A deep history of Canadian populism

  • Themes: Canada, Politics

Canada's western provinces, the heartland of modern Canadian conservatism, has long been fertile ground for populism.

Poster advertising travel to Canada.
Poster advertising travel to Canada. Credit: Vintage Travel and Advertising Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

In one of the most shocking electoral wipe-outs of post-Cold War history, the Canadian Conservatives were kicked out of office in 1993 and reduced to a rump of two members. The Right had split between the centrist Progressive Conservatives (PCs) and the populist Reform Party of Canada. This formal division carried on for a decade until the two parties united to form the modern Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). During the intervening years, Liberal governments dominated Canadian politics. British Conservatives fear that they could find themselves in a similar position this year.

In the search for ways to avoid electoral oblivion, many have looked to the recent resurgence of the Canadian Conservatives under Pierre Poilievre. His focus on the cost-of-living crisis, alongside fatigue with Justin Trudeau’s leadership, has made him well placed to win the next general election, which must take place by October 2025, according to most polls.

Poilievre made his political breakthrough as the ‘populist’ candidate. Liberal media has chosen this term to explicitly tie Poilievre with the likes of Donald Trump without thinking too deeply about the man himself. Poilievre is undoubtedly a populist, but he is drawing on a political tradition with distinctively Canadian roots. The western provinces, the heartland of modern Canadian conservatism, has long been fertile ground for populism. Since the late 19th century it has produced grassroots campaigns such as the United Farmers of Canada, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and social credit movement that have railed against the federal government in Ottawa.

Much like the agrarian populism of the western and southern United States, the Canadian prairies have supported successive movements opposed to the nation’s urban elites and the concentration of political and economic power. This fed into politics on the Left, including the growth of unionised labour and the emergence of the New Democratic Party. Canadian populists also embraced right-wing agendas such as social conservatism. Over time, the centre of gravity in Canadian conservatism shifted from east to west, as the nation made the journey from being a British Dominion to an independent power in the western hemisphere. This populist heritage is fundamental to understanding the evolution of Canadian conservatism and how it recovered from the nadir of the 1990s.

One of the founding fathers of Canadian Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald, was leader of the Liberal-Conservative Party, which bound together Ontario Tories, Quebec conservatives, and western reformers. Macdonald helped drive forward the momentum behind the British North America Act 1867 and served as the nation’s first prime minister. Alongside loyalty to the British Empire, Macdonald upheld Canadian autonomy at a safe distance from the influence of the United States. This led to an ambitious programme of reform and investment, building the Canadian Pacific Railway, founding the North-West Mounted Police, annexing territory, and raising protective tariffs. For the following century, Canadian conservatism would be defined by its robust defence of national sovereignty. This Canadian take on one nation conservatism sought to appeal to every province, which meant balancing the interests of both east and west of the nation.

The first Canadian Conservative attempt to direct a populist message specifically to the west arrived in 1957 when John Diefenbaker became prime minister. It was the first time the PCs had held office since 1935. Born in Ontario, Diefenbaker’s family moved to Saskatchewan, where he grew up and entered parliament. In domestic politics he was supportive of expanded civil rights for women and indigenous peoples, passing the Canadian Bill of Rights, and defended the economic interests of western farmers. Abroad, he maintained a populist anti-American foreign policy that was sceptical of free trade. Diefenbaker declared: ‘This is the vision: One Canada. One Canada, where Canadians will have preserved to them the control of their own economic and political destiny. Sir John A. Macdonald saw a Canada from east to west: he opened the west. I see a new Canada – a Canada of the North. This is the vision!’ But the vision failed. After refusing to accept nuclear missiles from the United States, Diefenbaker’s government collapsed, and he lost the 1963 federal election.

From Macdonald to Diefenbaker, the Canadian conservative tradition had made tremendous impact on the nation. It fell into decline following the election of Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, who modernised Canadian politics and society, moving away from British influence and embracing American ties. The term ‘Red Toryism’ was coined for this body of thought, and philosopher George Grant wrote its eulogy in Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. Losing its policy substance, Red Tory became another term for technocratic conservatism, alongside the emergence of labels such as ‘wets’ in Britain or ‘RINOs’ in the United States. Combined with the influence of the New Right led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the Canadian Conservatives transformed into a free market and pro-American force under prime minister Brian Mulroney. It also become more removed from the western provinces that Diefenbaker had won over.

Mulroney’s conservatism was a far cry from the Red Tory tradition of Macdonald and Diefenbaker, which favoured state intervention, national sovereignty, and close ties with Britain. The United States’ emergence as the world’s leading superpower made a break from Britain an inevitability, eased by British entry into the European Economic Community. Stagflation had also eroded the social democratic consensus in Canada just as it did across the Western world. Canadian conservatism needed a new mission. Market economics appeared to be the answer to renew the nation and prevent the Canadian Conservatives from simply being liberalism with the handbrake on. Canadian conservatism directed greater attention towards the demands of the Quebecois and eastern commercial interests, putting itself increasingly at odds with the populist west. This contributed significantly towards the 1993 split in the right-wing vote.

As the old conservative tradition entered this final phase of disintegration, a new tradition grew from its husk. Preston Manning, whose father had been the social credit premier of Alberta, founded the Reform Party of Canada, later rebranded the Canadian Alliance, as a protest movement for western Canada in 1987. It succeeded in destroying the old PCs and then reconfiguring Canadian conservatism in its image, fusing together traditional conservatism and classical liberalism. When the CPC formed, Stephen Harper, who had led the Canadian Alliance, became leader instead of his PC rival Peter MacKay. Harper went on to serve as prime minister from 2006 to 2015. It was the most right-wing government in a generation, taking tough stances on tax and spend, law and order, and foreign policy. Harper was also the first prime minister from the western provinces since 1979, but Harper adopted a more moderate and inclusive tone than Manning, distancing himself from his origins in populist politics.

Following the CPC’s election defeat in 2015, Harper’s successors, Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole, attempted to recapture the pragmatic tone that had helped secure electoral victories in the 2006, 2008, and 2011 federal elections. No populist shocks took place in 2016, like in the United States and Britain, and the CPC made no attempt to bring one about. At the local and provincial levels, Canadian Conservatives did experiment with populist politics: an early example was Rob Ford’s bombastic and controversial 2010 run for Mayor of Toronto, bearing some similarities to Boris Johnson in his heyday as Mayor of London. Doug Ford (Rob Ford’s brother) and Jason Kenney later led their own populist bids for office in Ontario and Alberta, but this success was not replicated at the federal level. It would take Covid-19 to bring about an economic and cultural shock that could potentially reshape Canadian politics.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, the 2022 leadership contest allowed the CPC to recover its populist spirit. Raised in Alberta and active in Reform Party politics as a young man, Poilievre is steeped in his nation’s populist heritage. His opponent was moderate standard bearer Jean Charest who previously led the PCs after their 1993 defeat and served as Premier of Quebec. The moderate faction has been in continued decline ever since the formation of the CPC, symbolised by their choice of a candidate from yesteryear. A new generation of Canadian conservatism has arrived with Poilievre who won the support of party members across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. The Poilievre-led CPC is now on a mission to ‘give Canadians back control of their lives’.

In this latest iteration of Canadian populism, Poilievre has identified the class divide that defines modern Canada. He champions the working class and lower middle class in the provinces to the west against the elites and ‘laptop class’ in the metropole to the east. Justin Trudeau, the son of a former prime minister, is the metropolitan elite made flesh. This reflects similar divides that have emerged in other Western countries. The opening salvo in this effort came during the leadership contest, when Poilievre decided to champion the Freedom Convoy of truckers, with popular support in western Canada, and opposed covid mandates. This was a very visible and disruptive display of resistance on a par with the yellow vests’ protest in France and highly unusual for Canadian politics.

Flowing from this political divide between working-class populism and elite liberalism is how policy is being prioritised by the two major parties. Liberal voters, many of whom are graduates and urban professionals, want the federal government to expand its power and move faster on issues such as climate change, decolonisation, and trans rights. It was this same group of people who favoured Trudeau’s interventionist covid policies. Poilievre cannot win these voters with promises of pragmatic governance and fiscal responsibility as his predecessors tried. Instead, he is embracing a new working-class constituency, promising to stop interference from ‘experts’ with people’s lives. This includes opposing covid vaccine and mask mandates, digital ID, and online censorship.

Culture war issues have played less of a role in this narrative. Instead of giving voice to social conservatives on abortion or same-sex marriage, Poilievre has adopted a more general approach of anti-wokeness that is less confrontational on issues such as trans rights. Framing himself as a defender of free speech, Poilievre argued that ‘woke has one purpose and only one purpose. It has plenty of pretexts but only one purpose: control. It is designed to divide people by race, gender, ethnicity, religion, vaccine status and any other way one can divide people into groups. Why? It is because then one can justify having a government to control all those groups. No more woke; we need freedom.’

In another departure from right-wing populism, liberal immigration policies are still supported by the CPC. Poilievre wants to build a multi-ethnic, working-class coalition. He has said that immigrants share the fundamentally conservative values of ‘hard work, family, freedom, tradition’. That is why Poilievre is laser-focused on the economic interests of working-class Canadians of all ages and backgrounds. Conservative campaign messaging attacks relentlessly Trudeau’s economic record. The solutions offered are traditional conservative ideas, such as cutting taxes, spending, and regulation, unwinding unpopular climate policies, supporting domestic energy production, and unleashing house building. All are crafted to make the biggest impact for working-class Canadians.

The language tying all this together is centred around ‘freedom’. Poilievre has promised to make Canada ‘the freest nation on earth’. At this point, some might recoil at what appears to be a North American variant of Trussonomics, but scratching beneath the surface reveals something far more interesting. Covid provoked the resurgence of Canadian populism for a reason. It exposed elite liberalism’s willingness to push aside working-class needs and concerns in pursuit of their economic and cultural objectives. Canadian Conservatives calling for greater freedom is about breaking the stranglehold of elite liberalism over public life. During the Harper-era, Poilievre was the party’s attack dog; he is using that experience to good use as he hones a critique of elite liberalism.

This can be seen in the institutions Poilievre has chosen to attack. Rather than wheeling out the 1980s rhetoric of Thatcher and Reagan, Poilievre has targeted the bureaucratic ‘gatekeepers’ who block new housing development, declared that he would never send government ministers to meetings of the World Economic Forum, threatened to defund the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and pledged to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada for hiking interest rates and funding Trudeau’s spending largesse. In opposition to ‘the globalist Davos elite’, Poilievre’s solution is ‘the common sense of common people’. He is speaking to the genuine concerns around power being handed to unaccountable and undemocratic bodies at the federal and international level.

Through this collection of messages and impulses, Poilievre is pulling together moderate conservatives, social conservatives, and populists around a distinctively conservative mission. Rather than trying to peel off support from the Left, Poilievre is watching the threat on the Right from the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) formed by Maxime Bernier, who lost the 2017 CPC leadership contest. While failing to win any seats in the House of Commons, the PPC’s 4.94 per cent of the vote in 2021 was enough to hold back the Canadian Conservatives. With Poilievre in charge, 78 per cent of PPC voters would now consider changing their support. The electoral cost of failing to keep everyone in the tent is high.

The recent passing of Brian Mulroney has given Canadian Conservatives a moment to reflect on their heritage and identity. Poilievre released a statement saying Mulroney ‘unleashed free enterprise, crushed inflation, restored fiscal sanity and concluded one of the greatest free trade agreements the world has ever seen, which remains largely in place today. These changes gave thousands of working-class families the same opportunities he had, that is, the chance to work hard, buy a home, and build their dreams.’ This directly ties the legacy of Mulroney with Poilievre’s vision for the future. Conservatism in Canada has ebbed and flowed over the years, but it continues to display a populist streak that has been vital to its longevity and most significant achievements.


David Cowan