Trump populism comes to Canada

OTTAWA —

Canada’s answer to Donald Trump is a pediatric surgeon and former cabinet minister who, like the U.S. president-elect, is railing against immigration and political elites.

Kellie Leitch, 46, has vaulted to the front of the race to lead the opposition Conservative Party by pushing a hard-right “Canadian values” platform that taps into discontent over the sluggish economy and Canada’s acceptance of 37,000 Syrian refugees.

Leitch is ahead of about a dozen candidates in the most recent opinion polls on the Conservative leadership election, scheduled to be held on May 27, 2017. The candidate chosen by party members will be their flag bearer for the October 2019 general election, against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

“Elites pretend this isn’t an issue, but Canadians want to talk about it (immigration),” Leitch said in an interview last week from her farmhouse in rural Ontario.

She has professed admiration for Trump’s embrace of the ordinary voter, and acknowledged similarities in their agendas.

“I am talking about screening immigrants, I am talking about building pipelines, I am talking about making sure Canadians have jobs, so yeah, some of the ideas and language are the same,” said Leitch, an energetic and plain-spoken former labor and women’s affairs minister.

Just as Trump did not initially have the backing of mainstream Republicans, Leitch has alienated many in her party establishment who fear that she will struggle to win Canada’s urban, mainly immigrant, voter base in the general election.

One of the reasons why the Conservatives had managed to hold power for almost a decade was their successful push into immigrant communities under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had convinced the party that rising immigration made newcomers a must-win constituency. Canada takes in about 300,000 immigrants every year.

“She may believe that swimming away from the broad center of the Conservative electoral coalition, the one that wins elections, may make sense. History and demographics argue otherwise,” said Hugh Segal, who has known Leitch for more than 25 years. Segal is a former senator and chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Still, a November poll by Mainstreet/Postmedia showed Leitch led a 12-candidate Conservative race with 19 percent support, and separate data showed she led fundraising as well. The pool of candidates running has since swelled to 14, and more may join, including businessman and reality TV star Kevin O’Leary, who has also drawn comparisons to Trump.

“There is absolutely room for a populist surprise in Canada,” said pollster Frank Graves of EKOS Research. “The type of forces driving Brexit and Trump are very much at work in Canada, albeit somewhat more muted.”

In a year marked by ultra-conservative movements in Europe and the United States, Leitch’s vault from relative obscurity to Conservative front-runner is in part boosted by media fascination with the parallels between her “Canadian values” and Trump’s “Make America great again.”

Like Trump, Leitch has been accused of being racist and targeting Muslims with her proposal to make every immigrant go through a face-to-face interview before letting them in. She denies those charges, and says her screening plan is aimed at ensuring each immigrant is a good fit for Canada.

“Even if my colleagues are concerned about the backlash of the media or other elites, that’s okay with me because I’m quite comfortable ... I don’t view it as racist in any way,” said Leitch, a practicing Catholic from the traditionally conservative, oil-rich province of Alberta.

Trudeau was elected in October 2015 and promised to accept more Syrian refugees more quickly than the Conservatives, who had been in power for nearly 10 years. But his timeline proved too ambitious, and sparked public criticism that the government was too rushed to adequately screen refugees for security concerns.

Amid dissatisfaction with the economy and other issues, Trudeau’s approval rating has fallen 10 percentage points to 55 percent in the last three months, according to a December Angus Reid poll, though he remained more popular than any recent prime minister.

While much can change in the next three years before the general election, Graves, the pollster, said a Conservative victory is possible in part because Canada’s economic malaise has sparked the same kind of working class resentment that helped propel Trump to victory.

Canada’s economy has been hurt by a two-year slump in oil prices, weak business investment and disappointing non-energy exports. The economy contracted in October and the manufacturing sector logged its biggest decline in nearly three years.

“The reason Trump got his momentum is he was the only candidate who was prepared to talk about immigration,” said Martin Collacott, a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, a Conservative think-tank, and a former ambassador. “If Kellie Leitch plays it right, and refines her message, she could probably get quite a bit of support.”

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2017.

Author Infomation

REUTERS
REUTERS
  • 3

    Jay Tee

    Canada really does act like America, Jr. sometimes. Wish they could be smarter than we are.

  • 5

    rainyday

    It is worth noting that an appeal to Trump style racism (though nowhere near as overt) was a big reason the Conservatives lost in 2015. Canada ain't perfect, but this type of ignorant BS doesn't sell well politically north of the border and I doubt Leitch is going to catch on.

  • 1

    Onniyama

    Yep. The plunge in oil prices and the struggling economy can clearly be blamed on the immigrants. There might just be enough rednecks in Canada for her to be successful.

  • 1

    qwertyjapan

    Racism? What racism?

  • 6

    1glenn

    Chump's racism successfully won him the Electoral College. The people chose Clinton. God help us all.

  • -2

    MsDelicious

    Most of those Syrians will probably head South. Trump needs to build a wall on that border.

  • 2

    Strangerland

    Most of those Syrians will probably head South.

    Why would they ever want to do that? It makes zero sense whatsoever.

  • -3

    bass4funk

    Chump's racism successfully won him the Electoral College. The people chose Clinton. God help us all.

    If we can endure Obama for 8 years, the left can endure Trump for 8.

  • 1

    Athletes

    Most of those Syrians will probably head South.

    Most of those Syrians will be never settled in South. 30 per cent of adults from South are unemployed and surviving with food vouchers.

    South has no universal health care like O Canada. If those people get sick there, it will be nightmare for them.

  • -1

    Aly Rustom

    Like Trump, Leitch has been accused of being racist and targeting Muslims with her proposal to make every immigrant go through a face-to-face interview before letting them in.

    Gee. I wonder why....

    Even if my colleagues are concerned about the backlash of the media or other elites, that’s okay with me because I’m quite comfortable ... I don’t view it as racist in any way,” said Leitch, a practicing Catholic from the traditionally conservative, oil-rich province of Alberta.

    You may not view it as racist, but it is.

    The reason Trump got his momentum is he was the only candidate who was prepared to talk about immigration,”

    No. The reason Trump got his momentum is he was the only candidate who was prepared to cater to racists, sexists, and all around general bigots. And even with that, he only won because of the electoral college AND voter suppression.

    Most of those Syrians will probably head South.

    That is ridiculous.

    She's not going to get in. I've lived a long tiime in both the US and Canada, and they are VERY VERY different countries with very different demographics. And the economy doing bad is not Trudeau's fault. It is the fault of Harper and the stupid right-wing policies he put Canada through. Trudeau hasn't had time to fix Harper's mess yet. He can't be blamed for the economy- he hasn't been in long enough.

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