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‘People are feeling shattered’: Ontarians are in a fragile state of mind as the election approaches


In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, political strategists puzzled over how voters might react to an election called while a deadly virus continued to upend Canadian life.

Elections in New Brunswick and British Columbia in 2020 returned big victories for incumbents, suggesting a “rally around the flag” effect for political leaders. In 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau battled the perception that he had called an unnecessary election and limped to the finish line with a minority government and a virtually unchanged seat count.

With the Ontario election less than three months away, we could be in for a new kind of pandemic election as anger and fear ebb away to be replaced by exhaustion and weariness.

Darrell Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, said that people likely won’t vote specifically on pandemic policies, but that the mood created by the two-year crisis could permeate the election campaign.

“It’s almost like people are feeling shattered. It’s a different kind of a feeling. It’s not like ‘oh, I’m angry and I’m going to do something.’ They’re feeling not confident, and almost shattered and fragile,” said Bricker, in an interview with the Ontario360 project. “People are feeling like there’s a lot of change going on out there. They’re feeling very uncertain about the future.”

Adding to the uncertainty for Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative Party is that his government’s approval ratings have spiked and plunged erratically during the last two years. Internal polling that gauges whether the government is on the “right track,” have fallen from a high of 82 percent to a recent low of 45 percent during the Omicron wave of COVID-19 in January, according to CBC News. That’s the lowest rating for the government since the beginning of the pandemic.

The government also registered an all-time low for its performance in the economic and government spending metrics. Those are areas that Bricker says are weighing on voters’ minds right now, especially with inflation spiking and gas prices surging.“From rent to clothing to food, the cost of living is rising at the fastest pace in decades and leaving Canadians with reduced purchasing power as wages barely keep up with inflation.”

“What’s really become animated in this discussion is everything related to the cost of living,” said Bricker. “It’s primarily with housing, but also with many other aspects of just getting by from day to day.”

Even before the pandemic, people were losing the sense that they could live a better life than their parents and, now, more Canadians feel like it’s impossible to get ahead, said Bricker.

With housing becoming increasingly unaffordableCanada’s housing market is breaking records at an alarming rate and people having children later in lifeWhat Does Canada’s Low Fertility Rate Mean?, often due to cost of living issues, many Canadians aren’t reaching key life milestones as soon as they had hoped.

“The one issue that you can really hold out as being an icon of this is housing, and how people feel about their ability to even buy a house in the neighborhoods that they grew up in and the impossibility of doing that these days,” said Bricker. “We can look at it as the middle class striving to progress, but it’s really where I thought I was going to be in my life versus where I am.”

A recent report by the government’s Housing Affordability Task Force called for more density in urban and suburban areas, a time limit on public consultation for building projects, and fewer municipal policies that stymie new developments. The task force argued that Ontario should aim to build 1.5 million new homes in the next decade.Doug Ford’s housing task force calls for more density, less public consultation

Bricker described these types of policies as technocratic and out of touch with people’s actual aspirations.

“The image that people have in their minds of middle-class success is not living in a swank condo,” said Bricker. “That’s not what they’re imagining their future is going to be. They’re thinking about living a reasonable commuting distance away from downtown Toronto, in a house, a standalone house.”

After the trucker protests, a ‘leave us alone’ coalition could influence our politics


About 20 people broke into an impromptu rendition of ‘O Canada’ outside an Ottawa courthouse when Freedom Convoy organizer Tamara Lich was released on bail after spending two and a half weeks in jail.

With the severe terms of Lich’s release, that tuneless version of the national anthem may be the last we hear of the convoy organizers for a while.

Lich was given 24 hours to leave Ottawa and 72 hours to leave Ontario. She was also banned from using social media, which organizers used to launch the widespread and disruptive movement that seized Canada for nearly a month. Lich is specifically forbidden from contacting the other convoy organizers or joining any protests against COVID-19 restrictions.

After weeks of dominating the evening news and blasting truck horns incessantly in downtown Ottawa, the convoy movement has been mostly silenced.

It seems unlikely, though, that court injunctions and bail restrictions are enough to put a damper on the energy that fuelled the protests. After all, even though Canadians were widely scornful of the manner of the trucker protests, polls routinely found that half the country had some sympathy for the message.

A poll conducted by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue found that half of all Canadians understood the frustration of the truckers’ protest. Ipsos found that 61 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 said the truckers’ frustration is legitimate and deserves our sympathy, even though they may not agree with everything the protesters said.It’s increasingly clear that a large group of Canadians are nervous about raising their true feelings about COVID-19 and the pandemic measures. From the poll: A sizeable minority of Canadians (37%) agree (16% strongly/21% somewhat) that while they might not say it publicly, they agree with a lot of what the truck protestors are fighting for, rising to 63% of Conservative voters and 45% of Canadians aged 18-34.

Some politicians have attempted to walk the tightrope of appealing to those frustrated Canadians without getting tarnished by the extreme views of the people who organized the Freedom Convoy. Before he was removed as leader of the Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole made it clear that he would talk to protesters, but not the leaders. Pierre Poilievre, one of the party’s leadership candidates, enthusiastically greeted the convoy as it arrived in Ottawa, but has walked a finer line recently.

It’s increasingly clear that the pandemic has left in its wake a pocket of embittered Canadians who resent the government’s heavy-handed approach to battling the virus and are deeply aware of the disparities in who was affected by the non-pharmaceutical interventions. The lockdowns exposed a class divide in the West between those who can easily work from home, safe from the deadly virus, and those who continued venturing out into the world, stocking shelves, driving trucks, and delivering takeout to the homes of white collar workers.

As she heads home to Alberta, Lich is returning to a province where the energy of the convoy protests is still coursing through the population and, unlike the protests themselves, it has injected itself into the political bloodstream.

If there’s anyone who understands the unique challenges of leading a coalition of conservatives right now, it’s Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

Of course, it’s never been easy. With a long history of rifts, fractures, and simmering grievances, the conservative movement in Canada has never really been satisfied. And in Alberta, the long history of rowdy populism and grassroots democracy means there’s always a certain amount of discontent with the person in charge.

“We may be the only province with a significant strain of libertarian sentiment and skepticism about government. As I’ve said before, I think that’s actually a healthy thing to have in a political culture, to have people who jealously guard their freedom and are skeptical of both government power and overreach,” said Kenney, in an interview last year with The Hub.

“It certainly made managing the crisis more challenging here, politically, than perhaps elsewhere in Canada,” he said, with a short rueful laugh.

In Alberta, Kenney is at the epicentre of what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called an outbreak of “folk libertarianism” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Douthat was trying to understand why the conservative mind, which is supposedly more attuned to external threats and internal contamination according to social scientists, seemed less concerned about the pandemic than the research would suggest.

The American right, which is reflected both unconsciously and consciously by the Canadian right, has a hyper-individualistic streak that has always been at odds with the Burkean caution of conservatives like DouthatEdmund Burke is either seen as the godfather of North American conservatism or completely irrelevant to it. George Will wrote in his recent book The Conservative Sensibility that Burke was little more than a figurehead, with no importance to America. “Rage and phrensy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years,” wrote Burke, which could be read as a rebuke to both the contemporary North American Right and Left.. It’s a kind of middlebrow populist libertarianism that has roots in the American frontier more than the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek.

In Alberta, it has roots in the Social Credit movement in the first half of the 20th century, which was sparked by an apocalyptic radio preacher who campaigned across the province in a pickup truck. William Aberhart, also known as “Bible Bill,” was succeeded by Ernest Manning, who planned his first cabinet as premier while hammering roofing tiles into a barn on his farm. Ernest Manning governed Alberta for 25 years before his son Preston caught the next populist wave in the province with the Reform Party, decrying the state of the federal finances and special treatment for Quebec, and ascending to the status of the country’s official Opposition.

There are some similarities between this populist outburst and the wave that carried the Reform Party, said Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, who was involved in the early days of both the Reform Party and the Conservative Party.

“Alberta tends to be the homeland of these populist movements. Alberta’s political culture is more receptive to populism than just about anywhere else,” said Flanagan. “I think what’s missing right now is political leadership to pull it all together.”

Kenney has cautiously expressed support for some of the ideas behind the trucker protest, but he also knows that the discontent driving the protesters has endangered his job.

Next month, Kenney will undergo a leadership review and he’s concerned enough about his chances that he has re-assigned key advisers to prepare for the vote. He knows the same energy that sent trucks to Ottawa and Alberta’s border with the United States will be driving people to Red Deer to vote against him.

“There will be an effort, obviously by many of the folks involved in these protests, who have perhaps never belonged to a party before, to show up at that special general meeting and to use it as a platform for their anger about COVID measures over the past two years,” Kenney told reporters at a news conference in February.

Kenney’s leadership could be a canary in the coalmine for Canada’s next populist wave. It will be a test of whether political organizers can harness the anger over COVID-19 restrictions and turn it into results at the ballot box.

Whether Kenney’s leadership review becomes the beginning of a political movement or is just the political version of a primal scream after more than two years of a grinding and exhausting pandemic remains to be seen.

It’s clear, though, that young people are stirring.

On the Left, pandemic angst has taken the form of an anti-capitalist, “anti-work” movement, where young people revel in the act of quitting their jobs and leaving bosses with the difficult task of replacing them during a labour shortage.

On what can only loosely be called the Right, another movement has an unlikely and informal leader in Dave Portnoy, the founder of the Barstool Sports website, who railed against lockdowns and raised money for struggling small businesses.

With an Ipsos poll showing that Canadian adults under 35 were most likely to sympathize with the trucker protests, there could be a new political alignment simmering in Canada and the United States. The “Barstool conservatives” are the folk libertarians that Douthat identified, mostly young men, who aren’t concerned about marijuana, gay marriage, or any of the social issues that seized previous generations of conservatives. They are part of a burgeoning counter-culture that listens to Joe Rogan’s podcast, and probably a Barstool Sports podcast or two, and that revels in politically incorrect language and opinions.

Writing at The Week, Matthew Walther argued that Portnoy is the future of the conservative movement and that “he embodied the world view of millions of Americans, who share his disdain for the language of liberal improvement, the hectoring, schoolmarmish attitude of Democratic politicians and their allies in the media, and, above all, the elevation of risk-aversion to the level of a first-order principle by our professional classes.”The common thread that ties Donald Trump, Barstool Sports, Joe Rogan, and the trucker protests together, is a gleeful flouting of the language norms of the professional classes. The progressive fixation on proper terms was reflected, funhouse mirror style, in the ‘problematic’ flags at the trucker protests.

In 2009, as Barack Obama swept to power, the political activist Grover Norquist found a common thread among the unlikely allies who made up the Republican voting bloc. It was “a coalition of Americans who simply wish to be left alone by the government,” he wrote.

Although Portnoy is self-consciously non-ideological, like many of his fans, this “leave us alone” message sums up his political disposition, whether it’s about COVID-19 lockdowns or his success as an entrepreneur. Norquist, as a man of grander ideas and political experience, saw it as a way to tie together the competing factions of the conservative movement.

In the wake of the pandemic, that sentiment is strong in Canada, too.

According to a poll conducted for The Hub by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue, of the Canadians who are opposed to government restrictions, the primary concern isn’t business closures, vaccines, or even masks, but simply an objection to the “government telling me what to do.”

While anger about the pandemic restrictions is driving this current wave of populist energy, the mandates are ending and most Canadian businesses are operating at full capacity again.

Anyone looking to lead this populist movement is likely looking for a new wave to surf on.

The People’s Party of Canada, which rode a wave of discontent to five percent of the popular vote in last year’s federal election, is already looking for the next issue the party can ride, and is assuming the current political energy will dissipate as the pandemic ends.

PPC leader Maxime Bernier was road-testing a message of “radical decentralization” last year, even as his party was basking in the support of a new crowd of supporters, energized by opposition to the pandemic restrictions.

It’s an old idea brought into a new context.

“This radical decentralization was the other major reform of the federation proposed by the Reform Party in the 1990s. If Preston Manning had focused on this instead of the Triple-E Senate, he might have received some support in Quebec,” said Bernier.

The idea is “to radically downsize Ottawa,” because “most of what’s wrong in this country today originates from Ottawa.”

In short, Bernier believes that the common thread of Canada’s two most disparate provinces is a desire to be left alone by the federal government.

It’s also the fundamental question that will face the people trying to organize Kenney’s downfall. The leadership review poses a binary question about the premier, but doesn’t ask his opponents to articulate an alternate vision for the province.

If, on April 9, they succeed in bringing down the premier of Alberta, the obvious question will be: what next?

The Conservative Party’s leadership race could also represent a crucial test of how the energy of the Freedom Convoy reacts with mainstream politics.

Poilievre has nodded to it, with his emphasis on freedom in the early days of his campaign, but hasn’t fully embraced it.

The Conservative Party has always had a populist element, but there is new danger with online conspiracy theories spreading quickly through some of these communities.

Kenney described it as a “small, but real” cohort in the province that, even with decades of experience as a political communicator, he’s not sure how to deal with.

“To be honest, I just don’t know how to reach people who have decided that nothing that they hear from government or authoritative sources is credible or believable anymore,” said Kenney, in the interview with The Hub.

Manning struggled to keep fringe views out of the Reform Party, although Flanagan has written that Manning’s conflict-averse style was partly responsible for the occasions when the party was embarrassed by a member or candidate with extremist views.

“Stephen Harper showed that it was possible. But Stephen was exceptionally skillful as a leader,” said Flanagan.

“He was able to drive it all the way to almost 10 years in government. But again, it’s not easy, because the Conservative Party is a coalition of different elements. And they have to be balanced against each other,” said Flanagan.

Before these elements are balanced, they will be energized and isolated by leadership candidates trying to appeal to different factions. With former Quebec premier Jean Charest planning to appeal to new members, likely moderate voters in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, there could be another bloc of highly animated and politically inexperienced voters waiting to be activated.

The question for the Conservative Party, and anyone running for its leadership, is whether the silent group of Canadians who sympathized with the truckers are still looking for someone to represent their views or whether that energy dissipates with the rising temperatures, falling case counts, and the happy return of all the problems we put off when the COVID-19 pandemic annexed our lives.