UPDATE: On Thursday, Sandra Jansen announced she is crossing the floor of the Alberta legislature to join the governing NDP. She said the legacy of former premier Peter Lougheed, who brought a moderate, more cosmopolitan outlook to the Progressive Conservatives, has been “kicked to the curb by extremists who are taking over the PC party.”
Sandra Jansen is no delicate flower. The Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary–North West has survived a scandal that brought down her premier, the resulting chaos in her party and the so-called “orange crush” with which the NDP ended the Tories’ 44-year reign in Alberta. Now in her second term, she thrived before entering politics in the full-contact world of television journalism, anchoring shows on local stations and CTV’s national news channel.
But the brickbats the 53-year-old absorbed last week have knocked her flat. Jansen had tossed in her hat for her party’s leadership, positioning herself on the progressive side of the PC tent with proposals to protect LGBT and abortion rights, departing for a PC convention in Red Deer prepared for a frenzy of glad-handing. Instead, she was greeted with a barrage of invective, harassment and intimidation. Someone scrawled “I hope you die!” on her nomination forms, while supporters of her rivals subjected her to harrowing encounters in the corridor, haranguing her about her liberal social views. “Volunteers from another campaign chased me up and down the hall,” she later said in a note to supporters, “attacking me for protecting women’s reproductive rights, and my team was jeered for supporting children’s rights to a safe school environment.”
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The worst offenders, according to members of Jansen’s team, were supporters of Jason Kenney, the former federal cabinet minister who’s running for the Alberta PC leadership. “They’d close in, get into your personal space and say, ‘You can’t not answer me!’ ” says veteran strategist Stephen Carter, who was guiding Jansen’s campaign. “Sandra would have to turn her back and walk away, and they’d yell at her down the hall.” And if the idea was to drive an unwelcome presence from the contest, it worked: on Tuesday, a badly shaken Jansen withdrew, retreating to her home in Calgary to take stock of her political future.
Kenney issued a statement voicing regret over her withdrawal, but it did not address her specific complaint. The whole experience has left Carter—who has worked for Alberta politicians of all stripe—pondering similarities between these zealots and those who propelled a certain U.S. presidential nominee to the White House. “Never underestimate the importance of being given permission to behave in a certain way,” he says. “We’ve seen videos every day of people chanting ‘lock her up,’ or screaming at the media. That kind of face-to-face confrontation has become normalized.” Asked simply whether a Donald Trump equivalent could succeed in Canada, Carter says: “I’m convinced it’s going to happen.”
The scenario no longer seems far-fetched. Trump’s improbable ascent to the Oval Office has inspired populist movements around the world, lending an aura of acceptability to ideas once relegated to the political fringe—in Canada as surely as in other countries. In the days before the election, more than three-quarters of Canadians polled by Ipsos said they’d be likely to consider voting for a Canadian candidate with a Trump-style platform of stricter immigration control, review of international trade agreements and getting tough on crime. Immediately after the U.S. election, 67 per cent of respondents said they understand the “underlying anger” that led to Trump’s win.
That’s not the same as liking the man. Poll after poll suggests Trump’s race-baiting, and his claims heard on that infamous leaked tape that he can get away with sexually assaulting women, were disgusting to Canadians. Yet the potency of his platform, and the euphoria induced by his disregard for political taboos, hasn’t escaped the notice of would-be imitators. Even before last week’s events in Alberta, Ontario MP Kellie Leitch had shot to the forefront of the federal Conservative leadership race by proposing a “Canadian values test” for prospective immigrants—a striking echo of Trump’s promise to institute “extreme vetting” of newcomers to the United States. Then, Leitch insisted she didn’t endorse Trump’s candidacy. But the morning after his victory, she hailed his win in an email to supporters as “an exciting message” that “we need delivered in Canada.”
Leitch has promised to be the bearer of that message, notwithstanding her shortcomings as an anti-elitist candidate (she’s a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and a protégé of Jim Flaherty, the late federal finance minister). Others have followed her lead, calling into question the ideals of diversity and tolerance cherished by the country’s urban political class. Steven Blaney, another candidate for the federal Tory leadership, has called for language and “core Canadian principles” tests for would-be immigrants, along with a ban on federal officials who deal with the public wearing face-covering niqabs. The former public safety minister says such changes are needed to stem the “slow and steady erosion” of Canadian values, and promises to use the notwithstanding clause in the Constitution to protect his new rules from Supreme Court challenges.
The question, say experts, is whether support for such ideas could galvanize into a Trump-style movement. Ice-breakers like Blaney and Leitch are exploiting the same rural-urban cultural divide that Trump did in the U.S., acknowledges Clark Banack, a Brock University political scientist who studies populist movements. But the kind of anti-elitist discontent that moves votes is seldom seen in Canada outside the West, Banack notes, and when it arises elsewhere, it tends to be short-lived. “We have sporadic examples of people emerging for a short time around a specific issue,” he says, citing Rob Ford’s rise to the Toronto mayoralty on the strength of working-class, suburban anger. “But overall, Canadian political culture is less susceptible to populism than American political culture.”
Another mitigating factor: the relative absence in Canada of a dispossessed working class in a mood to punish its leaders. David Green, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics, believes Trump’s support base of white men with no college degree would be hard to replicate in this country because the commodities boom sustained Canada’s blue-collar workers, even as the financial crisis crushed the dreams of their counterparts in other countries. Between 2003 and 2015, he notes in a forthcoming paper, mean hourly wages for Americans with a high school education or less fell by six per cent; for the same demographic in Canada, they climbed eight per cent. The effect, he says, was to slow the growth of the economic gap that has fed voter rage in the U.S., the U.K. and parts of Europe. Last year, our top 10 per cent of earners made 8.6 times on average what the bottom 10 per cent pulled in—a ratio that, while high, falls beneath the OECD average and far below the U.S. ratio of 19 to one.
But all that could change, Green warns, if oil prices remain low—especially if the housing market weakens at the same time. The country’s residential construction boom, he notes, has maintained job centres around the country’s large cities, putting more than a few displaced oil patch employees to work. “What do you do with that set of less-than-university-educated guys—the demographic that switched over to Trump?” Green asks. “That’s a potentially worrying connection.”
More so, agrees Banack, if you have a high-minded central government that overlooks their misfortune while pursuing its own pre-occupations. Running against Ottawa, he notes, is a time-tested stratagem for populist movements in Canada, and these days, few national governments are more closely identified with the globalist program of trade, labour mobility and climate-change action than Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Something like Trudeau’s promised national carbon tax, which will be felt keenly in the West, could be enough to trigger a populist insurgency in Alberta, he says, though it’s safe to assume the federal Conservative party would do everything it could to stop such a movement, given the outcome of the Reform party experiment: “Another vote split, and you could forget about a Conservative federal government for another 10 or 15 years.”
Maybe, but experienced political players are no longer sure economic logic and conventional political calculus are in force. Carter, the Alberta strategist, notes that the online communities where so-called “alt-right” voters congregate—Facebook groups, or conspiracy-fuelled sites like Infowars—don’t traffic in that sort of information. In its place: a strain of fanaticism typified by the onslaught that ran Jansen off the PC stage, which Carter believes is sure to spread. “I don’t know if it’s Trump or social media or just belief that they’re correct that gives a sense of permission,” he says. “But this is not normal.”