Could It Happen Here?

Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit

By Harold Jansen

by Michael Adams
Simon & Schuster
2017/$24.00/192 pp.

The results of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States have Canadians feeling pretty good about themselves. As the two countries Canada has its deepest historical ties with increasingly turn inward, Canadians seem to be embracing their position in the world, welcoming immigrants and refugees and pursuing tolerance and moderation. But should Canadians be so jubilant? Is Canada immune to this global epidemic of anti-immigrant populism? This is the question Michael Adams poses in the aptly titled Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit. Adams is ideally situated to answer this question because of his long history of work in understanding public opinion trends in Canada and the US.

It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that this slim volume provides a largely reassuring answer. Adams has long argued (most forcefully in his Donner Award-winning book Fire and Ice, published in 2003) that the US and Canada appear headed in different directions. Adams paints a mostly convincing case for a Canada whose citizens have accepted the norms of inclusivity and tolerance, particularly when it comes to immigrants. Adams is candid about some of the reasons for Canada’s success on this score; although he lauds Canadians’ commitment to these values, he recognizes the role of an immigration policy that favours well-educated immigrants. Adams acknowledges the differential rates of economic and educational success of different racial groups in Canada, but finds comfort in the fact that Canadians seem aware of the discrimination that some newcomers to Canada face, an issue he explores at length with regard to Canadian Muslims. Adams also notes the role of Canada’s commitment to reducing income disparity and that Canadians are generally content with their economic situations. Finally, although Adams voices concerns over low voter turnout, he argues that Canadian democracy is relatively robust, at least compared to its neighbour to the south.

Adams tempers this generally opti-mistic picture with enough nuance to be balanced and measured, noting, for example, that Indigenous peoples have often not benefited from the upward mobility and inclusion he discusses.

Adams’s book is brisk, readable and informative, deftly covering a lot of ground. Its brevity is sometimes a weakness: Adams focuses on aggregate trends in public opinion in Canada and only rarely provides information on regional or other breakdowns—data that could help in understanding where broader Canadian values are perhaps less strongly supported. It is easy to forget that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump but that Trump’s support was distributed in a way that was rewarded in the electoral college. Aggregate data tell only part of the story.

Adams paints a reassuring picture for Canadians, but is it convincing? He portrays a political process that sees political elites as largely constrained by and responsive to public opinion. However, political elites can also play a role in shaping that opinion. Trump’s rise to power seems to have legitimized and amplified some previously marginalized views in American society. Seen this way, Kellie Leitch’s candidacy for the federal Conservative leadership and the 2015 Conservative campaign’s willingness to engage in dog-whistle politics should be seen as warning signs of cracks in a national consensus. Nevertheless, even if Adams cannot definitively say it could never happen here, his book is reassuring in identifying such a shift as unlikely, at least in the short term.

Harold Jansen is a professor of political science and chair of the political science department at the University of Lethbridge.

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