Don’t believe the hype. Canada is not having a Trump moment. True, the new premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, is a brash businessman turned politician. But while he has also, like Nigel Farage and President Trump, criticised the “elites” who “ignore the people”, he is actually very different from them in significant respects. In fact, in both demeanor and policies he is more like Ronald Reagan than Trump.
Ford is often called a populist because he rose to prominence alongside his late brother, the irrepressible crack-smoker and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Rob was a blunt, self-described conservative who pulled off “the most improbable mayoral victory in recent Canadian history” in 2010 on a populist platform that attacked the fiscal and progressive social policies supported by much of the city’s business and governmental communities.
Rob’s angry rhetoric about town hall wastefulness won over much of the outer regions which were home to the middle and working classes – and many among the city’s immigrant population. And it’s a rhetoric his brother echoes, when talking about defending the “little guy”.
Such was the brothers’ political closeness, that after Doug stood for and won Rob’s old city council seat in the immigrant-heavy 2d Ward of Etobicoke in the same election, he would refer to himself as co-mayor: and mimicked his brother’s loud, brash, combative style in council debates.
When Rob decided not to run for re-election in late 2014 after receiving a cancer diagnosis, Doug stepped in to the breach and ran in his brother’s stead. He lost to current mayor John Tory after a record turnout. But did keep hold of most of Rob’s voters. He then saw an opportunity to re-enter politics this year when the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, Patrick Brown, suddenly resigned over allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. Ford won the leadership race, defeating three other candidates, including Caroline Mulroney, the daughter of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – one of those ‘elites’ Doug so likes to kick against.
He had an immediate advantage because of the large lead the PC’s had in the polls. The Liberal Party had been in power for 15 years and many voters thought it was time for change, especially since Liberal policies had led to a sharp recent rise in electricity rates. By the end of April, right before the start of the official campaign, the Tories led the Liberals by around 15 %. As the race kicked off, the race was “Doug Ford’s to lose”.
Perhaps because of that lead, Ford’s campaign was anything but what most people would call “populist” today. He changed very little of the PC platform that had been drafted by his predecessor and eschewed provocative language on the stump. “[Ford] did not campaign like a populist,” Maclean’s Stephen Maher wrote. “He kept his messaging moderate, rather than displaying an over-the-top Trump style.”
His platform attracted derision because, breaking with Canadian tradition, its promises were not supported by a full, outside cost analysis. Many outside analysts said that he could not achieve sufficient cost savings from efficiencies to both balance the budget and pay for the tax cut and spending promises Ford made.
His campaign specifics – as well as the dodgy maths – would have been considered completely ordinary south of the border. The slogan, “For the People,” for example, was a variant on many such slogans American conservatives have used since the 1960s.1 He opposed putting a price on carbon to combat climate change, campaigned on tax cuts for businesses and individuals, and pledged to reduce electricity prices by 22 %.For social conservatives, he pledged to repeal a sex education curriculum that had raised hackles by teaching about gender identity.
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Middle- and working-class voters liked his calls for “beer for a buck” – reducing the government-set minimum price on beer[viii]– and reducing the petrol levy by ten cents per litre. Spending would be reduced only by cutting inefficiencies, not by slashing programs. This combination of issues might be unusual in Ontario but is nothing different from what America’s Republicans have been promising since the Reagan administration.
Ford’s refusal to decry immigrants – which would be a bold political strategy in a province where nearly 30% of the population are immigrants – also sets him apart from Trump and other global populists. Indeed, he swept to victory in a seat dominated by Asian, African, and Caribbean immigrants, his home constituency of Etobicoke North.
His PC Party also increased its share of the vote over the party’s showing in the last election in immigrant communities such as Brampton,2 Mississauga,3 and Scarborough, 4 more than almost anywhere else in Ontario. These gains also gave them a solid majority.
The flyover town that dodged decline
Ford is also unlike Trump in that he did not gain many votes among economically depressed Whites. Ontario’s old industrial centres were hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008-9, but voters in them did not waver in their traditional support for the social democratic New Democratic Party. Ford campaigned in part on bringing back the 300,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the preceding 15 years, but, unlike in the Brexit referendum or Trump’s victory, those workers did not flock to the “populist” banner.
Instead, the New Democrats held most constituencies in Windsor, London, Kitchener, Niagara and Hamilton going into the election, and they held on to virtually all of them afterwards. They also maintained or increased their traditional support in the mining and lumber producing regions in Northern Ontario.
Surprisingly, Canadian analysts have not tried to explain Ford’s appeal among immigrants or his lack of appeal among downscale, old industrial workers. On the surface, however, it seems that two factors might be at play.
First, by treating immigrants in the same manner as he does White Canadians, he avoided alienating them as so many centre-right politicians do elsewhere. In this, he followed former Canadian Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s playbook, and Harper also gained significant immigrant support in the same communities in his 2011 campaign.
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Ford’s support for scrapping the controversial same-sex education curriculum might also have played into his appeal, as surveys regularly show that Asian immigrants to Western countries hold traditional views about gender and sexuality. The fact that he and his brother had long been familiar to the Toronto immigrant community also meant that it was harder to demonise him as someone who did not see immigrants as full Canadians.
Second, Ontario’s industrial workers have not yet been betrayed by the party of their choice. Industrial workers often defect from centre-left parties they previously supported only after that party has a stretch in government which proves seriously disappointing. The New Democrats have not formed a government in Ontario since 1990 and have never been included in a government at the federal level. These workers thus can vote in the hope that things would change if their party finally achieved power.
Ford is definitely a different type of politician from those Ontario is used to, but that doesn’t prove he is a “populist”. Nor does the fact that his policies are similar to the American Republican Party’s. Instead, it simply proves that a sovereign people will embrace dramatically different governing styles and policies when it is hungry for change.
That might dismay those who have long held the reins of power, and in their dismay they might cast epithets at the victor. But saying something is so doesn’t make it so. If Doug Ford is a “populist,” and thereby implicitly somewhat dangerous, then any centre-right politician with a serious reform agenda is similarly “populist”. And that notion, that any serious centre-right politician is inherently dangerous, is more dangerous itself than anything Doug Ford is likely to do as Premier.