Canadians say country split between ordinary folks and elites. But what is an elite?

The term 'elite' has increasingly become one of the dirty words of politics. But why has it gained such traction as a political insult? And what exactly does it mean, anyway?

Canadian politicians have a long history of utilizing the concept for political advantage

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a wealthy businessman who has used the term 'elite' to disparage his political opponents, says elitism has nothing to do with money.  (Albert Leung/CBC)

This story is part of a series, called On Guard for Me: The Uneasy Canadian, digging into the results of a CBC News-commissioned online poll of 4,500 Canadians ahead of the October federal election.

Between bites of his free hamburger at last Saturday's Ford Fest celebration north of Toronto — an annual barbecue hosted by the family of Ontario Premier Doug Ford — 65-year-old Tony Laino provided a concise answer when asked who he considers the "elites" of society.

"Those that think they're better than me," he said. "Because I don't espouse their beliefs."

That's one definition, anyway.

The label "elites" seems to get flung around the political arena constantly these days. It's become one of the dirty words of politics.

It's also a term that resonates with many Canadians, particularly in an era when political populism seems to be gaining ground. A new CBC poll suggests nearly 80 per cent of Canadians either strongly or somewhat agree with the statement: "My country is divided between ordinary people and elites."

But what exactly does it mean? And why has it gained such traction as a political insult?

Tony Laino, a retired information management consultant, says elites can be defined as 'those that think they're better' than him. (Albert Leung/CBC)

"It's become such an elastic term, it's become useless as a classification," said Sean Speer, a sessional instructor and senior fellow in public policy at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

As history professor Beverly Gage noted in a 2017 New York Times column, the word is still seen in a positive light when used as an adjective — an elite athlete, for example. But it takes on a nefarious meaning when used as a noun and "has become one of the nastiest epithets in American politics."

It's been used frequently by U.S. President Donald Trump, but it's also been a rallying cry for many Canadian politicians, including Ford and former prime minister Stephen Harper, who would often take shots at the "liberal elite."

Historically, the term "elite" seemed to have a connection to the rich. Politicians of all stripes have often tried to show off their working-class bona fides, regardless of their personal wealth.

In his initial foray onto the political stage, former prime minister Brian Mulroney was branded as the "Boy from Baie Comeau," Que., downplaying his role as president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, said Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies, who served as the director of policy and research for the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

Mulroney's former Liberal rival, Jean Chrétien, who amassed great wealth in the private sector and would also go on to become prime minister, was promoted as the "little guy from Shawinigan."

"So it's always been there," Powers said. "I think the right really co-opted it with more vigour under Stephen Harper."

'We want to look average'

Powers said by 2006, when the Conservatives under Harper were trying to unseat Prime Minister Paul Martin, the party had done a lot of research looking at how people identified themselves. 

In an appeal to the middle class, he said, the Conservatives ran a series of what can be described as low-budget commercials.

"The whole plot point of those commercials, as I recall hearing the rationale behind the advertising, was, 'We want to look average. So, not elite. We want to contrast ourselves to Paul Martin, the shipping magnate."

The term, or concept anyway, would continue to be used to score political points. Another of Harper's Liberal opponents, Michael Ignatieff, was portrayed as an out-of-touch elitist in the 2011 federal election. 

Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had to deflect barbs from the Tories about being a "trust fund baby." 

"It's been pretty commonplace because most people would prefer to self-identify as being with the 'us' as opposed to the 'them,' because the 'them' are the elites and the people who get an advantage," Powers said.

He suspects the increased potency of going against the so-called elite in recent years comes from the reaction of people who have "drank the populist elixir" for their concerns about globalism, economic inequality, and being left out of jobs and opportunity.

"I think it's become more and more politically valuable to talk about elitism," he said, "because it also now means you recognize there is an advantage afforded to elites that wasn't there before."

The same CBC poll suggests 52 per cent of Canadians either strongly or somewhat agree with the statement: "The government doesn't do anything for me."

During the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives tried to portray Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff as an out-of-touch elitist. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Speer, who was the research assistant on Harper's book Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption, suggested one segment of the population feels particularly ignored by the political system — people without a post-secondary education.

And populist politicians like Trump have been able to tap into their frustrations and fuel the divide, he said.

Nothing to do with money

But Speer believes the results of the CBC survey may reflect a confusion about what's happening in this country.

"I think people would be shocked to discover where they fit in the broader Canadian society," he said. "A significant number of them, based on income status, would be quote, unquote elite."

However, that's where the subjectivity of the term comes into play. Would "elite" not apply to the same wealthy politicians like Ford and Trump who use it to disparage their opponents? 

Laino, the Ford Fest attendee and a retired information management consultant, says no. It doesn't have to do with money.

"Donald Trump is a super wealthy guy and he's not an elite by any means," he said. "It's attitude."

Ford made similar comments when asked to define the term while appearing on CBC's Metro Morning in March 2018. 

WATCH| Doug Ford provides his definition of the "elite"

Doug Ford on Metro Morning

6 years ago
Duration 9:08
Newly elected Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford speaks with Metro Morning guest host David Common.

"People that look down on the common folk, the people that think they're smarter than other people ... they just think they're better, they're smarter, and they can tell the common folk how to live their lives," he said. "And they drink their little bottle or glass of champagne with their pinky up in the air. That's what an elite is."

Elitism has nothing to do with money, Ford said. "Half of them don't have two pennies to rub together. They think they're something that they aren't."

But Amanda Galbraith, a principal with the public strategy and communications firm Navigtor Ltd., said the word may actually be losing some of its political punch.

"I do think it's kind of reached the point now where it is sort of white noise, because who defines elites? Everybody's using the term."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.