Canada’s Secret to Resisting the West’s Populist Wave

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["In Britain, among white voters who say they want less immigration, about 40 percent also say that limiting immigration is the most important issue to them. In the United States, that figure is about 20 percent. In Canada, according to a 2011 study, it was only 0.34 percent." *RON*]

Amanda Taub, New York Times, 27 June 2017

Pedestrians silhouetted against the CN Tower in Toronto. Cole Burston for The New York Times
TORONTO — As right-wing populism has roiled elections and upended politics across the West, there is one country where populists have largely failed to break through: Canada.

The raw ingredients are present. A white ethnic majority that is losing its demographic dominance. A sharp rise in immigration that is changing culture and communities. News media and political personalities who bet big on white backlash.

Yet Canada’s politics remain stable. Its centrist liberal establishment is popular. Not only have the politics of white backlash failed, but immigration and racial diversity are sources of national pride. And when anti-establishment outsiders have run the populist playbook, they have found defeat.

Outsiders might assume this is because Canada is simply more liberal, but they would be wrong. Rather, Canada has resisted the populist wave through a set of strategic decisions, powerful institutional incentives, strong minority coalitions and idiosyncratic circumstances.

While there is no magic answer to populism, Canada’s experience offers unexpected lessons for other nations.

A Different Kind of Identity

In other Western countries, right-wing populism has emerged as a politics of us-versus-them. It pits members of white majorities against immigrants and minorities, driven by a sense that cohesive national identities are under threat. In France, for instance, it is common to hear that immigration dilutes French identity, and that allowing minority groups to keep their own cultures erodes vital elements of Frenchness.

Identity works differently in Canada. Both whites and nonwhites see Canadian identity as something that not only can accommodate outsiders, but is enhanced by the inclusion of many different kinds of people.

Canada is a mosaic rather than a melting pot, several people told me — a place that celebrates different backgrounds rather than demanding assimilation.

“Lots of immigrants, they come with their culture, and Canadians like that,” said Ilya Bolotine, an information technology worker from Russia, whom I met at a large park on the Lake Ontario waterfront. “They like variety. They like diversity.”

Identity rarely works this way. Around the world, people tend to identify with their race, religion or at least language. Even in the United States, an immigrant nation, politics have long clustered around demographic in-groups.

Canada’s multicultural identity is largely the result of political maneuvering.

A Liberal Party worker distributed signs commemorating Canada’s 150th anniversary in Toronto’s Little Italy on June 17. Cole Burston for The New York Times
In 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau faced a crisis amid the rise of French Canadian separatism in Quebec. His party was losing support, and his country seemed at risk of splitting in two.

Mr. Trudeau’s solution was a policy of official multiculturalism and widespread immigration. This would resolve the conflict over whether Canadian identity was more Anglophone or Francophone — it would be neither, with a range of diversity wide enough to trivialize the old divisions.

It would also provide a base of immigrant voters to shore up Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party.

Then, in the early 2000s, another politician’s shrewd calculation changed the dynamics of ethnic politics, cementing multiculturalism across all parties.

Jason Kenney, then a Conservative member of Parliament, convinced Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the party should court immigrants, who — thanks to Mr. Trudeau’s efforts — had long backed the Liberal Party.

“I said the only way we’d ever build a governing coalition was with the support of new Canadians, given changing demography,” Mr. Kenney said.

He succeeded. In the 2011 and 2015 elections, the Conservatives won a higher share of the vote among immigrants than it did among native-born citizens.

The result is a broad political consensus around immigrants’ place in Canada’s national identity.

That creates a virtuous cycle. All parties rely on and compete for minority voters, so none has an incentive to cater to anti-immigrant backlash. That, in turn, keeps anti-immigrant sentiment from becoming a point of political conflict, which makes it less important to voters.

In Britain, among white voters who say they want less immigration, about 40 percent also say that limiting immigration is the most important issue to them. In the United States, that figure is about 20 percent. In Canada, according to a 2011 study, it was only 0.34 percent.
Courting Ethnic Groups

Even as politicians engineered a pro-diversity consensus, immigrant and minority groups have organized, unapologetic about asserting their interests.

In Canada, because all parties compete for all ethnic blocs, minorities do not tend to polarize into just one party. That leaves little incentive for tribalism, even as minority groups feel empowered to champion their ethnic or religious identity.

“We say, ‘Look, where do you stand on particular issues of importance to us?’” said Kulvir Singh Gill, a member of Toronto’s powerful Sikh community. “And on the basis of that, we’ll be selective in our support.”

This month, Mr. Gill helped organize a fund-raiser dinner for Seva Food Bank, a Sikh-led charity he co-founded.

The event was crawling with politicians. Senior members of Canada’s three main parties were present, as were several members of Parliament and the provincial premier, Ontario’s equivalent of governor. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Pierre Trudeau’s son) had recorded a video to open the dinner.

All were seeking support from Canada’s Sikhs — but all were going to have to work for it.

Mr. Gill attributed this to “a real maturation in the community,” with Sikhs cultivating ties to all three parties, ensuring that the Sikh voice would be represented no matter who holds office.

Other minority groups have pursued this strategy, too. As a result, while minorities in other countries feel pressure to assimilate, in Canada they do best when they retain a strong group identity.

Political science research suggests that this dynamic may have also made Canada resistant to political extremism and the polarization plaguing other Western countries.

Lilliana Mason, a professor at the University of Maryland, has found that when group identity and partisan identity overlaps, that deepens partisan polarization and intolerance against the opposing party.

But because Canadian politics accounts for diversity without polarizing across ethnic or religious lines, it is more resilient. Everyone, including whites, becomes less likely to see politics as a game of us versus them.

“We’re an articulation of that Canadian dream, the Sikh Canadian dream, of living our values and putting them into action,” Mr. Gill said.

Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, Ahmed Hussen, center, spoke with guests at a Sikh food bank event on June 16 in Brampton, Ontario. Cole Burston for The New York Times
Making Mass Immigration Work

Rapid changes in demographics tend to spur anti-immigrant sentiment within the dominant group, experts say, bolstering far-right politicians who promise harsh tactics against outsiders.

But although Canada’s high immigration rates have transformed the country in just a few decades, the public has mostly been calm and accepting.

One reason may be Canada’s unusual immigration policies. A sponsorship system, in which Canadian families host newcomers, allows communities to feel they are a part of the country’s refugee resettlement program.

And a points system, which favors migrants who are thought to contribute economically, makes immigration feel like something that benefits everyone.

As a result, immigration is broadly accepted as positive, closing off a major avenue of populist mobilization.

Ahmed Hussen, the federal immigration minister, said “the luck of geography” had also helped make immigration feel less threatening.

Virtually every immigrant to Canada is brought here deliberately. Research suggests that uncontrolled immigration, for example the mass arrival of refugees in Europe, can trigger a populist backlash, regardless of whether those arrivals pose a threat.

“We have the luxury of being surrounded by oceans on three sides, and then by the U.S. border,” Mr. Hussen said. “Which, relative to your southern border, doesn’t have the same amount of irregular migration.”

Immo Fritsche, a professor at the University of Leipzig, in Germany, has found that when people feel a loss of control, they cling more closely to racial and national identities. And they desire leaders who promise to reassert control.

European populists have run on such promises, and by accusing political establishments of selling out their countries to migrants. President Trump’s promise to build a border wall is, at its core, a promise of control.

But Canada’s points- and sponsorship-based systems, along with its geographic position, help communities feel a sense of control over immigration so that, even as new arrivals change politics and society, backlash has been minimal.
The Face of Canadian Populism

The result is a system tilted heavily against populist outsiders.

A Rebel Live conference on June 17 in Toronto. It was sponsored by The Rebel, an online news channel often likened to the American outlet Breitbart News. Cole Burston for The New York Times
Although some have found local success, particularly in Quebec, they have not managed to get national traction. At the end of my time in Toronto, I attended a conference held by The Rebel, an online news media channel that is often called “Breitbart North” and once seemed like Canada’s populist vanguard.

Like the American outlet Breitbart News, it has risen on dark warnings about Shariah law and nefarious elites.

Last year, as the populist wave rose worldwide, The Rebel threw tacit support to a handful of politicians. One, Kellie Leitch, received airtime and praise as she sought to push populism into the mainstream.

But this year, when Ms. Leitch ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party, a major test of populism’s appeal in Canada, she won less than 8 percent of the vote, placing sixth.

When I attended The Rebel’s daylong conference in Toronto, I saw no politicians drumming up support — a sharp contrast to the Seva gala the night before.

Tara Cox, a yoga teacher, said she had some concerns about Shariah law, but quickly added that “a Syrian family moved to our small town, and everyone has rallied around them.”

When a speaker warned of Muslim no-go zones in “every hamlet, every village” in Britain, saying that the same could happen in Canada, there were no bellows of rage from the audience, only courteous murmurs of concern.

This was the face of Canadian populism. As their counterparts fan out across Europe and the United States, flexing their political muscle against frightened establishments, here was a listless, modestly sized crowd, whose members seemed aware that they had underperformed but unable to explain why.

Max Fisher contributed reporting.

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