It is election season in Ontario, and for the first time, I’ll be voting. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, my citizenship is complete and my voter registration is in place. I can call myself “Canadian” with that much more conviction now, and the attention I pay to this country’s politics now weighs on a vote where it previously weighed on just my thoughts. In this unusually portentous time, I have been confronted not only with the mainstream parties, but with the tiny splinter parties trying to gain a foothold in real politics, as they litter public spaces with their signs and pamphlets. And they have reminded me that Canadian conservatives are pit-in-the-stomach terrifying compared to their American counterparts.
For my American readers, one of Canada’s peculiarities is that provincial and federal parties are nominally distinct. In practice, provincial parties tend to be aligned with a specific national party, but they often do not share names. I will highlight this wherever it is relevant.
Canada, and each of its provinces, has a mainline conservative party, in this case the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, whose general ideology straddles the line between the least objectionable US Republicans and the most objectionable US Democrats. This election also features a number of right-wing splinter parties, mostly founded since the last provincial election, and it’s these splinter parties that illuminated some dark truths about Canadian politics for me. Something I have had to get used to about the right-wing splinters is that they, unlike the mainline conservatives, are basically just the US Republicans with a coat of local paint. There are multiple such parties running candidates in Ontario’s provincial election with nearly identical platforms, sometimes even two or more in the same ridings (districts), all pitching themselves with variations on “the conservatives aren’t conservative enough, vote for a real conservative with us!” They quote Q-Anon conspiracy theories, they wear merchandise inspired by Donald Trump’s cult of personality, and their followers often seem to forget that Canadian laws and history are not the same as those of the US, citing nonexistent “First Amendments” and other Americanisms in their rants.
The most initially obvious difference between these arch-conservative factions and their inspiration in the US is that, while imitating the US Republicans in most ways, they swap out US-specific phrasing for Canadian phrasing, and they use different colors. However, there’s another, more fascinating and more insidious difference. US Republicans are often clever enough to bury their racism in law-and-order sophistries, but one can figure out the truth by watching them openly court white nationalists. Canadian conservatives, mainline or splinter, would never be so bold as to design a debate stage in the shape of an odal rune. Canadian right-wing parties are much subtler.
The Canadian ultra-right pitch has two key planks: courting would-be Christian theocrats and courting big business, especially natural resource extraction in Canada’s vast interior. Their candidates are frequently former police officers running in part on “law and order” rhetoric, they are almost always deeply religious Christians from right-wing denominations who passionately detest the level of acceptance and institutional support that queer people have in Canada, and they are usually both. Most of their professed desires only seem dangerous if one knows what lurks beneath their carefully anodyne rhetoric: enthusiastic support for “free speech” means attacking Canada’s hate-speech laws and trying to prevent consequences from ever reaching bigots for the bigoted things they promote. Fostering “energy independence” and “reducing energy costs” means more fossil fuel drilling, often on unceded indigenous land. “Creating jobs” means reducing labor protections and tax burdens on capitalists to expand low-wage sectors. “Protecting children” means destroying trans youth services, eroding Canada’s fragile protection for abortion services, and committing to a posture where any orientation but straight is seen as innately predatory to mention to children. “Choice in healthcare” means introducing for-profit options to begin the dismantling of Canada’s vaunted single-payer healthcare system, an immensely popular point of national pride that is very inconvenient for those who dream of US-style healthcare profits. Against this backdrop, the fact that all the splinters also pledge to end “woke politics” in schools or eliminate “critical race theory” from curricula feels like letting the mask slip, because it is. They have done everything they can to create a race-neutral version of conservatism, focused on anti-queer sentiments to satisfy theocrats and pro-business policies to satisfy the well-heeled.
That’s what makes them so chilling. The fact that they have so successfully branded themselves this way means that, in ways that are less true in the US, they explicitly and successfully garner both voting support and candidates to run from well-off, religiously conservative people of color. Even more than the mainline conservatives here (who are also frightfully good at this), these arch-conservative splinter parties that otherwise do everything they can to imitate the US Republicans have figured out how to present themselves in a way that resonates with gay people who think that oppressing trans people is their ticket into the mainstream, and people of color whose economic success means that their primary gripes with how Canada works are that their taxes are too high, their paths through the city have too many unpunished beggars on them, and their children are not compelled by law to adhere to their conservative Christian vision of what possibilities are allowed.
And those are the “lunatic fringe” of Canada’s right. Those are the people too rabidly conservative to see a future for themselves within the major, well-funded, well-recognized conservative party in their province. Those are the people who look at everything about the US that the rest of Canada prides itself in being better than and think, “we should do that.” Those are the people whose voters wear Canadian variations on Trump gear to rallies and occupy downtown Ottawa with bellowing big rigs for weeks at a time.
Canada’s mainline conservatives are still more discreet. Ontario’s mainline conservative party, the Progressive Conservative Party, combines its oxymoronic name with a deliberately mysterious pitch. It released no platform for the 2022 election and all prognosticating about its future activities is based on the budget they, as the incumbent majority, released for the year. The lack of a platform obscures their unpleasant history of equivocation and hedging on a variety of important issues, including trans issues, abortion access, racial discrimination, policing, and queer rights in general, where they do everything they can to be neither overtly hostile nor actually supportive. They expertly present themselves as holding Canada’s cultural line against the overweening idealism of the social democrats in the New Democratic Party and the preening duplicity of the centrist Liberal Party. They do most of the same things as the fringe parties but more quietly, less thoroughly, and/or with more vaguely positive things like funding retirement homes admixed. Their rhetoric is disciplined, effective, and tightly controlled by party leaders, an approach made institutional by former federal conservative leader Stephen Harper, who himself based it on things he learned from American political strategists.
Canada does not, most of the time, elevate numpties like Louis Gohmert to office. Doug Ford, current Progressive Conservative party leader and premier of Ontario, is one of the most clownish figures to ever hold the position, and he is a luminary compared to the sheer mendacious sociopathic incompetence of figures like George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump. The Canadian public, by and large, does not respond to that kind of foolishness positively the way much of the American public does. This is a society that still expects its leaders to be genteel, sophisticated, and rhetorically skilled, and Canada’s conservatives, even the ones so extreme that they feel rejected by the mainline conservative party, deliver on that. Even the most unhinged Canadian ideologue, who wants to sell this country piecemeal to American corporations if it means trans people suffer and his family can buy a yacht, can make that vision sound beautiful.
As an American far too acquainted with how the US Republicans’ biggest strategic failing is that their open courtship of white nationalists has made a lot of religious-conservative and/or economically-advantaged non-white groups leery of what Republican victories would mean in their districts…this is terrifying. I do not have to resort to lurid speculation to find out what level of horror could visit US communities of color if more of them felt safe among their ideological compatriots in the US’s arch-conservative party, because the platforms required to make that happen are already here, showing up at my door and scattered on the grass around my neighborhood. The conservative incumbent for Ottawa West is gay and the arch-conservative splinter candidate I’ve most recently been confronted with is the patriarch of a big Black Pentecostal(?) family. Canada’s right wing has a public-relations savvy that the US Republicans lost generations ago and a policy-crafting skill that the US Republicans mostly outsource to shadowy background figures like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. Republicans have gotten away with stoking McCarthyist terror, pretending to be everyman buffoons for so long that the lie became the truth, and manipulating the workings of the government itself to give them a nigh-insurmountable electoral advantage no matter how few people actually want them in office.
To listen to an American conservative is to come away appalled, confused, disgusted, amused, and angry, but listening to a Canadian conservative, one comes away chilled to the bone. American conservatives make only the barest attempt to conceal how overtly hateful they are of the people their policies harm, mock the very idea of intelligence and knowledge being valuable traits in a leader, and have all the tact and grace of a mayonnaise-and-gelatin salad from suburban Michigan. Canadian conservatives are masterful, efficient engines of slow regression, and they know just how to convince people to go along with it, and they happily accept the help of parents of color who cannot accept that their children might be queer whenever it is available. Canadian conservatives are the most intense object lesson in how the very worst, most dangerous people are not the frothing fools who think the world was created in six days, but the men and women in suits cooing sophistries about freedom and children while the rest of us sound an alarm that they are so very good at making seem overblown.
It isn’t. And Canada has only to look southward to find out what happens if it isn’t heeded.