On Mar. 10, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party elected Doug Ford to be their leader in the wake of Patrick Brown’s resignation amid allegations of sexual misconduct. A former City of Toronto councilor, and brother to the late mayor Rob Ford, Doug brings a populist movement not just to his party, but the entire province. With the PCs surging in the polls, it’s clear that Ontario is more than willing to flirt with the kind of populism going on south of the border.
It would be a disservice to Doug Ford to say he’s mimicking Donald Trump-style politics — he was doing it years before the President made waves with his 2016 election campaign. “Ford explicitly frames his messaging to ‘regular people’ and ‘taxpayers,’” UW Political Science Professor Emmett MacFarlane told Imprint. “He is explicitly anti-elitist — and it’s never clear who counts as an elite and who doesn’t — and he evinces a disdain for expertise. He has promised to clean up Queen’s Park.”
But where did Ontario’s interest in populist politics start? “A sense of alienation from government is a key aspect,” MacFarlane said. “The slow recovery from the 2008 recession, and perceptions that ‘the middle class’ is falling behind may help fuel support for explicitly populist messaging. There’s a general idea that people in government aren’t connected to or don’t understand the lives of ‘regular’ people that populists try to leverage.”
While there have been populist aspects to Ontario politicians, MacFarlane points out that Ford’s approach is more distinct than past premiers: “The focus by all parties on the cost of home electricity [hydro rates], and proposals relating to lowering banking fees or rhetoric aimed at the middle class could be labelled populist,” MacFarlane said. “But we really haven’t had an explicitly populist premier in the post-World War II era in Ontario. Historically, populism was a major force in the west with the United Farmers of Alberta, the United Farmers of Saskatchewan, and the Social Credit Party of Alberta. The United Farmers of Ontario had a breakthrough in the early 20th century (the Drury government) but it was relatively short-lived compared to the populist movement in the West.”
MacFarlane went on to warn of the dangers of Ford’s populism. “Populism can be a force for good in some contexts, but the Trumpian and Fordist versions are ideologically incoherent and demonstrate a disdain for evidence-based decision-making,” MacFarlane concluded. “This can result in policies with negative or unintended consequences, and its advocates can invoke rhetoric that is divisive and generally harmful for politics.”
“It remains to be seen what tone Ford will adopt as we approach the provincial election, but if it is anything like his past approach to politics it threatens to result in some of the same divisiveness we see south of the border.”