The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

We ignore anti-elitist sentiment in Canada at our peril, says Preston Manning

Manning says economic uncertainty and concern over immigration is feeding populist sentiments which, unless acknowledged, could lead to a populist revolt here in Canada.
Preston Manning says it would be a mistake to think that a populist movement could not succeed in Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

This week, British Prime Minister Theresa May invoked Article 50, which sparked the beginning of the end of the country's membership in the European Union. It was a major victory for UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, which led a populist movement to close the country's borders.

And, of course, we have been transfixed by the ongoing spectacle of President Trump, who came to power with the slogan "America First."

Preston Manning wants us all to take note — and to realize that Canada is not immune to the rise of populist anger.

This country has had populist movements in the past, virtually since its inception. I don't think the central Canadian elites have ever understood populism at all, particularly the Western version of it.- Preston Manning

He is the founder and director of the Manning Centre, a think-tank that supports Conservative ideas and activism. He is also the former leader of the Reform Party and the former Member of Parliament for Calgary Southwest.

He spoke to Michael Enright from Calgary.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Michael Enright: Give me an example of where you see this now in Canada.

Preston Manning: We did a poll in January in Alberta, asking "Does Alberta need a Trump-like leader?" Sixty per cent said no, but 40 per cent said yes. Surprisingly among millennials, it was about 50/50.

ME: So it was a very encouraging result. Sixty per cent is pretty good.

PM: Yes, but you can elect a government with 40 per cent. The Edelman people do a regular survey asking, to what extent do you trust certain institutions? Between 2016 and 2017, there was a 10 per cent drop in trust of governments and trust of the mass media.

ME: Manifested how?

PM: They don't think governments can fix anything, and they don't think governments understand what regular folks are going through. This country has had a populist movements in the past. I don't think the central Canadian elites have ever understood populism, particularly the Western version of it. So it shouldn't surprise people if it manifests itself again.

ME: Let's just explore that for a moment. I think the last time there was an overt populist uprising was against the National Energy Program in the West. People were furious about it. They were angry at the east and the elites. There was the whole "the West wants in" movement in the 80s. I put it to you that today, the evidence of populism is restricted to your one little poll in Alberta and it doesn't exist anywhere else.
The late Toronto mayor Rob Ford was a populist leader. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

PM: No, I'd say the election of Rob Ford in Toronto -- good old establishment Toronto -- was a populist movement. He was a bottom-up guy.

I think there are two causes. You get large numbers of people becoming alienated from major institutions and the people that lead them: government, academia, the media. And then, that alienation is aggravated by negative economic conditions.

In the Edelman poll, one out of two Canadians say that the influx of people from other countries is damaging their economic prospects and culture. These are union people who fear that low wage immigrants will displace them at their higher wages. It's out there, and it has to be recognized and discussed.

ME: First of all I don't know where it's not being discussed. And secondly there's a plethora of polls that show that immigration adds to the economic well-being of a country.
Trump supporters in Los Angeles. (Ringo Chiu/Reuters)

PM: But your challenge, Michael, is to convince the ordinary guy who's afraid he's going to be displaced. The polls show one out of two people don't believe immigration adds to economic well-being. And they particularly don't believe it when they're told it's true by media and political elites.

ME: When you talk about populist movements, there are elements within them, as you know, being a student of history, that are distasteful, in fact downright offensive. You had Father Charles Coughlin in the thirties who was a notorious anti-Semite, but had 30 million people a week listening to him. Huey Long was a populist, but again he catered to some pretty disreputable figures. What is the line between being a racist and being a populist?

PM: Well, I think there are unsavoury aspects to populism. And I think one needs to deplore those, but I think one needs to focus more on the root causes of that alienation, rather than fixating on just the negative eccentricities of it.
Huey Long was a populist who had a somewhat unsavoury following. ( From the Harris & Ewing collection at the Library of Congress (Wikimedia Commons))

ME: You're using the word alienation. I'm using the word racism. You had to deal with that in the Reform Party and you did deal with it.

PM: One of the ways you don't deal with it, is just try to shut it up, to suppress it. You want to get it out in the open where it can be dealt with, and subjected to social pressures.

ME: In the most recent international happiness index, Canada ranked number seven, well ahead of the United States. Why is that? If we're all so upset and not being listened to and all that?

PM: Well, I mean some people are happy, but I think if you go along with my premise that what populism is about is alienation in large numbers of people, but aggravated and provoked by a deteriorating economic conditions, in Canada, three of them...and these are more in central Canada, in Ontario, than they are in the West. One is unaffordability of housing. There's increasing numbers of people who've figured out they'll never be able to own a home of their own.

ME:  In Vancouver, as well.

PM:  In Vancouver and particularly in Toronto. There's these skyrocketing utility bills in Ontario, where large numbers of people are saying, despite all the talk of why what the Wynne government's doing is good for us and beneficial to the planet and everything else, there are old people that can't pay the utility bills, and they're getting angry and upset about that. And then the third is this one that you referred to earlier, of union members afraid of low-wage immigrants taking their jobs.

You add those three things up and there's potential there for this populist phenomena rooted in those three things. And I just think we just have to recognize it and try to deal with it, rather than deny it or simply decry the negative aspects of it.

ME: What are the consequences if populist leaders turn out to be all talk and very little action? President Trump has had a rather disastrous first 60 days. If his government cannot bring back all those industrial jobs, the so-called high paying jobs, what are the consequences of that?

PM: Well I think you deepen the alienation and the disillusionment with the institutions of government. I think that's the danger.

There aren't many Canadians -- in fact, I can maybe think of one or two -- who have a centre named after them. Are you an elitist, Mr. Manning?

PM: (laughs) No. Well I hope not. I'm not knocking elites. What I am expressing a concern about, is that when you ignore these forces down below, and the regular folks who don't think those people represent them, that's a political danger.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's interview with Preston Manning. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?