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Sean Speer: Poilievre is building a coalition of strivers who still believe in the meritocratic dream

Commentary

As someone who has been in and around Canadian Conservative politics for more than twenty years, a common critique that I’ve regularly confronted is that conservatism is fundamentally concerned with the interests of the wealthy and well-connected. It can conjure up images of bankers and oilmen in the minds of many. 

Even though the modern Conservative Party has the old Reform Party’s egalitarian impulses embedded in its DNA, these elitist perceptions still persist. I’ve observed focus groups over the years for instance where one frequently hears claims like “conservatives are for the rich” or “conservatives don’t care about people like me.” 

This hasn’t been my own personal experience, by the way. I was drawn to conservatism as a young person in Thunder Bay not because of my blue-blooded pedigree but for the opposite reason: the world of conservatism seemed open and inclusive. It was an intellectual and social context that celebrated meritocracy and rejected hereditary claims to power and status. It was a place for aspirants and strivers. It was the political home of John Diefenbaker, “the boy from Baie Comeau” and Stephen Harper’s decidedly middle-class politics

One gets the sense that the gap between my youthful perception and the public’s inegalitarian views about Canadian conservatism may be starting to close. Old ideas about the Left and Right no longer have quite the same explanatory power for understanding politics, class, and culture. 

Think of the commanding heights of modern society. Most of them are today dominated by progressive ideas and voices. That may not be particularly new for universities or non-profit organizations. But it does seem to represent a change in the corporate world. The rise of the knowledge economy has produced a new professional class, as the public intellectual Michael Lind puts it, which occupies the middle layer of corporate culture and subscribes to a set of left-wing views about culture and the economy. 

Progressivism’s growing institutional dominance has pushed conservatives into the counterintuitive position of outsiders. For young people, in particular, conservatism is now something of a countercultural identity. It stands in juxtaposition to the boring, predictable, and ultimately establishmentarian views of their reflexively left-wing professor or human resources manager. 

These trends also extend to politics. A new fault line has emerged in the past several years between the major political parties rooted in a mix of ideology and class. The party leaders, Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre, are themselves proxies for these different sets of experiences and worldviews.  

Prime Minister Trudeau, himself the son of a prime minister, is a perfect stand-in for the Central Canadian progressive establishment that attended schools like McGill University, grew up in and around left-wing civic groups like Katimavik, is fluent in the customs and language of identity politics, critical of the perceived excesses of market capitalism, and confident about the technocratic capacity of the state to engineer particular economic and social outcomes. 

Poilievre, by contrast, was born to a teenage mom, grew up in the west to adopted parents, and attended a solid yet second-tier regional university. He’s come to represent a western-based libertarian populism that rejects identity politics in favour of personal responsibility, lionizes the market’s leveling effects, and is skeptical of the excesses of state action in the economy or society. 

The biggest differences, though, between the two may be as much about culture as ideology or class. The former is generally comfortable with its place in elite Canadian circles. The latter has a bit of a chip on its shoulder. 

The former’s emphasis on income inequality reflects, in broad terms, its generational advantages and preservationist instinct. The latter’s focus on social mobility is instead an expression of its own impatient energy. Trudeau wants to close the gap between rich and poor. Poilievre wants to extend the social ladder to more people. 

If the former is representative of Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson’s famously described “Laurentian elite”, the latter may be a voice for the ambitious middle-class products of small- and mid-sized communities across the country who one might characterize as “Lakehead meritocrats.” 

The good news for Canadian Conservatives is that there’s reason to think that the pool of prospective Lakehead meritocrats is bound to grow faster in the coming years as annual immigration levels continue to rise. There are, after all, few acts more indicative of the climber mentality than picking up and moving your family to a new country and culture in search of opportunity for you and your children. Poilievre instinctively understands this point: it’s the story of his wife’s own family. 

It’s also the story of his finance critic Jasraj Singh Hallan who immigrated with his parents to Calgary from the Middle East when he was five years old. His family faced bouts of significant financial insecurity and he was drawn into the trappings of street gangs before a community volunteer helped to put him on a better path that eventually led to a successful homebuilding business and election to the federal Parliament in 2019. 

Hallan’s extraordinary rise to the Conservative Party’s leading voice on economic and fiscal matters is both a powerful affirmation of what he calls “the Canadian dream” and its central place in the Conservative self-image under Poilievre’s leadership. 

If his convention speech from the night of the Conservative leadership result is a sign, we can anticipate that a major part of Poilievre’s ongoing political appeal will be to the Lakehead meritocrats drawn from his own story of social mobility. As he put it in his remarks: 

We will restore Canada’s promise—in a country, where it doesn’t matter who you love. Or if your name is Smith or Singh, Martin or Mohammad, Chang or Charles. A country where the dreamer, farmer, the worker, the entrepreneur, the survivor, the fighter, the ones who get knocked down but keep getting back up and keep going, can achieve their purpose. A country where the son of a teenage mother adopted by two teachers can dare to run for prime minister of Canada.

Notwithstanding this week’s disappointing by-election outcome, Poilievre and the Conservatives would be wise to recommit themselves to this message and identity. It’s one that’s bound to resonate with a large swath of the Canadian population including a new generation of newcomers like Hallan. It certainly would have with my twenty-year-old self back in Thunder Bay. 

Brian Bird: Protests are disruptive, messy, and sometimes unsettling—and exactly what a vibrant democracy needs

Commentary

Between the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa last February, recent demonstrations against COVID-zero policies in China, and many other protests around the world of varying inspirations, including the uprisings in Iran, we have been offered several opportunities during the pandemic to reflect upon the role and value of protest.

The occurrence of protest is usually a sign of a vibrant democracy in which citizens are invested in how they are being governed and how their society ought to change. Even where protests are a response to a perceived departure from democracy or occur in non-democracies, this activity is still a form of democratic participation because it aims to preserve or promote democratic governance.

Citizens coming together to publicly manifest their agreement or disagreement with this or that cause, issue, law, court ruling or other matter of public concern is a normal feature of democratic life—so much so that it would be unsettling from the standpoint of a society’s democratic credentials if peaceful, non-violent protest ever became an endangered species of democratic participation or even extinct.

It is one thing to say that protests are commonplace and considered normal in a democracy, but how does protest enhance democracy? What, in other words, is the added value of protests to democracy?

History and hindsight are helpful here. It would not take long to create a list of protests that were instrumental in bringing about transformative change for a society or dramatically raised awareness within that society—and others watching from afar—of injustice, inequity, and violations of human dignity. The civil rights movement in the United States, Tiananmen Square, and Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march come quickly to mind as examples.

It is difficult to precisely measure the effects of protests like these on the societies in which they occurred (as well as on other societies that took notice), but there is no doubt that these and many other protests have accelerated the pace of change in hearts, minds, and laws alike.

So the value of protest to the pursuit of a society that is more just, equitable, and protective of human dignity might be easier to perceive through the rear-view mirror, but we can apply these lessons of the past to protests during our lifetime. The protests we ourselves witness could be part of a longer arc of positive change that is not fully perceptible to us when the protest is occurring. They may also turn out to not be part of that kind of change, but our inability in most cases to definitively know either way at the time suggests that we should err on the side of permitting protest within reasonable limits.

Still, some of us might say that instead of protesting we should opt for less disruptive and disconcerting forms of democratic participation: voting, running for office, writing to your elected representatives, publishing an opinion article in the newspaper, starting a political advocacy group, and so on.

One response to this proposal would be that protest, owing precisely to its uniquely disruptive and disconcerting features, may in certain cases be far more effective than other methods of democratic participation. It may even be true that, in certain cases, protest is the only method that stands any chance of sparking the change that is desired. It is hard to imagine the U.S. civil rights movement succeeding simply through writing letters to members of Congress.

Protest, in other words, might be the only meaningful way for certain voices and the messages they carry to be heard in the halls of power. Without protest, the desired change might take much longer to come about—in the order of decades and beyond—or it might never come about. Timing is another consideration: injustice does not schedule itself to occur only during election campaigns.

There is also, with respect to the democratic merits of protest, what might be called the pressure-cooker rationale: allowing citizens to come together to peacefully express discontent over how their society or other societies are governed allows these citizens—and even those citizens who agree with the protest but can only watch on television or social media—to let off steam and be heard. Unduly suppressing this outlet might eventually cause the pressure cooker to explode. As President John F. Kennedy put it, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Much more could be said about the added value of protest to democracy, not to mention the value of protest to the human condition and spirit. But perhaps the greatest obstacle to appreciating the democratic value of protest in general is our own opinion on the aim or cause of specific protests.

When we disagree with the viewpoint animating the protest of the day, our opinion of protest as a form of democratic participation may diminish. Conversely, when we agree with the complaints of the protesters, our affinity for protest itself may increase. This dynamic comes to the surface when we opine on how long a given protest should be allowed to last or the degree to which restrictions should be imposed on the time, manner, and place of the protest. I suspect we often afford more or less latitude on these points depending on how sympathetic we are to the views animating the protest at issue.

It takes a robust form of even-handedness and tolerance to express support for protest when we profoundly disagree with the reason for a particular protest or the views that the members of the protest hold. And yet, in Canada, this ideal is our aim as a free and democratic society committed in constitutional text and civic principle to maintaining a public square that is open to all its citizens and, apart from reasonable limits for the common good, a place for the free expression of their core convictions.

Protests often cause significant disruption to our daily lives. Protests may also be deeply offensive depending on how you relate to the views of the protesters. There is no way around it: granting time and space for this sort of turbulence—even constitutional protection for it—is an open invitation to social friction. Despite the downsides, protest is certainly worth protecting on account of its service to democracy. Winston Churchill was truly onto something when he said that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”