The political brawl over 'woke' is about everything and nothing
The meaning of the word has been stretched beyond recognition — but it may not matter
Addressing the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked some of the criticism his government has gotten lately from the Conservative opposition.
"They either say investing in Canadians is a waste of money or that our policies are too woke," he said. "Too woke?"
He continued, directing his gaze at the TV camera perched on a riser in the middle of the room: "Hey, Pierre Poilievre. It's time for you to wake up."
The crowd in the convention hall cheered as Trudeau listed a series of policies that were, in his telling, merely good and sensible.
Those Liberals may have been pleased to hear their leader pushing back against this line of attack. And Trudeau might be happy to have this fight.
But grappling with the pejorative use of the word "woke" at this point could be like trying to box a shadow. Because whatever it originally meant, woke has become a way to say something without saying anything.
According to new survey data from Pollara, 57 per cent of Canadians claim to have at least a general idea of what woke means. But less than 27 per cent of all Canadians say they could explain the term to someone else (Pollara deliberately did not offer a definition to survey respondents when it conducted the poll). And it stands to reason that, even in that group, there are different definitions in use.
(Dan Arnold, Pollara's chief strategy officer, was director of research for the Trudeau government from 2015 to 2021.)
The term originated among Black Americans decades ago and came to mean being socially and politically conscious of injustices. It has gradually slipped into the mainstream over the last 20 years, carried along in part by the Black Lives Matter protests that originated in the United States.
At present, the Merriam-Webster dictionary describes woke as an adjective that means "aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)."
But the word also became part of America's culture wars in recent years, its meaning turned around to mock those seen as excessively or performatively committed to advocating for equality or other social causes.
Eventually, that backlash spread north. Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole used the term during a video call with young Conservatives in 2020 when discussing a plan to rename the former Ryerson University because of its namesake's association with residential schools.
Since succeeding O'Toole as leader, Poilievre has embraced the word even more enthusiastically, while stretching its meaning even further.
The many, many things that are 'woke'
In an email to supporters last June, Poilievre said the Liberal government's "obsession with woke culture" had made university campuses inhospitable to those with differing viewpoints.
Subsequent messages from Poilievre and his party have used "woke" in the context of Bill C-11, legislation that will apply Canadian content regulations to major Internet platforms (Conservatives say it will be used to "censor" Canadians). Other Conservative messages have broadly invoked the Trudeau government's supposedly "radical woke agenda."
In the House of Commons, Poilievre has used the word to describe the CRTC, mayors whose housing policies he opposes, and a culture that allegedly is driving people away from military service. On Thursday, Poilievre said Trudeau's woke "ideology" explained the government's changes to the passport.
More common sense, less woke nonsense. <br><br>Let’s <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BringItHome?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BringItHome</a> <a href="https://t.co/Rrm1hzcjCS">pic.twitter.com/Rrm1hzcjCS</a>—@PierrePoilievre
In his remarks at the Liberal convention, Trudeau mentioned a few examples of policies and actions that he seemed to think Poilievre might find too woke: a gender-balanced cabinet, reducing poverty, expanding access to affordable child care.
"Let me tell you something — $10-a-day child care is not woke policy. It's economic policy," he said.
But Poilievre didn't mention any of those things in a video he posted to Twitter the next morning. Instead, after referring to Trudeau's "woke ways," the Conservative leader listed a series of concerns: the Liberal government's latest gun control measures and the decriminalization of simple drug possession in British Columbia, pricing carbon emissions and the prime minister going on vacation, an increase in spending on the public service and the recent public service strike.
It's possible Poilievre was trying to suggest these examples somehow showed hypocrisy on Trudeau's part. But it's fair to say the legendary blues singer Lead Belly probably didn't have any of those things in mind when he told Black Americans to "stay woke" in 1938.
In Poilievre's interpretation, woke serves as little more than a catch-all term for whatever conservative politicians and commentators happen to oppose at the moment — much the way "socialism" used to be wielded as a weapon against progressive proposals.
How Canadians feel about woke (and other words)
But even if his own definition isn't clear — and even if most people couldn't tell you what woke means — Poilievre might still be speaking to a receptive audience.
According to Pollara, 31 per cent of Canadians who have at least heard the word think woke is "usually" a "bad thing," while 16 per cent think it's usually a "good thing."
Among Conservative voters, the split is even more stark — just five per cent say woke is good, while 57 per cent say it's bad. Bloc Quebecois voters feel similarly, with seven per cent saying good and 50 per cent saying bad.
Liberal and NDP voters are much more inclined to view "woke" as a good thing — 31 per cent of Liberal supporters and 36 per cent of NDP voters like the word. But even those parties must contend with voters who think there's something "bad" about being woke — 14 per cent among Liberals, 13 per cent among New Democrats.
The woke wants to delete Mother’s Day.<br><br>This ugly and weird ideology—which Trudeau endorsed at his party convention—wants to delete everything except the state which would control everything and everyone.<a href="https://t.co/cW1Ts50eqm">https://t.co/cW1Ts50eqm</a>—@PierrePoilievre
Nationally, just 25 per cent of Canadians consider themselves woke, including only 14 per cent of Quebecers — which might explain why Trudeau decided to defend himself against Poilievre's attacks last week.
But while many Canadians understand woke to be a bad thing, they maintain a positive view of other words associated with social justice causes. According to Pollara, "Black Lives Matter" had a net good/bad rating of plus-35, while pride flags were plus-34. Feminism, #MeToo, allyship and affirmative action were plus-30, plus-28, plus-26 and plus-21, respectively.
Canadians seem to suspect that there's something different about being woke even as they broadly support the sorts of causes that, once upon a time, would have been associated with wokeness.
How Poilievre defines woke
During debate on C-11 in late March, Liberal MP Jenica Atwin asked Poilievre how he would define "woke."
"Woke has one purpose and only one purpose. It has plenty of pretexts but only one purpose: control," Poilievre responded. "It is designed to divide people by race, gender, ethnicity, religion, vaccine status and any other way one can divide people into groups. Why? It is because then one can justify having a government to control all those groups."
Poilievre's references to race and gender might seem to point back to woke's official definition and the backlash to it. But other than the apparent reference to vaccine mandates, Poilievre didn't link his definition to any specific federal policies.
And it's not obvious how this definition would line up with the examples that the Conservative leader cited in his video response to Trudeau's speech. (Poilievre's office did not respond to an email seeking further explanation.)
Many federal policies take into account race, gender or ethnicity. The Liberal government has promised to address systemic discrimination in the justice system. Statistics Canada has been provided with funding to improve its gathering of disaggregated data on race, gender and sexual orientation. A dedicated fund has been created to support Black entrepreneurs. Trudeau's office has also prioritized diversity in federal appointments. Federal budgets are now subject to gender-based analysis.
Are any of those policies too woke? What exactly is woke about the Trudeau government and how precisely would a Poilievre government be different?
In the absence of actual specifics, the word isn't much more than a schoolyard taunt. And if there is a fight to be had here, the first step would seem to be getting those who use the word to explain exactly what they think it means.
Pollara conducted an online survey of 2,000 Canadians between April 17 and April 28. For comparison purposes only, a probabilistic sample of the same size would yield a margin of error of +/- 2.2%, 19 times out of 20.