Is There A Place For Populist Far-right Parties in Canada?

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Right-wing populism has been sweeping through the world’s elections over the last 20 years. The Guardian reported in 2018 that one in four Europeans votes for a populist party. [1]   Alarming those not aligned with the often-divisive rhetoric tools of such parties, right-wing populist governments have been formed in Japan, Brazil, Colombia, India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and the United Kingdom. Even the United States elected right-wing populist President Donald Trump in 2016. Canadians may need to finally ask ourselves what the recent emergence of extreme-right populist parties here mean for our country and if Canada is ready for them.

We all want to be represented in democratic politics

Canada’s voters are a profoundly-diverse community with a wide spectrum of beliefs and priorities. The views of some include ideas others consider abhorrent or even dangerous, but this 2019 federal election features the People’s Party of Canada which has thrust its far-right populist views into each of Canada’s 338 electoral districts. Claiming over 33,800 members, the party has put forward a loosely-aligned cohort of candidates with libertarian, nationalist, protectionist, and Christian-right views.

Criticized for cozy associations with extreme-right groups across Canada, its partisans have been campaigning on fear and resentment in the darkest corners of society and the internet for months. The party has been stirring up populist anger in the electoral segments most receptive to their message and has just seen its leader Maxime Bernier invited to the official all-candidates debate.

What populism is

The rhetoric of populism often consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the perceived establishment, and speaking to the “common people”. While both so-called right-wing and left-wing populism object to what they see as the capturing of liberal democracies by elites, the distinctive themes for left-wing populists usually include anti-capitalism, social and climate justice, and pacifism while populism of the right focuses its attention on ethnic and other minorities, as well as vulnerable groups. It targets other people because of who they are.

Two new parties participating in the 2019 Canadian federal election fall squarely within the definition of right-wing populism. Targeting people as the problem their platform proposes to address, they put forward candidates with a history of taking divisive positions as they target the people they blame for the trouble they propose they can solve. They campaign on promises to rescind existing rights, ranging from promises to roll back human rights protections to pledges to curtail access to abortion.

Giving permission to hate

A concern related to the emergence of populist-right parties is their lending credibility to divisive stances on wedge issues by expanding the envelope of what conduct is deemed acceptable in Canada. There are concerns that that the divisive rhetoric will be reflected in hate-motivated violence on the ground.

Sadly, the evidence supports this fear. Islamophobia monitoring group Tell Mama reported in September 2019 that following UK prime minister Boris Johnson comparing women wearing the veil to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes” in a UK newspaper, anti-Muslim incidents increased by 375 percent within a week. [4] Similarly, the Washington Post reported a 220% increase in hate crimes in U.S. Counties that hosted a Trump Rally. These findings confirm concerns that politicians enraging the population bring real consequences.

At a time when hate crimes reported to police are up 47% year-on-year and 83% since 2013, the worryingly steady rise of violent white nationalist extremism in Canada demands our attention to addressing the root cause of their increases. [6]

Diversity of views enriches a democracy

People who hold discriminatory views that are too divisive for mainstream politics still do seek political office,and should be allowed to do so in any advanced democracy. It is an inescapable fact that these ideas speak to a small minority of Canadians, and voters deserve to see themselves on the ballot.

However, Canadians also have the right to free of people inciting hatred against them. Hate propaganda breeds fear. Fear breeds hatred, and hatred breeds violence. Whereas we are all entitled to have our ideas heard in our democratic society, our courts have upheld the right to expression or core belief do not trump another person’s right to participate in society and to our engage in democratic processes.

In order to have the best possible conversation about political ideas, Canadians need certainty that when people who go too far are held accountable. In my eyes, this happens most online and begins with inciting hatred and division through disinformation that targets people because of who they are.

In the political spectrum of Canada today, populist extreme-right parties help steer socially-conservative and extreme-right sentiment away from more mainstream conservative parties, while giving a political home to people who might otherwise not see their values anywhere in our political landscape. This might be a positive impact of such parties, but only if there is no increase in violence or exclusion of Canadians because of it.

No need for Canadians to put up with disinformation or hatred

The emergence of extreme-right parties in Canada can not be allowed to bring with hateful disinformation intended or likely to result in hatred or or discrimination against people because of who they are, especially when on prohibited grounds.

For example, a person publishing content online demonizing, pathologizing, or demonizing a person on peohibited grounds over conduct that would be celebrated or applauded if a person not in the targeted community were being considered is an act of prohibited discrimination in Canada.

In fact, it was upheld as so by Canada’s supreme court in 2013 in a complaint by the Saskatchewan government against Bill Whatcott, the anti-abortion and anti-LGBT activist whose actions targeting me because I am transgender led in my successful complaint at the BC Human Rights Tribunal.[16][13][14]

Such rules should apply to what is said on the internet, but sadly because hate propaganda laws only apply to physically published material, anything can be said online that is not libel or criminal.

Online in Canada today, misogynist, racist, transphobic, or any other supremacist hatred are allowed, including in the political discourse as long as it does not incite genocide or violence.

Address difference of hate rules online and in print

If Canada is going to have populist extremists of any stripes engaged in our political discourse, Canadians need clearly-set consequences to stop people from going to far online. We need an effective legal framework that will help protect us from the consequences of hatred online so hate propaganda can not be used as a political tool.

Civil legislation addressing online hatred was rescinded by Parliament in 2013 from the Canadian Human Rights Act. [9] This left Canadians to rely on the criminal code and on tort legislation covering defamation for protection from hatred online. Because the criminal code brings very serious consequences, it has a much more demanding test than the civil code. As a result, very few complaints have resulted in a conviction for inciting hatred. This is in sharp contrast to the provincial protections such as section 7 of the BC Human Rights Code which addresses discriminatory publications but excludes transmitted material on jurisdictional grounds. [10]

Canadians need measures to help keep people accountable for what they say regardless of the medium, and the conduct of partisans online during current election shows that we need them urgently.

Better with extremists out of mainstream parties

Because mainstream parties actively work to keep their message palatable to voters, they dilute the sometimes not-widely-popular rhetoric of more extremist politicians within their fold by managing the message. Extremist opinions, votes are whipped, and controversial opinions are kept out of sight. That is the price paid by people whose views are far more divisive than a party is willing to advertise they tolerate.

However, such candidates bring voters who agree with them – at a price. Too often, the cost of their participation in the party and for the support of the voters they bring is accommodation for their views in caucus. Candidates whose more-extremist views are lurking just out of sight of those not quite in the know still influence mainstream parties they get themselves elected with in ways that are not always transparent to the electorate.

To succeed, politicians who do this keep their base’s motives out of the public eye by avoiding the limelight, trading off visible power with quiet influence within the caucus or cabinet. I ran into this during the campaign to add gender identity or expression human rights law, when the roadblocks were clearly known for years and a handful of socially-conservative representatives in Cabinet, the backbenches, or the Senate blocked progress for years on deeply-ideological grounds.

In the recent past, socially-conservative politicians with far-from-mainstream views have leveraged the ability of culturally-isolated communities to act as a block and won seats for mainstream parties where their political base votes. Once in office, there have been cases where such politicians have exerted their influence with less-than-transparent methods. [8]

By helping nudge extremist politicians out of mainstream parties into their own fringe party, it reduces pressure for the main parties to pander to the edge. PPC’s departure from the Conservatives helped the Conservative Party of Canada clarify its positions on social issues that it was criticized over – from abortion to SOGI rights. The PPC proudly clamour their intention to withdraw human rights law and re-open abortion rights in Canada, while the Conservative Party has now clearly closed the door on this possibility.[15]

Populist extremism is more accountable in its own political party

Knowing what some candidates stand for because their party holds a platform or because their colleagues campaign on an issue helps pressure individual candidates to speak openly to voters on it. This helps them evaluate their political options. Without extreme-right and populist parties to rally around for their common cause, political hopefuls with extreme-right and socially-conservative or nationalist values have no choice but to participate through the established mainstream parties or risk withering on the vine as independent candidates. Parties that reflect their values and campaign on them add transparency and clarity.

Disinformation and discriminatory conduct cause harm

If it is kept within a tolerable envelope governed by meaningful, measured, and effective legislation, the shrill of divisive extremist rhetoric can be kept down to a pitch and volume that does not cause harm. This is an acceptable price to pay for enabling truly diverse opinions to be aired in the political arena and for bringing political ideas to the light of day.

Transparency and civility ensure politicians stand proudly next to the policies they hope to enact -whether or not they are popular. Allowing divisive ideas to be expressed within the constraints of hate laws diffuses claim that dissenting views are treated unfairly or even censored, while protecting people who are targeted by the people who are encouraged by excessively violent rhetoric to act out against those it target.

If there really is sufficient support for populist politics to be growing in Canada’s political edges to get anyone elected who represents such views, Canada will withstand one or two elected representatives whose motives are transparently communicated to the entire country.

Having one or more of these elected representatives in our legislatures will provide a healthier alternative to an increasingly alienated fringe than gravitates towards the mesmerizing flame of violent extremist militancy. As we are increasingly learn from the evidence of the harm caused radicalized religion and other supremacism, the worst they can do to us all is very bad after all.

However, to keep Canadians safe, a broad diversity of voices requires effective tools to keep them civil.

We need rules that work

There is a real need to accommodate the ability of all voices to express themselves in truly pluralistic democracies, including the ones that urge people to blame others for our society’s problems. Canada enacted measures clearly delimiting where the limit on free expression lies on publications.

The medium for all discourse in Canada is now predominantly online. Everything online falls under federal jurisdiction and since section 13 of the Human Rights Act was rescinded, human rights laws governing hate propaganda don’t exist in Canada.

The House of Commons Standing Committee On Justice And Human Rights has been studying hatred online and issued a report on the matter in 2019. I was one of the witnesses who testified before the committee in support of measures to reign in hatred online.

Canada needs civil recourse to let people meaningfully addresses acts of discrimination online. At the very least, the laws we apply to books,posters, or flyers should apply to online publications. It makes little sense such rules do not apply online. Canada needs to set meaningful limits to what discriminatory publications can be published online. This remains a prerequisite to extremist populist politicians adding anything meaningful or credible to Canada’s political discourse.

I very much hope whoever forms Canada’s next federal government will heed the recommendations set out by the House of Commons Justice committee in Its 2019 report “Taking Action To End Online Hate”. [12] It’s about time Canada have the controls in place to allow the full political spectrum to be heard without enabling harm to Canadians because of who they are.


[1] The Guardian: One in Four Europeans vote populist

[2] Vancouver Sun: Duelling SOGI rallies heated in Vancouver, but no major violence

[3] Wikipedia: Right-Wing Populism

[4] The National: Boris Johnson linked to biggest spike in UK Islamophobia in 2018

[5] Washington Post: Counties that hosted a 2016 Trump rally saw a 226 percent increase in hate crimes

[6] Statistics Canada: Police-reported hate crime, 2017

[7] CBC Docs: Skin Head

[8] Globe and Mail: It’s time for Christy Clark to show solidarity with B.C.’s LGBT community

[9] National Post: Hate speech no longer part of Canada’s Human Rights Act

[10] Province of British Columbia: Human Rights Code

[11] United Nations Development Programme: PREVENTING VIOLENT EXTREMISM THROUGH PROMOTING INCLUSIVE DEVELOPMENT, TOLERANCE AND RESPECT FOR DIVERSITY

[12] JUST COMMITTEE REPORT TAKING ACTION TO END ONLINE HATE

[13] Vancouver Sun: Anti-gay activist ordered to pay $55,000 to B.C. trans candidate in fight over hateful flyer

[14] BC Human Rights Tribunal: Oger v. Whatcott (No. 7), 2019 BCHRT 58

[15] CBC: ‘I am personally pro-life,’ Scheer says, vowing not to re-open abortion debate

[16] Supreme Court Of Canada: Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v. Whatcott, [2013] 1 SCR 467, 2013 SCC 11

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