Canada’s Trump?

Canada’s left is trying to tarnish Doug Ford’s image by branding him a racist. They’d be better off asking why so many minorities support him.

Doug Ford was honored and received a special blessing at a Tamil Hindu Temple after meeting with members of the Tamil community in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, on Sunday February 11, 2018.
Doug Ford was honored and received a special blessing at a Tamil Hindu Temple after meeting with members of the Tamil community in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, on Sunday February 11, 2018. (Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As a businessman, Donald Trump turned his name into a brand, one that can be found affixed to luxury buildings all over the world. In politics, too, Trump has become a sort of franchise operation since becoming president; the media now routinely label foreign populists as local Trump wannabes.

That includes Doug Ford — an elder brother of onetime Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who is best remembered for denying, and later admitting, that he had been recorded smoking crack cocaine. Rob Ford was still popular when he died of cancer in 2016; his brother Doug is now the favorite to become Ontario’s next premier when Canada’s largest province goes to the polls on June 7, and Doug Ford’s critics have not hesitated to brand him a northern version of Trump. A recent column by the popular Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn was titled, “Lessons for Doug Ford’s Ontario from Donald Trump’s America.” A similar offering from Andrew Mitrovica for Al Jazeera announced, “The Trump ‘virus’ spreads to Canada.” In the Toronto Sun, meanwhile, it was, “Doug Ford tears a page from Donald Trump’s script.”

There’s a grain of truth to the Trump-Ford comparison. Ford is a populist conservative who grew up rich but affects the common touch. He is a businessman with a weakness for bluster, but little in the way of political experience. He skips political debates and prefers social media to press conferences. And, as with Trump, his rhetoric often blurs the line between standard partisan sloganeering and generalized fusillades aimed at society’s elites — who, by Ford’s description, “look down on the common folk [while] drinking champagne with their pinkies in the air.” Moreover, Ford’s main opponent, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, is something of a Hillary Clinton figure: an urbane center-left career politician in her 60s who inherited the grievances and scandals associated with a long-serving predecessor.

But that is where the major similarities end. Yes, Doug Ford is playing to a base of disaffected voters — just like Trump. But their respective bases constitute entirely distinct political tribes. Indeed, the gulf between the two groups serves to illustrate the vast differences between the American and Canadian species of populism.

Rob Ford was a profoundly self-destructive human being. But he wasn’t dumb. And from what I’ve been able to tell, his more abstemious brother Doug is at least as smart. In 2013, I attended a small dinner event in Toronto where then-Mayor Rob Ford was scheduled to be the featured speaker. Ford didn’t show, for reasons never explained. And so at the last minute, the call went out to brother Doug — then a member of the Toronto City Council — to fill in. Without a single note or cue card, Doug delivered a thoroughly lucid long-form defense of fiscal conservatism at the municipal level. It wasn’t political oratory at the level of Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan. But it was also a far cry from the barstool mishmash of a Donald Trump rant. Ford’s thoughts connected, one to the next. Sentences all contained nouns and verbs. If he misrepresented any facts, he didn’t do it bigly enough for me to notice.

Nor is there anything particularly radical in Ford’s thin platform — which, if you look past his populist bombast, is entirely incrementalist. Like most Canadian conservatives, he opposes a carbon tax. Ford also wants to lower the overall sales and income tax burden on the province’s residents by at least $10 billion, freeze the minimum wage, review the province’s sex education curriculum, and require parents to provide consent when minors have abortions.

As with many a self-proclaimed fiscal hawk, there’s a lot of fuzzy math in his platform. He claims that he’ll be able to find room for most of his tax cuts simply by eliminating what he calls inefficiencies — which is another way of saying that he’ll muddle through once elected and complain that the Liberals left him with crooked books. But such chicanery is standard fare in all elections. And once you get past Ford’s name and reputation, his campaign is mostly cookie-cutter. In fact, he’s trying hard not to scare anyone. Never once, for instance, has he promised to throw Kathleen Wynne — or anyone — in jail.

Trump, by contrast, first swept to prominence in the Republican presidential field with a ridiculous promise to build a wall that would keep undocumented Mexicans out of the United States. That pledge captured the great theme of American populist movements, which is that there exists some group of rapacious outsiders — Freemasons, communists, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, the Chinese, whatever — who seek to destroy America’s culture and impoverish its population, and that the only way to fight this menace is though radically bold action led by a morally authentic patriot. Build a wall. Return to the gold standard. Ban Muslims. Tear up NAFTA.

This kind of populism has little resonance in Canada, a country created by French Catholics and English Protestants who have been living in effectively distinct societies for the last four centuries. We have more space for newcomers to settle and generally go in for weaker, more tolerant strains of Christian belief. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government did attempt some mild dog-whistling toward Canadian nativists and Islamophobes in the period leading up to the 2015 federal election, but the gambit bombed, which is one of the reasons why now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau romped to victory (including in Ontario, where his Liberals won more than two-thirds of the province’s seats).

In fact, for all the casual comparisons between Doug Ford and Donald Trump, Ford has studiously avoided race- or religion-baiting. This became clear in early March, when a prominent Canadian political science professor produced a Twitter thread seeking to link the two politicians. On the issue of Ford’s supposed racial intolerance, the best example he could find was a 2014 episode in which Ford praised Chinese-Canadian Toronto residents as “extremely hard-working people,” as well as “fiscal conservatives” who “have an entrepreneurial spirit” and “helped build this country.”

When it comes to Ford’s attitude toward immigrants, and people of color more generally, the man is the opposite of Trump. Until 2014, Ford represented Toronto’s Ward 2 in the suburb of Etobicoke, a multicultural mix of whites, South Asians, Somalis, Persians, and Filipinos. Even during Rob Ford’s darkest days — when the media aired recorded audio of the whacked-out mayor spouting slurred, racist epithets — the Ford brothers remained shockingly popular in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. Today, Doug Ford attracts some of his strongest support in diverse Toronto exurbs, and his popularity appears to be on the rise in areas where the immigrant population is growing fastest. Just north of Toronto, in the extremely diverse city of Markham — where whites account for a mere 22 percent of the population — Ford won one Markham electoral district with a shocking 60 percent of the vote on the first ballot of the Conservative Party leadership contest in a four-way race that pit him against establishment candidates. He couldn’t have done it without the support of Chinese and South Asian voters who together make up approximately two-thirds of the city’s residents.

One University of Ottawa student attempted to explain the phenomenon of Ford’s staunch immigrant supporters on a lengthy Reddit thread. “There are people in my community [South Asians] that support Doug Ford because he and his supporters have heavily implied that he will somehow make the Sex Ed curriculum ‘less bad,’” the student wrote, referring to the province’s revised public-school sex education curriculum, implemented recently by Wynne’s government. The curriculum stresses the idea of gender expression as being detached from biological sex, among other liberal ideas about sexuality. “I have an elderly relative who has (apparently) been told that Doug Ford will abolish Sex Ed altogether,” the Ottawa student continued. “I think people would be surprised by the amount of social conservativism within some immigrant communities (Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Korean Evangelicals, Filipino Catholics etc).”

Canadian elites on both the left and right hate Ford just as much as their American counterparts — from California liberals to establishment Republicans — hate Trump. The difference is that Trump’s victory in 2016 came as a huge shock, while a Ford victory is now completely expected. (He’s leading Wynne by between 15 and 20 points according to an aggregation of the latest polls.) Moreover, Ford���s strong support among people of color means that Ontario’s Liberals — unlike America’s Democrats — will have difficulty explaining their disappointment as a product of their neighbors’ xenophobia and racism.

This fact, in itself, could have an interesting effect on the emerging ideological landscape of the Canadian left, which very much takes its cues on social-justice issues from people of color. If many of those minority voters end up backing the bogeyman Ford, the movement will be left in a state of confusion. This phenomenon began in the 2000s, when the federal Conservative Party identified South Asian immigrant communities as potential growth areas for a socially conservative, pro-business party. Canada’s immigration policies strongly favor the admission of professional, highly educated entrepreneurs — who are increasingly finding themselves ideologically at odds with younger activists who purport to represent them politically on the basis of skin color, and who historically have made common cause with unions and left-wing academic movements.

That said, Ontario’s left will have one consolation if Ford wins: However long he remains premier, the man likely will never lead the whole country. No former premier has become prime minister since Sir John Thompson and Sir Charles Tupper both managed the trick (briefly) in the late 19th century. That’s because the most powerful and enduring forms of Canadian populism are geographic. In short, Canadian populists generally don’t demagogue on the basis of race. They demagogue on the basis of region — from Quebecois politicians’ attacks on Anglo Canada to western populists who claim the east doesn’t understand them.

So whatever happens in Ontario’s June election, leftist elites in the rest of Canada can, for now, continue to enjoy their Veuve Clicquot.

Jonathan Kay is a Toronto-based author and journalist. He is a former managing editor at Canada's National Post newspaper. Twitter: @jonkay

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