In a sensational front page headline recently, the National Post proclaimed that a “towering majority” of Canadians believe “Canada is Broken”.[i] This claim apparently rests on a single public opinion poll. Moreover the poll was taken at the height of the Wet’suwet’en/Coastal Gas Link dispute, when a number of rail blockades were established across the country by sympathetic indigenous and environmental groups, and some sectors of the economy had been brought to a virtual standstill. The fact many Canadians believed the country was “headed in the wrong direction” at that precise moment in time is hardly surprising. But the relentlessly negative picture painted by the article accompanying the poll is typical of the excessive media hype that seems designed to raise fears. Perhaps more importantly, such one-time snapshots fail to place events in context, or even provide relevant background information. Certainly the hypercritical approach taken in this article fails to recognize the positive elements of the polls’ findings, or to impart meaningful information to citizens in order to help them understand the complexity of the situation.
Such negative coverage also encourages Canadians’ parochial views of their country as one constantly on the verge of national unity crises and the failure of government institutions. Yet, as many European observers have pointed out on numerous occasions, this is not the view of Canada from abroad. Instead, this country is generally regarded by friends and allies as a role model for compromise and consensus, tolerance of diversity, civility and respect for democratic principles. American vice-president Joe Biden echoed those thoughts on a visit to Ottawa in 2016, telling the prime minister that the western democratic world was paying close attention to developments in this country. ”[ii] But in a global environment where many of those values are being called into question, authors such as Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have warned of the growing danger that populism and extremism are posing in other established liberal democracies.[iii]
A brief look at the situation elsewhere confirms that their concern is not exaggerated. While the rise of Vladimir Putin as aspiring dictator-for-life in the former Soviet Union has been a depressing spectacle, it must be recognized that this debacle has occurred in a state which never made the transition to liberal democracy, or democracy of any kind. However the same cannot be said of the former eastern bloc states of Poland and Hungary, which initially seemed to be on track to form healthy democratic systems. Yet today, despite many of the trappings of liberal democracy — including the superficial presence of political parties, “free” elections, legislative bodies and independent media — the reality in those two countries is very different.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban has spent the past ten years successfully advancing a right-wing populist agenda based on anti-immigration rhetoric and a dramatic re-writing of history, creating a state where perversion of the rule of law, corruption, and politically motivated regulatory regimes routinely negate the impact of those democratic institutions. The result is a new kind of authoritarianism: a democratically-elected illiberal regime, one that has been described as a “kleptocracy” promoting “soft fascism.” [iv]
A similar scene is unfolding in Poland, where the Kaczynski brothers first infiltrated “Solidarity”, the original democratic movement of Lech Walensa. They then proceeded to deconstruct most of the recently-established democratic institutions of government, with enthusiastic public support, through a toxic political mix of xenophobia and conspiracy theories. By 2019 Walensa was reduced to disowning Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s far-right populist PiS party by penning an open letter declaring “the government has repeatedly attacked the country’s division of power in ways that seriously imperil the foundations of the democratic state.”[v] But both Orband and Kaczynski’s parties were recently returned to power, albeit with slightly reduced support. Still, both countries remain firmly in the grip of illiberal regimes, as the European Union has recognized on numerous occasions.[vi]
Of course the situation in the established liberal democracies of western Europe is far less grim. But there are still a number of troubling signs that the underpinnings of their democratic societies may be in danger of crumbling under the pressure of populist extremists on both the left and right of the political spectrum. Growing levels of intolerance and rigidly-held views are making political compromise and consensus, the glue of democratic systems, increasingly difficult to achieve.
In France, for example, the “yellow vest” protests have undermined many of the progressive reforms proposed by president Emmanuel Macron and paralyzed much of the political process for two years. As one analyst pointed out, “While the extreme right has increased “anti-immigration operations”, the extreme left is increasingly fronting protests with “Marx or Strike”. Their declared enemies are banks, the police and the state. Extreme Greens are also planning more actions, some of them violent.” [vii] Recognizing this increased violence, and the increase in police interactions with protesters that has resulted, National Intelligence Coordinator Pierre Bousquet de Florian recently warned, “We are facing an unprecedented ‘ensauvagement’ of our society with a degree of violence and rapid rise to hatred.”[viii] This hatred, in turn, has been epitomized by the surprisingly consistent level of support for the populist NR, the far right anti-immigrant party of Marine Le Pen. Having won a shocking 24 of the French delegation’s 74 seats in the previous election to the European Parliament, the NR held on to 23 of those seats in 2019 after the election of Macron.
Across the sea in the United Kingdom the fallout from three years of visceral disagreement and increasingly violent confrontations between Remainers and Brexiteers in public, and among fractious politicians in the previously civilized Westminster parliament, has culminated with the country finally beginning the process of departure from the European Union. But the bitter divisions in British society, and inside both the Conservative and Labour parties, remain. As the polarizing Johnson government moves closer to the year-end deadline for the country’s complete withdrawal – with or without a negotiated agreement – some experts are predicting the imminent collapse and break up of the country’s long-established union as both Northern Ireland and Scotland, strong supporters of the Remain camp, decide to leave. [ix]
Meanwhile in Spain, which once had been seen as a model of democratic reform in the aftermath of the lengthy Franco dictatorship, and then had successfully overcome years of Basque separatist violence through compromise and negotiation, the severe economic crisis of 2008 led to the fragmentation of the political party system and increasingly polarized political discourse. Extreme left and right populist fringe parties emerged, as well as others representing Basque and Catalan nationalists. The subsequent increase in violence in Catalonia has grown in tandem with the national government’s increasingly rigid response, and its problematic decision to imprison the elected politicians governing that region after they conducted a referendum deemed unconstitutional by the courts, all of which has only served to inflame an already tense political climate.[x] This in turn has led to four national elections in the past four years, with no party able to form a government. After nearly three months of wrangling since the November 2019 election, the first coalition government in the post-Franco era has recently been established, but critics are not hopeful that it will last the year. “Chronic political instability in Spain is indeed becoming the new normal: frequent elections, lengthy and sometimes unsuccessful negotiations to form viable majorities, and unstable minority governments supported by a diverse array of parties,” according to Federico Santi, senior analyst at the think-tank Eurasia Group. “This is in sharp contrast to the earlier part of the decade, when Spain had a stable, one-party government during the crucial years of the euro zone crisis. In a sense, Spain is becoming more like Italy in this respect,” Santi said. [xi]
As for Italy, once an economic powerhouse within the EU, the country now finds itself with the worst debt to GDP ratio in the union (134% and counting), and double-digit unemployment rates, as decades of political corruption and uncontrolled organized crime violence have produced a quasi-failed democratic society in which most democratic institutions, including income tax, have lost legitimacy with citizens. From 1945 to 2016 the country’s political instability was highlighted by precarious coalition governments and some 60 elections. By 2018, as in Spain, a number of extremist left and right-wing fringe parties had overtaken the traditional centrist mainstays and further polarized political discourse. The result was an unstable coalition of the far right populist anti-immigrant League (La Liga) and the populist anti-establishment Five Star Movement headed by well-known Italian comedian Beppe Grillo. Barely a year later that coalition had collapsed, a feat which the New York Times described as “turning chaos into crisis.”[xii] A new coalition, this time between the Five Star and a left-wing populist party, was eventually formed but the prognosis for its survival is grim. Meanwhile Italy’s economic crisis has deepened as a result of the ongoing political uncertainty, and the polarization of society has been reinforced by government edicts forcibly preventing migrants from entering the country, ongoing disputes with the European Union and a significant coronavirus outbreak.
Closer to home, a comedian of a different sort is occupying the White House and, to mix metaphors, is fiddling while Rome burns. Donald Trump’s disdain for the lynchipins of the international world order, including NATO, the United Nations and the WTO, (to say nothing of the European Union and his own intelligence agency) has undermined global stability and security while allowing Russia, China, Iran and various rogue states to advance their agendas at will. Similarly his contempt for the media and deliberate disregard for the rules and conventions of democratic institutions such as Congress, the Supreme Court and even the Constitution appear to have created a “new normal” in which no safeguards of liberal democracy can be taken for granted.
Perhaps most important, his personal mean-spirited pettiness and determination to pit regions and groups of citizens against each other has forged deep divisions in civil society. Certainly it has polarized the political process to an unprecedented degree. There have been numerous and increasingly violent protests between supporters and opponents of the president, and between civil rights proponents and various right-wing extremist organizations including neo-Nazis, white nationalists and anti-immigration groups. At the same time his heavy-handed cuts to environmental, health and social welfare programs have produced, among other negative effects, the bizarre scenario of the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world struggling to respond effectively to the spread of the coronavirus. As former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stated in endorsing Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in advance of the Super Tuesday primaries, “Joe Biden’s strength of character and deep experience stand in the starkest contrast to Trump’s amorality, corruption and utter incompetence.” [xiii]
Seen through the lens of this comparative context, what we have experienced recently in Canada by way of public protest and civil disobedience, and the response of citizens to these acts, pales in comparison despite the dramatic headlines in the National Post. A three-week period in which many individuals’ travel plans (including the author’s) were disrupted and segments of the economy were impacted, but in which there were no violent altercations or undue use of force , is best described as an inconvenience, not a crisis. (A number of economists have also suggested the financial costs, while admittedly significant for certain sectors and small businesses, will be short-term and the economy will rebound, whereas by comparison the economic costs of the coronavirus may well be longer-term and more substantial.[xiv])
Moreover, putting aside possible issues of methodology, the poll results themselves cast Canadian politics in a far more moderate, and encouraging, light than the National Post headline would suggest. A substantial majority in the poll disagreed with the tactics used by indigenous protesters, and 7 in 10 Canadians were allegedly in favour of “swift action” to end the blockades, but an impressive 52% still agreed that Canada had “not done enough for indigenous people.”
Not surprisingly there was perceived widespread public dissatisfaction with the manner in which federal and provincial politicians had been handling the issue. (Interestingly no questions were posed in the poll about Canadians’ views on the respective roles of hereditary chiefs and elected band councils, or of the Assembly of First Nations.) But the public discourse around these events has largely focused on the appropriate role of a professional police force, federal-provincial jurisdictional issues and definitions of the rule of law. There were no violent counter protests, no calls for resignations, no burning of effigies or brandishing of weapons, all of which have become the norm in the United States at such protests. The prime minister repeatedly called for calm, patience and restraint, stressing the importance of respecting citizens’ rights to free speech and assembly, and citizens overwhelmingly complied. When he finally declared that the illegal blockades must end, he stressed the distinction between these blockades, which were impeding the rights of others, and the legitimate avenues of protest that other groups were following.
In the end, the blockades came down with a bare minimum of interaction between law enforcement officers and protesters, both sides having emphasized the peaceful nature of the events and the importance of civility and mutual respect. (And as we later learned, in classic Canadian fashion the government had quietly brokered a behind-the-scenes deal in which essential goods continued to move across the country as Canadian National trains were allowed to travel on Canadian Pacific tracks to circumvent blockades.) Meanwhile provincial and federal political leadership was engaging with the key Wet’suwet’en protesters, eventually spending three days in talks which led to an agreement in principle on the underlying issue of unceded territory. It will be interesting to see if a follow-up poll reveals the same level of discontent in light of these positive developments.
This is not to suggest that there are no political problems in Canada. Clearly there is considerable room for improvement. From climate change, resource management and indigenous reconciliation to regional disparity and income inequality, there are many challenges facing Canadian governments. But this is also the country the Economist has again ranked as “one of the most democratic countries in the world” and the World Press Freedom Index places near the top, with both rankings putting Canada far ahead of the United States and most countries in Europe. This is also a country recognized for its tolerance and diversity. Instead of bigotry and resistance, immigration has been encouraged by governments and individual groups of citizens. Successful immigrant integration, as measured by acquisition of citizenship, continues to be among the highest in the world. The country’s debt to GDP ratio is the lowest in the G7, while the World Bank places Canada third on an international ranking of free economies, specifically noting the lack of corruption, rational regulatory regimes and access to financial assistance for entrepreneurs. Canadians also enjoy one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. Canada consistently ranks in the top echelon of the UN Human Development Index, and the most recent annual US News and World report placed Canada first in terms of quality of life.
difficult to imagine a country less “broken.”
[i][i] Stuart Thomson. “A Nation of Discontent”. National Post. Feb.29, 2020.
[ii] Dean Dettioff. “Is Justin Trudeau’s Honeymoon with Canadians Coming to an End?” American Magazine. Dec. 9, 2016.
[iii] See for example Levitsky and Zeblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Broadway Books, 2019.
[iv] Zack Beauchamp. “It happened there: how democracy died in Hungary”. Vox. Sept. 13, 2018.
[v] Cited in Yascha Mounk. “Democracy in Poland is in Mortal Danger”. The Atlantic. Oct. 9, 2019.
[vi] Cas Mudde. “Poland’s Right wing Populist Win Should be a Wake-up Call for Democrats Worldwide” The Guardian. Oct. 21, 2019.
[vii] Clement L Goff, “Yellow vests, rising violence – what’s happening to France?” European Sting/World Economic Forum. Mar 2, 2020
[viii] Clement L Goff, “Yellow vests, rising violence – what’s happening to France?”
[ix]See for example “Why the unification of Ireland is becoming likelier” The Economist. Feb 15-21, 2020. p. 9; and Jamie Maxwell. “A New Scottish Independence Vote Seems All But Inevitable”. Foreign Policy. Jan 24, 2020.
[x] Andre Lecours and J-F Dupre. “The emergence and transformation of self-determination claims in Hong Kong and Catalonia: A historical institutionalist perspective”. SAGE Journals. July 12, 2018.
[xi] Silvia Amaro. “The New Italy? Spain’s Political Crisis has no Clear End in Sight”. Europe News. July 23, 2019.
[xii] Jason Horowitz. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/20/world/europe/italy-pm-giuseppe-conte-resign.html
[xiii] Tamsin MacMahon. “It’s Biden vs Sanders as Democrats Race Towards Super Tuesday”. Globe and Mail. Mar 3, 2020.
[xiv] . D. Parkinson. “Homegrown problems make Canada’s economy more prone to rising coronavirus fears”. Globe and Mail. Feb. 27, 2020. See also https://www.thewhig.com/commodities/energy/oil-consumption-to-fall-by-largest-volume-on-record-dealing-fresh-blow-to-oilpatch/wcm/0d1738ac-1e88-4cc1-a3a9-f41ca058962f