young had in mind.
Writing in the National Post in late February, Jonathan Kay likewise noted that the political problem for the Liberals has not been the rural Aboriginal opposition but their urban non-Aboriginal “supporters.” The Coastal GasLink deal conformed to all the expectations and requests of Indigenous people, as did the Teck Frontier project. But it was not enough for the enviro-spiritualists who seek to destroy the rule of law, Canadian and provincial sovereignty, internal trade, critical infrastructure, and the minima of political order.
That spiritual disorder or, as we say in political science, that pneumopathology, “is a much bigger problem than the blockades themselves”, because it is evidence of advanced cultural disintegration. It is one thing to provide a commonsensical diagnosis of the problem, as Kay did, and something quite different to do something about it. It is pretty obvious what a Canadian Trump would have done, or at least tried to do.
Rex Murphy, as commonsensical in his diagnosis as Jonathan Kay, brought together several themes that characterized the February disruptions. First of all, there is the elephant-in-the-room, about which no one in authority wished to speak: “The doomsday cult of global warming.” Anyone who can read can easily access at least a score of books, many by distinguished climate scientists, who have serious questions about anthropogenic climate change. Many others have discussed the “doomsday cult” and the faith that exempts true believers from breaking the law at their peril or taking responsibility for the continued suppression of First Nations to which individuals such as Ellis Ross, Gary Naziel, Troy Young and many, many other First Nations people have objected.
Even if one believes that anthropogenic CO2 is about to usher in irreversible and apocalyptic climate change, the miniscule contribution of CO2 to the Earth’s atmosphere from Canada’s oil sands or, indeed, the entire country, suggests – no, compels – assent to the proposition that politics, not climate science, is the issue. For it can make not an iota of scientific, economic or logical sense to destroy Canada’s economy in a demonstrably futile campaign to alter the Earth’s climate. It can only be political.
Moreover, since the effect of the Coastal GasLink pipe would be to reduce global CO2 emissions by providing a substitute fuel to coal-based Asian mega-CO2 producers, why do environmentalists not support it? The question answers itself: today’s environmentalists are interested in power and sustaining the feeling of exultation that comes from the moralistic exercise thereof, nothing else. CO2 is an excuse; First Nations are collateral damage. A Canadian Trump would jettison the Paris Accord in a heartbeat and set about maximizing the nation’s energy production and exports – as, indeed, the actual Trump has done in the U.S.
At the beginning of this essay I noted that previous populist movements did not come from nowhere but were organized in response to various forms of injustice. People eventually became fed up with the lies, cowardice and mendacity of conventional politics, and of paying the price so that others could feel good. Even in today’s climate of anti-Trump, anti-populist, Laurentian and Liberal political orthodoxy, one can point to a few signs that things might change. A few conservatives and Conservatives seem willing to brave the calumny of the populist label.
Erin O’Toole, a federal Conservative leadership candidate, proposed a “Freedom of Movement Act” making it a criminal offence to block a railway, airport, seaport or major road including to businesses and households. By reinforcing existing laws, that would be a start. O’Toole’s proposal would be even better were he to add other critical infrastructure such as pipelines and power plants along with a provision that, if such obstruction was accompanied by violence, the offenders would be charged with domestic terrorism. In that connection, the recent Alberta Speech from the Throne deserves praise for proposing a new law protecting infrastructure. Violators face fines starting at $1,000 per day and increasing to $25,000 per day, along with six months’ jail time. That is also a good start.
These are, in the big scheme of things, admittedly very small steps in the right direction. And are such proposals even populist? Or are they simply commonsensical responses to a long train of abuses by apocalyptic environmental agitators and the Eastern-based government that enables, encourages, feeds off and, in some instances, actually finances them? If the great disruptions of February 2020 result in anything useful for Canada, what we call those kinds of responses hardly matters.
In retrospect, one of the keys to Trump’s success was taking on the biggest, toughest, most controversial matters first: illegal immigration, Supreme Court appointments, climate change, Iran, ISIS, Israel. He launched his offensive, seized the high ground and hasn’t let up since. The smaller stuff became much easier. A Canadian conservative populist would have to be similarly willing to launch his or her campaign aimed at the very largest questions and conflicts – and willing to keep going until achieving victory or being destroyed in the effort.
Barry Cooper is a Professor of political science at the University of Calgary.