column

Canada’s Not Immune from a Trump-Style ‘Whitelash’

Now isn't the time to get complacent.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
November 10, 2016, 3:12pm

Xenophobia wins votes. John Locher/Associated Press

A lot of Canadians woke up in mourning Wednesday, with the knowledge that the United States elected Donald Trump, a bigoted, misogynistic demagogue with literally zero governing experience, to lead the free world.

Trump's support largely came from white people, and, though I wish we could blame the old or uneducated, it crossed all demographics.

CNN commentator Van Jones poignantly described the result as a "whitelash"—a response by white voters threatened by progress, most notably the election of President Barack Obama, the country's first African American leader.

Still, no one predicted this outcome.

In light of it, much has been made of Americans looking to flee north. On cue, Canadians used obnoxious hashtags to express how grateful they are to live in a country that's so inclusive.

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But are we really immune from having our own Trump-style whitelash?

When I got to work, one of the first emails waiting for me (subject line: Progress) went like this:

"The good, God fearing people of the great nation of America have chosen. Maybe you should look in the mirror and realize how ignorant the propaganda people like you helped nurture and spread against President Trump." It suggested "Satanists" like me beg for the lord's forgiveness.

"Hopefully Canada will find its own Mr. Trump and follow America's lead."

Easy enough to brush off as the ramblings of an alt-right troll. Less easy, though, to dismiss Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch, who expressed glee that Americans "threw out the elites" by electing Trump.

"It's an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada," she said in a fundraising email Wednesday.

Read more: I Look to America and All I See Is the End

Leitch, who is leading the Conservative race according to a new poll, previously stated she wants immigrants to be screened for "Canadian values" such as "intolerance towards other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, violent and/or misogynist behaviour." (The irony is painful.)

She repeated that message in the email, vowing to ensure that "every visitor, immigrant, and refugee will be screened."

As many have pointed out, immigrants are already screened before entering Canada, which makes Leitch's proposed policy redundant. But, like the "barbaric cultural practices hotline" before it, it also serves as a dog-whistle for xenophobes who straight up don't want more foreigners coming here; similar rhetoric was used to fuel the UK's disastrous Brexit movement. While less extreme and more cleverly veiled than Trump's proposed wall along the Mexico border or Muslim ban, it's in the same wheelhouse.

Kellie Leitch. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

To be fair, other prominent Conservatives have said they don't share Leitch's views. But there's no question that populist ideology could take hold here. We saw it with the mayoral election of homophobe and all around buffoon Rob Ford in Toronto—a city that hosts one of the largest gay Pride parades in the world.

Ford, a millionaire by birth, appealed to Toronto suburbanites by promising to "Stop the gravy train"—a slogan that was actually echoed by Trump—and stand up for the little guy. Despite the fact that his claims about cutting $1 billion in spending were repeatedly debunked—not to mention the whole crack smoking scandal—Ford remained astonishingly popular in his 2014 re-election bid prior to dropping out because he had cancer.

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Frank Cunningham, University of Toronto emeritus professor of philosophy and political science, has examined the role of populism in Ford's election. He told VICE when it comes to comparing the political climates of Canada and the US, we're a more "muted" version of them.

Trump pandered to working class people for whom "the American dream has never panned out," Cunningham said. "They have a legitimate grievance… They find themselves unemployed, working part-time, plunging wages, and all the rest of it."

The nightmare is just beginning. Masatoshi Okauchi/REX/Shutterstock

You'll find the same problems here. Youth unemployment and precarious work is exceedingly common. Alberta has been devastated by the crash of the oil boom. Residents of Vancouver and Toronto are being priced out of the housing market, with the blame being pinned on foreign buyers.

"There is already a long tradition of populism in the West, with a right-wing version especially in Alberta," Cunningham said.

When Canadians elected Justin Trudeau last fall, they were clearly looking for a change from the decade-long Stephen Harper regime. (Though Harper lost the election decisively, it's noteworthy that he made brief gains during the campaign when he targeted Muslim women with the idea of a niqab ban.)

While Trudeau's approval ratings are still high—at around 55 percent according to a September poll—he's starting to break promises. Take the Kinder Morgan pipeline in BC for example; greenlighting it would put him at odds with Indigenous communities and environmentalists.

"Down the road, suppose the trajectory starts turning against Trudeau and the Liberals," Cunningham said. "That'll be open ground for a resurgent Conservative party, perhaps employing Trump-type rhetoric."

Still, Cunningham doesn't believe the vitriolic racism and sexism that exists in the States could flourish to such extremes here.

Let's hope he's right. But, as we learned the hard way from our American neighbours, we shouldn't count on it.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.