As populism seems to be sweeping across the West, Canada remains a glaring exception.
By Phoebe Sengers
Change Islands. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
In Change Islands, Canada, the Facebook quips started to really gain traction after the election. Mostly, residents of the rural, white, working-class town were joking about the need to build a wall on the border to keep the fleeing Americans out. I never saw a single post that seemed to support Donald Trump or approve of his populist politics. Yet I knew that rural Newfoundlanders share a lot of cultural sensibilities with rural, working-class Americans, along with many similar economic problems.
Since environmental regulations gutted Change Islands’ fishing industry in the early 1990s, unemployment has skyrocketed. As a result, its local young population is moving away in search of a better future. If Change Islands were in the United States, it would likely be caught up in the populist wave of Trump-ism. But that hasn’t been the case.
Change Islands is part of a broader Canadian story. While populism seems to be sweeping across the West, Canada remains a glaring exception. As far right parties rise in Europe, England voted for Brexit, and the U.S. elected Trump, populist parties remain on the fringe of Canada’s right wing. Its recently elected progressive prime minister, Justin Trudeau, brags about appointing the most diverse cabinet in Canadian history and reacted to the U.S.’s ban on refugees by inviting refugees to seek Canadian citizenship. A poll last week showed 84 percent of Canadians disapprove of Trump. In Newfoundland & Labrador, the easternmost province of Canada where Change Islands is situated, Trudeau’s party won every seat.
This is despite the fact that rural communities across Newfoundland face profound challenges quite like those faced by rural America today. As in rural America, communities across rural Newfoundland have taken a heavy hit from automation; factories rarely locate in rural villages, so breadwinners are forced to relocate seasonally or permanently to Ontario or the Alberta tar sands to make a living. With the government-forced shutdown of the cod fishery — the economic backbone of rural Newfoundland — many fishers find themselves thrown out of work. As in rural America, there is a libertarian streak in communities that first experienced local government in the 1950s; when I asked Change Islanders what their grandparents would make of their present situation, many answered, “They would have pushed the regulator out of the [fishing] boat.” Communities with only the seasonal tourist industry to fall back on are aging and shrinking, facing uncertain futures, and mourning the loss of their traditions and values. And yet a reactionary populism is not taking hold here.
One key difference from rural America is that if we translate “Make America Great Again” to “Make Newfoundland Great Again,” the resulting slogan would make no sense. When Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, it did so as its most impoverished province; older rural residents vividly remember the 1950s as a time of high infant mortality rates, malnutrition, poor health care, back-breaking labor, and a continuous struggle to make ends meet. With Confederation to Canada, Newfoundland’s premier, Joey Smallwood, was in danger of losing most of his rural population to better economic conditions in mainland Canada. To counter this danger, he created visible improvements as quickly as possible. He built roads, strung electrical wires, built a telephone network, opened factories, and constructed hospitals — and every time he did one of these things he made sure everyone knew that his government had made them happen. The tradition of publicly celebrated, government-funded community improvement projects continues to this day, under both liberal and conservative governments. The last eight years have brought rural high-speed Internet, a new wharf for the fish plant, a public clean water supply facility, and a new, $50 million ferry.
The legacy of these projects is tangibly present throughout a Change Islanders’ day. Every time a Change Islander turns on the lights, she knows that government made it possible for there to be electricity on the island. Every time a Change Islander hops in a pick-up truck and drives over the bridge through the center of the island, he knows that government constructed and maintains that bridge, still named for the provincial representative who had it built in 1961. Every time a Change Islander shows up for her shift at the fish plant, she knows that government provided the wharf that keeps the plant open. And when Change Islanders queue up at the frequently broken-down new ferry, while they sometimes grumble about the lemon that the government just bought, they also know that, without government, there would be no ferry. You won’t hear Change Islanders praising government for supplying these bounties; as Canadians, they feel the same right to the basic amenities of modern life as city dwellers do. But you also won’t hear Change Islanders agitating for a candidate who vows to break the system that supplies these everyday needs.
In Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild argues that American rural political views are shaped by a sense that, while rural dwellers are working hard to try to get ahead, the federal government favors others who are not. In the U.S., what strikes many progressives is rural America’s apparent lack of empathy for marginalized others. But when looking at how this story contrasts with my experiences in rural Newfoundland, what is striking is how, in contrast to Newfoundlanders’ everyday experience of government support woven through their lives, rural Americans seem to feel abandoned by their own government.
This visceral sense of being left outside of the system explains many aspects of Trump’s popularity that would otherwise seem puzzling. It explains why rural counties that went for Barack Obama in the last two elections would go for Trump now. It also explains how Trump could be elected even though polls consistently showed throughout the campaign that a significant majority of voters felt Trump was unqualified for the presidency.
Most importantly, rural America’s feeling of abandonment by the system explains why Trump’s popularity with his base is not affected by the unworkable nature of some of his policies. The fact that the policies may not really work in the manner intended matters little in the face of the heady sense that now, at last, these self-understood outsiders’ perspectives are being addressed in the White House. What matters is not actually solving problems, but that people who felt abandoned by the system now feel included. These policies are doing important symbolic work.
What is more, objections raised about these policies are also doing important symbolic work: They are inadvertently cementing the bonds between Trump and his base. When those outside the Trump camp argue that the border wall and the refugee ban are ineffective and misguided responses to the challenge of securing our borders, those objections reinforce these policies’ symbolic weight to Trump’s core constituency. This is because, with every protest and every counter-argument, Trump is ever more visibly and tangibly standing up to the opposition to do something for his supporters.
People and organizations who want to offer an alternative to Trump can take a page from the Canadian book by going beyond Trump’s symbolic support to both symbolically and materially invest in rural communities, such as the $1 trillion infrastructure program recently proposed by Senate Democrats. But such support is not limited to new governmental programs; local and state governments can also make efforts to remind rural residents of what they are already doing for them. Political action groups can canvas rural communities’ needs and visibly go to bat for them. Volunteer groups can do work projects in rural communities. There’s a lesson to be learned from Newfoundland: that even communities facing dire times will remain invested in a shared political project if they feel that the country is also invested in them.