The View from Canada

Watching the U.S. primaries from up north is oddly familiar, inspiring, and terrifying.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore

I’m holding Donald Trump’s hair piece.

It’s the middle of the 2015 federal election in Canada where I’m running as a candidate for the NDP (a social democratic party), and I’m at a popular downtown Toronto gay bar. The evening features the city’s best drag queens performing political showstoppers and one of queens is dressed as Donald Trump, lip syncing lines from “The Apprentice.” She’s funny and fierce. She ends her piece by throwing The Donald’s toupee into the audience. I catch it, and it feels like I won a prize.

Just the year before I was at a similar performance, but the queens were making fun of Rob Ford, Toronto’s former crack-smoking mayor. While known to the world for his drug scandal, in the LGBTQ community he was known for refusing to march in our city’s pride parade year after year, even when Toronto hosted World Pride in 2014.

The rise of Donald Trump is familiar to Torontonians because Rob Ford speaks the same language. Like Trump, he’s a master of slogans, sound bytes, and keeping it simple stupid, delivering a refreshing voice that sounds like a real human being. Trump’s Twitter handle @realdonaldtrump drives this point home. They are both rich successful white men, born to wealthy, powerful fathers, who present like average Joes, sweaty red faces and all.

Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Photo by West Annex News

My American friends are quick to point out that at least Rob Ford wasn’t racist. Rob Ford used so many racial slurs, the list became too long to recall. This included “nigger,” “fucking kike,” ­ “fucking wop,” “dago,” “Paki,” “Oriental people,” “Gino-boy,” and the catch-all “fucking minorities.” Despite this, he won support from many “minority” groups. His supporters, known as Ford Nation, felt he was standing up for the little guy. Perhaps the slurs were part of the big middle finger he represented to a system failing too many.
But this wasn’t a policy or a platform you say? Our former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper took care of that. Harper campaigned with Rob Ford and his brother Doug Ford (who later ran for mayor when Rob announced he was fighting cancer), using terms in debates like “old stock Canadians.” During the federal campaign, the Conservatives proposed a hotline to report “barbaric cultural practices” as well as banning niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. Fear driven politics comes with volume knob. On one end is the loud-mouth “build a wall” and “ban Muslims” Trump-Trump-Trump chants, at volume 11. On the other end, there’s a polite, symbolic Canadian whisper saying the same thing.

Two groups are watching the U.S. race very closely here in Canada, social democrats and conservatives. The NDP went from official opposition to 44 seats on election night, due to a Liberal wave and promise of sunny days from the centrist party that campaigned both to the left (the rich should pay more in taxes) and the right (Bill C51, supporting surveillance legislation in the name of “anti-terrorism”), depending on the issue. Watching the rise of self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, and big and bold statements from “tuition and debt free college” to “dismantle the banks,” his campaign inspires us social democrats greatly. I can’t think of the last time such a popular candidate called for a “political revolution.” Bernie’s message is clear, and it’s connecting. The NDP’s wasn’t. As my party attempts to rebuild and reexamine who we are and what we stand for, win or lose Sanders shows us the way.
The NDP wasn’t the only party that suffered a big loss last year; the Conservatives moved from government to official opposition, and are now searching for a new leader, and perhaps a soul. A conservative pundit I know fears that the rise of Trump could move Conservatives here in Canada to electing a populist leader, splintering the Conservative party similar to what’s unfolding right now with Trump. Kevin O’Leary of “Shark Tank” (which was modeled after his show “Dragon’s Den” here in Canada) is already testing the waters, saying he’s considering a run for both the Conservatives and Liberals. He’s made several media appearances, stating outrageous things, likely in an effort to conduct his own internal polling or seeing if he can trump the media. He can.

Google searches for “how to move to Canada” spiked 350 per cent on Super Tuesday.

So to all the Americans searching “how to move to Canada” after each Trump primary win, please be warned. We’re just as stressed. This has happened here. While on lower volume, income inequality is squeezing people out and Canadians are looking for someone to do something about it. The NDP, the Conservatives, and the governing Liberals realize this, and are watching the U.S. race closely, furiously taking notes.

Jennifer Hollett has reported for CBC, CTV, and CHUM. She was a federal NDP candidate in the 2015 Canadian election, as well as the digital director for Olivia Chow’s 2014 Toronto mayoral campaign. Jennifer has her Masters of Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School and is the co-founder of Super PAC App.