A year ago at this time we were in the midst of the so-called Freedom Convoy – an issue of little impact unless the nonsense was happening in your neighbourhood.
It was also about this time last year that Pierre Poilievre launched his bid to replace Erin O’Toole as the leader of the Conservative party, largely on a populist agenda indicated by his support for the Freedom Convoy, a position he continues to hold.
The demonstrations were illustrative that the kind of troubling nonsense commonplace in the US was making its way north, though with much less significance. The number of people subscribing to the views typified in the convoy issue are minor here, but Poilievre appears to have hitched his wagon to such people. While that should bode well for the other parties, it’s not a good sign for those eager to avoid the divisiveness we see south of us.
Whether the Freedom Convoy types represent a shift in the Conservative party akin to the extreme right-wing takeover of the Republican party is the subject of much speculation. But it is an indication of the growing distrust of government, which is certainly understandable given the poor governance that is the norm.
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As Melanie Paradis, O’Toole’s former director of communications and now president of Texture Communications, told the National Post this week, the Freedom Convoy was the product of a slow burn fuelled by growing dissatisfactions and resentments. The pandemic restrictions helped bring matters to a head.
The protests were not so much partisan as they were about frustration over the status quo. That attitude has been linked to a conservative movement, parallels drawn to the goings-on in the States.
“I think it’s overly simplistic to say that the convoy itself has had this big impact on conservative politics when really it’s this broader sentiment,” Paradis said in relation to the Conservative party switching to Poilievre from O’Toole.
The attitudes of those who actually took part in the Freedom Convoy – some of whom continue to press for a revival, vainly thus far – are an extreme version of what many Canadians are feeling when it comes to government.
An Abacus poll last summer, for instance, found 52 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement “official government accounts of events can’t be trusted.” That was especially true of those with right-wing leanings.
Canadians may be generally more accepting – or less vocal in their frustration, perhaps – with the types of changes fomenting unrest elsewhere, but the dissatisfaction is there. The country is generally some years behind the curve compared to what’s happening in the US.
Changes, real or perceived, are driving much of the right-wing populism. Much of that is centered on immigration – i.e. racial and cultural lines – and the pace of shifts in demographics. Here, such matters are officially downplayed to avoid even a hint of racism or anything that even smacks of identify politics. But, as with elsewhere, there are signs of frustration with the grand social experiment that is being foisted on everybody with almost no input and absolutely no accountability – there’s a realization that we can’t trust those in power to do the right thing.
That lack of trust extends to almost every aspect of governance, from failure to protect against predatory capitalism and environmental degradation – for their own gain, politicians typically support those pillaging the economy over the good of the populace – to the rapid shifts in cultural norms.
Whether it’s experimental curriculum such that school kids no longer learned basic literacy skills or widespread demographic shifts, changes have been made with no consultation, though everyone has to live with the consequences.
With societal changes such as gay marriages and civil rights, there’s a pushback from some quarters, but they’re a matter of right and wrong, of fairness, ethics. And, in the end, such changes really have no impact on the lives of those opposed to them. Oh, sure, their sensibilities might be offended, but there’s no material change if their gay neighbour is in the closet or married to his partner. Society is better for equal rights, period.
Immigration is, of course, the real red-flag issue. Here, too, the pace of change has been rapid … and readily visible. Some who chafe at the changes are undoubtedly racist: they’ve got no use for the brown and black people no matter how long they’ve been here, an unsavoury element that’s become a regular fixture in America politics, for instance. But much of the unease has to do with large numbers of arrivals each year, which comes with a financial burden and pragmatic problems, particularly with housing prices and availability.
None of that is really being addressed directly, but the undercurrent is there, though thankfully nothing like the acrimonious situation in the States.
But public sentiment there is symptomatic of an increasing anger and fear of the “other” that have come to be the defining facet of Republican supporters in particular. And as anyone paying even casual attention to the antics brought on by Donald Trump already knows, outlandish anger is all the rage.
Aside from making the US political system so dysfunctional, the Republican base – particularly middle-aged working class white men – is the canary in the coalmine for the disintegration of a way of life to which many conservatives yearn to return.
The unworkable US political system is the product of another kind of extremism, but mostly about tensions caused by shifting demographics and a decaying economic situation. The most divisive sector is rightwing Christian fundamentalists – predominantly undereducated white people who see the country’s decline and think that rolling back the clock will make America great again.
But public sentiment there is symptomatic of an increasing anger and fear of the “other” that have come to be the defining facet of Republican supporters in particular, for whom outlandish anger is all the rage.
A contingent of such people equate the civil rights movement, women’s liberation efforts, gay rights and a more permissive, relaxed society as the reason their country is going downhill. Immigrants are taking away jobs and destroying American culture, people of this mindset argue – Mexicans are an established target in this regard, now joined by Muslims.
Life has become harder for these people, but that’s true more for many in the middle class. That reality is applicable here, too, though we’re well behind the curve in terms of any political backlash. Unfortunately, the anger in the US is often misplaced, scapegoating those who are even more powerless rather than blaming those responsible for turning the economic clock back to revive all the worst characteristics of the prewar era – it’s no coincidence the deregulation that led to the Great Recession and inequality are at levels unseen since the 1920s.
Instead, the right-wing elements have been led to believe they can restore the country’s greatness, and their own therein, by suppressing the rights of others. Those really responsible – the now familiar 1% – are more than happy to see the delusion continue, a nice distraction from the truth that also serves to keep the masses divided. Better still, mix the resentment and anger with anti-intellectual rants, religion, guns and a war culture for the perfect recipe to mask the bitter taste of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics on steroids.
We’re less eager for that here, but Poilievre’s antics indicate he and others are convinced an appetite exists.