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Doug Ford’s victory shows Canada is not immune to the rise of populism

Many have compared Ontario’s new premier, whose brother was the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto, with Donald Trump – though there are some key differences.

By Nicky Woolf

On an unseasonably warm October night in 2015, Doug Ford and his brother Rob gathered for a small election-night party in the former’s home, a low stucco mansion in a wealthy cul-de-sac in Etobicoke, the suburb of Toronto that was the seat of the Ford political dynasty.

Doug Ford was running for mayor of Toronto, having subbed-in for his brother – the controversial incumbent who made international news when he admitted to smoking crack while in office, and who had dropped out of the race after being diagnosed with a rare and terminal form of cancer – just a few weeks before, in a dramatic last-minute filing. When Doug lost to conservative John Tory that night in 2015, the Ford political dynasty ended.

Or so we thought. On Thursday, the dynasty returned in triumph as Doug Ford won the election to be premier of Ontario, Canada’s richest and most populous province, unseating the incumbent Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne.

If you have any Canadian friends, you’ll have noticed that they’ve been pretty smug of late. While Britain and the US experienced populist waves in recent years that led to Brexit and Trump respectively, Canada has been enjoying the premiership of the young, smart, and performatively woke Liberal party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The Ontario election, however, may serve as a wake-up call, or at least a counterfactual to that narrative. Ford’s victory shows that Canada is not immune to the rise of global populism and post-truth politics. The election was marred by dishonesty on all sides as well as anti-media populist rhetoric from Ford that has led many to call him Canada’s answer to Donald Trump.

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The comparison bears out; Ford attacked the spending plans of the other candidates but refused to release his own; he flat out lied about his own spending plans and their likely effect (experts have predicted that they would blow a gigantic hole in the state’s budget). He struck out at “elites” and the media.

One interesting difference, however, is that immigration and immigrants played much less of a role than you might have expected in a populist revolt; in fact, despite his right-wing politics, Ford worked hard during the campaign to reach out to immigrant communities. During the campaign, he tweeted out a picture of himself attending an Iftar dinner, the traditional meal with which Muslims break their Ramadan fast.

This is not to say that Ford is entirely free of social prejudice; once, defending his brother’s refusal to attend the World Pride parade in Toronto, he said that it was because the event included “buck naked men”; he has opposed the LGBT-friendly Ontario curriculum championed by his predecessor, who was the first openly gay leader of a Canadian province. But in this election, Ford’s message was one of economic, not necessarily social, populism; the abolition of carbon-capture legislation and reducing taxes on corporations. His tagline was “respect for taxpayers”.

In a way, Ford’s election can be seen as a rejection of the Liberal incumbency in the province. The party has controlled Ontario for fifteen years, Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at Western University in southern Ontario, told the Guardian. That’s a long time for any one party to be in power in a modern democracy and some disillusionment is to be expected after so long a reign.

The race became nail-bitingly close between the conservative Ford and Andrea Horwath, the candidate for the left-progressive New Democratic Party, so it could be seen not so much as a rejection of progressive consensus as a rejection of the status quo.

But nonetheless, the re-entry of the Ford dynasty into Canadian politics will make many who were proud of their country’s position as a progressive Camelot wince.

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