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Two or three decades ago, Preston Manning's Reform Party was seen as embodying a right-wing populist movement in Western Canada that advocated for shrinking government by cutting social welfare and culture programming.
Lately, however, right-wing populism has been associated with the nationalist, anti-immigrant and authoritarian tendencies of leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Conservative leaders Jason Kenney of the Alberta United Conservative Party and Andrew Scheer of the federal Conservative Party have also been accused lately of being too tolerant of white nationalism.
None of that, however, stopped the conservative leader of Canada's most populous province from grasping the mantle of populism during an appearance on stage Saturday at the Manning Networking Conference, an annual right-of-centre gathering in Ottawa.
“People called Preston a populist when he was in politics, and they’re calling me a populist now,” Ontario's Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford told the crowd of politicians, activists and fundraisers.
“If you want to call me a populist, sure. But I call it listening. Listening to the people. Not the expensive lobbyists...not the full-time protesters, not the activists," said Ford, who received a standing ovation.
Ford's comments were echoed throughout the March 22-24 weekend gathering. Speakers vented their outrage at what they saw as poor treatment of the West by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. A common belief — regardless of whether it was based on any evidence — was that Trudeau's environmental legislation would choke Alberta’s crude oil expansion plans.
Premier Ford linked his embrace of populism to attacking Trudeau’s plan to price the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change. “If you ask me, is (attacking carbon taxes) a populist thing to do? My friends, I don’t know, but you better believe it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Criticisms 'completely baseless' says Scheer
The event also featured a panel on Alberta separating from Canada. Former Harper government cabinet minister Monte Solberg argued on that panel Sunday that populism can be a “force for good.”
Concern about keeping climate change in check less vocal than concern about maintaining a prosperous oil industry, @ottawacarl reports from the Manning Networking Conference, an annual conservative meetup.
Solberg, who wrote in December that “Western alienation still stalks the land but now it strides on 100-foot legs,” said "it doesn’t have to be trolls on Twitter and flame wars.”
He gave as an example the Reform Party's opposition to the Charlottetown Accord as a young party. Reformers were against the accord's distinct society status for Quebec.
That was “a kind of responsible populism that I wish we could recapture today," he said.
“I think sometimes you see these extreme comments and people saying ridiculous things. As Preston always pointed out, the way to avoid that is to bring more people into the discussion, and push all the nuts to the sidelines."
Kenney's UCP candidate Caylan Ford was forced to step down after comments she made surfaced about a “demographic replacement of white peoples in their homelands."
Scheer also faced criticism from Liberals after he gave a speech at a February convoy of pro-pipeline trucks that had stormed Parliament Hill, where he failed to condemn racist and anti-immigrant views that were present.
The convoy had transformed from an earlier incarnation associated with the Canadian “yellow vests.” That movement has been targeted by Facebook, which has been removing death threats and other inappropriate content from its Facebook page.
The federal Conservative leader has said that he attended the event with "yellow vests" present to “support energy sector workers” and that Liberals were trying to “distract from their own failures” by accusing him of that.
But he was then called out for not shutting down a question posed at a town hall that referenced a baseless conspiracy theory smear. Scheer said he had misheard the question.
After a white supremacist killed 50 people gathered for prayer at two mosques in New Zealand, Scheer faced renewed anger when his original response to the massacre did not mention that the attacks were against Muslims. He later issued a longer statement that did include this.
At the conference, Scheer responded to a question about criticism of his stance on Islamophobia as “completely baseless." But he initially failed to mention Muslims in this response.
"When you look at statements I've made condemning hateful ideologies, those who would promote any type of superiority of one race or religion over the others, I condemn that unequivocally," he said.
Scheer was later asked by someone in the crowd why he's never used the word "Islamophobia" and said that this wasn't true.
"I reject anyone who would speak out based on Islamophobic principles, whether or not that's somebody who is trying to lump all people of the Muslim faith in together or whether it's people who are trying to antagonize elements of society to have a more negative reaction to those who practice that faith," Scheer said.
"To me the important thing is to speak out against those who in any way give oxygen or space to those who are trying to promote one group of people over the other."
Oil prosperity 'matters to the generations below us'
Trudeau received little credit throughout the weekend for his government's purchase of the Trans Mountain crude oil pipeline and expansion project with $4.5 billion of taxpayer dollars.
The federal court of appeal quashed the government's approval of the project in August 2018. Yet Trans Mountain was seen by many speakers as indefinitely stalled precisely because of Trudeau's inability to take a stronger stance on pipeline construction.
Nor did his government's billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil and gas companies make much of a splash.
Concern about keeping climate change in check were also less vocalized throughout the weekend than were concerns about maintaining a prosperous oil industry.
When Alberta Senator Douglas Black urged the crowd to think about how “this matters to the generations below us," he wasn't talking about how climate change threatens the future living standards of Canadians, as hotter conditions spread disease and blunt harvests, sea level rise drowns coastlines and more frequent floods and wildfires trigger sky-high repair bills.
He was referring to receiving less benefits from the fossil fuel industry. “I can assure you that my kids and my grandkids will have nowhere near the level of prosperity that my generation enjoys, because we’re asleep at the switch,” he said.
Two pieces of federal legislation, Bill C-69 and Bill C-48, were repeatedly vilified throughout the weekend. Black, for example, asked the crowd to “become extremely active on 69 and 48," by which he meant protesting their implementation.
The former would overhaul Canada’s environmental assessments of natural resource projects, while the latter would ban oil tankers off the north coast of British Columbia.
Both bills are in their last stages of parliamentary approval before becoming law, having passed the House of Commons and made it through several meetings of their respective Senate committees.
'The union becomes irrelevant'
The event also featured a panel discussion on Alberta's independence from Canada.
It came the same weekend that Alberta’s United Conservative Party announced that half of Albertans in a survey they obtained supported secession.
UCP leader Kenney, who is on the campaign trail ahead of a provincial election on April 16, said there was “a real tension that runs through the hearts of many Albertans” provoking this separatism.
The panel discussion also came on the heels of a new separatist political party in the province, the Alberta Independence Party, becoming official and declaring it had 46 candidates.
The party promises to hold “an immediate referendum for the clear question of separation” upon election. Its platform is also against putting a price on pollution.
Edmonton Sun senior political columnist Lorne Gunter said the secession sentiment stemmed from the attitude of Trudeau government ministers toward the West.
“It’s very obvious every time a federal minister — even the federal ministers from Alberta — talk, is that they don’t understand Alberta’s culture,” he said.
“We wonder how it is that people who make fair trade pour-over coffee with their man buns, are going to replace the money that Alberta contributes to confederation?”
Gunter and Solberg made it clear they didn’t support separatism outright, but that they understood the frustration.
But Beryl Wajsman, editor-in-chief of The Suburban, an English-language weekly in Quebec, who was the third panelist said “if it takes pushing the exit button to shake up this country again, let’s do it.”
He said he felt that Quebec’s 1.1 million anglophones have had their language rights violated repeatedly, and that anglophone Quebecers could find common cause with Alberta separatists.
It isn't clear whether this view was based on the reality of anglophones living in the French-speaking province, and their access to numerous healthcare and educational services.