Canada’s political polarization rises, kills image of moderation
TORONTO For a country with a global reputation for politeness, it was a startling finding: A recent poll by Ottawa-based Abacus Data found that a quarter of Canadians say they “hate” their political opponents.
With national elections looming this year, supporters of highly partisan political and protest groups are attacking classical liberal and conservative values and challenging Canada’s self-image as a bastion of political moderation particularly compared with its big neighbor to the south.
Political polarization has risen dramatically in Canada, said Akaash Maharaj, CEO of the Mosaic Institute, a Toronto-based center that promotes multicultural diversity.
“The moderate middle has largely disappeared. Increasingly, political rhetoric is used to incite rage against opponents and fear of electing another party,” he said.
John Carpay, president of the Calgary, Alberta-based Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms, said the rise in partisan battles in government and the courts is in part a reaction against the “new liberalism” that many see as trying to suppress traditional values, beliefs and cultural practices.
Founded in 2010, the center has defended “traditional” Christian values against what Mr. Carpay says is oppression by “progressives.” When Alberta’s provincial agency turned down a Christian couples’ application to adopt a child because the couple said they would teach their child biblical principles against same-sex unions and premarital sex, the center supported a successful fight to reverse the decision.
However, the center failed when a Christian university in British Columbia applied for accreditation to open a law school. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled against the school because it required students to abstain from premarital and same-sex relationships. Despite the ruling, the university produces teachers and Canadian law societies accept graduates from religious-affiliated American universities such as Brigham Young and presumably from law schools in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Carpay said.
A series of events have put a dent in Canada’s reputation as a refuge for tolerance.
In 2017, a mob of screaming protesters forced the cancellation of a debate between University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson and his critics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
“Twenty years ago, people would protest, but not with vicious attacks and ruthlessness that forces people from their jobs and stops them from being heard,” Mr. Carpay said. “We’ve gone backwards in terms of freedom of expression.”
Pollster David Coletto, CEO of Abacus, said surveys show that Canadians are becoming more polarized in their opinions but not in their voting patterns. In 2015, about 6 percent of the popular vote switched from the Conservatives to the Liberals and gave Justin Trudeau, arguably the country’s most globalist and anti-populist prime minister ever, a majority government. Last year, a similar switch of 6 percent of the electorate gave a majority government in Ontario to Canada’s most populist and conservative politician, Premier Doug Ford.
Canada held its most recent vote just before Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and the success of conservative, anti-immigration parties across Europe. The structure of party divisions in Canada’s parliamentary system has kept the political chasms from opening even wider, analysts say.
“If it wasn’t for the success of the centrist Liberals, Canadian politics would be polarized like the split in the U.S. between Democrats and Republicans,” said David McGrane, a political science professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
But populist themes such as skepticism about the benefits of immigration are playing an increasing role in Canadian politics and could be prominent as Mr. Trudeau prepares for national elections that must be held by Oct. 21.
In the past two years, almost 40,000 refugees have entered Canada illegally from the United States, straining social services and giving fuel to politicians calling for tougher border controls and lower immigration quotas.
“Although anti-immigration sentiment exists within the Conservative Party, their most recent successes have come because they embraced the new Canadian vote,” said Kelly Gordon, a political science professor at Montreal’s McGill University.
Quebeckers in particular, she said, are torn between protecting their cultural identity and supporting liberal values of social justice.
Quebecker Maxime Bernier abandoned the federal Conservative Party to form his own group, the People’s Party of Canada. The vast majority of illegal immigrants to Canada 96 percent arrive in Quebec from New York, at a rate of up to 400 a month, and he wants this to stop.
“We want lower immigration and better border security,” he said.
Mr. Trudeau, who is projected to win a second term this year, acknowledges that Canada is not immune to populist themes that have swept the U.S. and many European countries in recent years, but he is betting that the message will have more limited appeal in his country.
“I think one of the big distinctions that we see around the world right now is folks who want to exacerbate, amplify and exaggerate those fears for short-term political gain versus those who are trying to thoughtfully allay those fears,” Mr. Trudeau told The Canadian Press last month.
“Obviously, it’s easier to spook someone than it is to explain a complex answer,” he said. “But I fundamentally believe in trusting citizens’ capacity to be thoughtful about where we’re going ... and that is what I am going to be putting forward as a vision for our politics, for our country and, by extension, I think for the whole world.”
A new generation of conservative media has contributed to the sharpening lines of ideological debate.
A Fox News-like network founded in 2011 folded four years later, but a right-wing online newspaper, The Rebel, launched to greater success in 2015. Modeled on Breitbart News, The Rebel has survived controversies and political attacks and now has over 1 million subscribers.
Some say that, despite Canadians’ self-image, the country has been no stranger to fiery political battles on issues of race, immigration, land, military conscription and language.
“It takes a concerted application of selective memory to convince oneself [that] the current period of elevated mutual mistrust is new or unique in our political culture,” Paul Wells, a political analyst for Maclean’s magazine, wrote last month.
“It’s fashionable to wonder every few years whether Canada has lost its innocence. A country in the grip of permanent recurring amnesia is, I guess, forever innocent.”