Can Canada stave off populism?

Justin Trudeau’s true dough plans to fight populism with policy.

A mass of people wearing red and holding signs  and Canadian flags flood a city street.

Hundreds of “Freedom Convoy” supporters march in downtown Ottawa on Canada Day, July 1, 2022, in Ottawa, Canada. Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images Amanda Lewellyn is a tech-focused Today, Explained producer.

Canada has a growing populism problem. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thinks so.

Like many other countries — including the United States — Canadians have spent the last several years dealing with pandemic restrictions, a rise in immigration, and a housing affordability crisis (among much, much else). And like many other countries, that’s showing up in a host of ways: Trust in institutions like the government and media is down. Sentiment on immigration is becoming more negative.

“Well, first of all, it’s a global trend,” Trudeau told Sean Rameswaram in an exclusive interview on Today, Explained. “In every democracy, we’re seeing a rise of populists with easy answers that don’t necessarily hold up to any expert scrutiny. But a big part of populism is condemning and ignoring experts and expertise. So it sort of feeds on itself.”

As Trudeau points out, Canada is not alone. But our northern neighbor’s struggle is notable because the country has long been seen as resistant to the kind of anti-immigrant, anti-establishment rhetoric sweeping the globe in recent years — in part because multiculturalism is enshrined in federal law.

It goes back to the 1960s, when French Canadian nationalist groups started to gain power in Quebec. They called for the province’s independence from Canada proper.

The federal government, led then by nepo daddy Pierre Trudeau, stepped in. Rather than validating one cultural identity over the other, the elder Trudeau’s government established a national policy of bilingualism, requiring all federal institutions to provide services in both English and French. (This is why — if you ever watch Canadian parliamentary proceedings, as I did for this story — politicians are constantly flipping back and forth between the two languages.)

Canada also adopted a formal multiculturalism policy in 1971, affirming Canadians’ multicultural heritage.

The multiculturalism policy has undergone both challenge and expansion in the half-century since its introduction. But Pierre Trudeau’s decision to root Canadian identity in diversity has had lasting impacts: Canadians have historically been much more open to immigration — despite having a greater proportion of immigrants in their population — than their other Western counterparts.

But in more recent years, that’s begun to change rapidly as large numbers of immigrants have entered the country amid a housing affordability crisis. An Environics Institute survey showed that in 2023, 44 percent of Canadians felt there was too much immigration — an increase from 27 percent the year before.

That’s where Conservative opposition leader Pierre Poilievre comes in. Known as a “soft” populist, he’s started calling on Canada to cut immigration levels (so far, without demonizing immigrants, as we’ve seen from his populist counterparts elsewhere in the West).

That said, he looks like a traditional populist in a lot of other ways: Poilievre embraced Canada’s 2022 Freedom Convoy protests, opposed vaccine and mask requirements, voted against marriage equality, has proposed defunding the Canadian Broadcasting Service, wants schools to leave LGBTQ issues to parents, and has talked about repealing a litany of government regulations — from the country’s carbon tax to internet regulations. Basically, he’s against any “gatekeepers” to Canadians’ “freedom.”

And that message? It seems to be resonating with voters, including young ones.

The plan: Fight populism with policy

Enter: Trudeau’s half-trillion-Canadian-dollar plan for “generational fairness,” also known as the “Gen Z budget” for its focus on younger generations feeling the economic squeeze most acutely.

“People are facing an anxiety that the economy doesn’t work for them anymore. That the deck is stacked against young people in a way that is different from previous generations,” Trudeau said on Today, Explained. “And that’s a problem because it leads to a sense of uncertainty about the future and a sense of, ‘Okay, the institutions and society and government can’t actually help.’ And that sort of feeds into populism.”


Thanks for signing up!

Check your inbox for a welcome email.


Oops. Something went wrong. Please enter a valid email and try again.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Notice. You can opt out at any time. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. For more newsletters, check out our newsletters page. Subscribe

To demonstrate that government can work for young people, Trudeau has allocated C$6 billion to help Canadian provinces build new housing — if they agree to certain conditions, like building denser neighborhoods and more climate-friendly housing. It also includes provisions to expand child care, provide school lunches, and invest in the Canadian AI sector.

To pay for it, the country plans to increase capital gains taxes on the wealthiest Canadians — C$19 billion over the next five years.

“I know there will be many voices raised in protest. No one likes paying more tax, even — or perhaps particularly — those who can afford it the most,” Canadian finance minister Chrystia Freeland said. “But before they complain too bitterly, I would like Canada’s 1 percent — Canada’s 0.1 percent — to consider this: What kind of Canada do you want to live in?”

Though the Conservatives will oppose the plan, it’s likely to pass.

Trudeau, in a blue shirt with rolled-up sleeves, gestures widely as he speaks at a podium before a crowd.

Trudeau speaks in April about the government’s proposal to provide low-cost leases of public land to developers and push factory construction of homes as part of a “historic” plan to alleviate Canada’s housing crisis. Arlyn McAdorey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Can it work?

The bet Trudeau is making is this: The best counterpoint to anti-establishment rhetoric is … using the establishment to make people’s lives better.

“The biggest difference between me and the Conservatives right now is: They don’t think government has a role to play in solving for these problems,” Trudeau told Today, Explained. “I think government can’t solve everything, nor should it try. But it can make sure that if the system isn’t working for young people, that we rebalance the system. Market forces are not going to do that.”

A key challenge will be demonstrating progress by the time elections roll around. Housing and real estate experts generally cheered the announcement — but noted that it might be years before people on the ground see any real change. Elections, on the other hand, aren’t yet scheduled but have to happen by October 2025 (parliamentary systems, man).

In the meantime, Conservatives are still ahead in the polls, though there’s some evidence that their lead is starting to diminish after the Liberals spent a month previewing their budget.

If he’s successful, Trudeau argues that his strategy could be a blueprint for other nations confronting similar trends — particularly during an election year in which we expect populist rhetoric to play a significant role.

“There’s no question that democracies remain a lot more advantageous to human beings than any other structures, but it’s not as obvious as it used to be,” Trudeau told Today, Explained. “We have to remember: Democracies didn’t happen by accident, and they don’t continue without effort.”

This story appeared originally in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *