For the last three weeks, Canada’s capital has been occupied by a swarm of angry truckers and anti-vaccine protesters. This self-styled “freedom convoy” has intimidated Ottawa’s pedestrians, kept its residents awake at night with incessant horn honking, and forced many of its businesses to shutter. Elsewhere in the country, demonstrators used their vehicles to successfully blockade important border crossings, most notably the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit, Michigan, to Windsor, Ontario. They have forced the mayor of Ottawa, the premier of Ontario, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to declare emergencies. The protests are, in short, perhaps the strongest challenge to the rule of law Canada has faced in the last four decades.

The convoy protests were initially motivated by opposition to vaccine mandates imposed on the trucking industry, but they quickly began targeting a wider range of COVID-19 restrictions. Even more troubling, the protesters have also embraced a stridently antigovernment, far-right agenda. Some have waved Nazi symbols and Confederate flags, called for the arrest of political figures, and threatened violence. Leaders have demanded the overthrow of Canada’s democratically elected government in favor of a convoy-led coalition. It is not hard to see shades of the United States’ January 6 insurrection.

These protests do not have as much popular support as did the January 6 riots, and it is highly unlikely that they will be able to inflict the same degree of literal or institutional damage. Polling shows that three quarters of Canadians want the demonstrators to go home, and 68 percent support using the military to clear out the protests. (An overwhelming majority of Canadians, including more than 80 percent of self-identified Conservative Party voters and some 90 percent of truckers, are vaccinated against COVID-19.) But even if they are in the minority, millions of voters support the convoy, and the Conservative Party—the main opposition party—appears keenly interested in winning them over. As a result, many Conservative members of parliament have enthusiastically supported the protesters, including their party’s interim leader and the front-runner to replace her as permanent leader.

If the Conservative Party does embrace right-wing populism, it would be a departure from its traditional moderation—one with troubling consequences for Canadian democracy. Appealing to less than a third of Canada’s populace may not usually be a winning campaign strategy, but Canada uses a first-past-the-post electoral system, which could allow the Conservatives to win power while coming far short of a popular vote majority, as they have before. Even if a radicalized Conservative Party can’t form a government, it could still inflict substantial damage on Canadian society. So far, Canada’s politicians have largely kept nativism and authoritarianism out of the discourse. But by playing footsy with the convoy, the Conservatives are inviting these ideologies into the fold.

THE RIGHT’S WRONG TRACK

Over the last two decades, many democracies have struggled with rising political tensions, growing divisions, and successful illiberal movements. Not Canada. Unlike the United States, it does not exhibit strong patterns of social polarization”—where partisan tribes are increasingly divided by race, religion, and other deeply held identities. Most Canadians do not wall themselves off from their political opponents, and there are few signs that they are becoming more extreme in their beliefs. India, the United States, and most of Europe have been hit by aggressive, powerful anti-immigrant movements, but Canadians remain broadly welcoming. The country’s residents are not open to undermining core democratic institutions in the pursuit of political power, and they broadly trust experts. Large majorities of Canadians continue to support restrictions and vaccine mandates to fight COVID-19, and 67 percent want further constraints imposed on the unvaccinated, whom they blame for prolonging the pandemic. The convoy protests are not tapping into a far-right zeitgeist.

But Canada is not free of nativists or other right-wing radicals, and they are making inroads in the Conservative Party. The party has long been torn between its moderate and right-wing factions, and traditionally, the former has kept a lid on the more extreme elements of the latter.  Now, however, the right-wingers are calling the shots. Earlier this month, the party ousted its previous leader—Erin O’Toole, a moderate who had criticized the convoy protests—and adopted a decidedly populist tact. After years of taking stances on the pandemic broadly aligned with public health directives, the Conservative Party now opposes COVID-19 mandates and restrictions, irrespective of public health conditions. It has made common cause with the convoy protesters. The party’s interim leader is Candice Bergen, a Manitoban who was once seen wearing a Make America Great Again” hat and has argued that there are “good people on both sides” of the demonstrations. Pierre Poilievre, the front-runner in the race to replace her, referred to the convoy as “peaceful, kind and patriotic.”

Why would the party link up with an unpopular movement? There is an internal compulsion: as the leadership race heats up, some Conservative members of parliament clearly believe the demonstrators will be useful voters, organizers, and donors. But there is also an external calculus. Many analysts attribute the party’s close defeat in the 2021 federal election not to the success of the Liberal Party but to the gains made by the fringe People’s Party of Canada—a far-right outfit that took five percent of the vote. The Conservative Party spent much of that campaign pivoting to the center, and some of its leaders believe that if they had run to the right and won the People’s Party five percent, they would have edged out the Liberals.

These leaders are mistaken. The People’s Party received much of its support from people who did not vote in the 2019 election, and it is far from clear that these voters would ever have supported the Conservative Party. Nonetheless, the Conservative Party’s elite appears to believe that they can simultaneously court far-right elements while retaining control of their party, keeping it electorally competitive with mainstream voices at the helm. This is the same dangerous gambit that U.S. Republican Party elites made when they embraced Trump after he won their primary. Instead, Republicans found themselves consumed by and beholden to the former president and his acolytes.

POISONING THE WELL

Canada, of course, is not the United States. It does not have political institutions that overrepresent the interests of right-wing demographics. Instead, Canada’s federal elections are most often decided by swing districts in culturally diverse Toronto and its suburbs, places where the Conservatives are already struggling to win. Lurching right is not a recipe for success.

But observers should still be concerned. Even if they can’t form a government, a far-right, antisystem Conservative Party could make Canadian politics more polarized and hostile. Political leaders shape public opinion, and a more extreme Conservative Party might radicalize millions of people, endangering disadvantaged communities. The United States experienced a troubling rise in hate crimes after Trump declared his candidacy, including before he took office. If one of Canada’s two major parties embraced a far-right ideology, it could lead to a similar upswing.

A more extreme Conservative Party might radicalize millions of people.

What’s more, a radical Conservative Party wouldn’t necessarily be locked out of power forever. Conservatives often benefit from the Canadian electoral system (although not in the same way as Republicans benefit from U.S. electoral and political institutions). Most Canadians may be left of center, but these progressive voters are split between the Liberal, Green, and New Democratic parties. The Conservative Party, by contrast, faces no serious challenge on the right, allowing it to win elections and form governments with much less than 40 percent of the vote. The more progressives divide, the easier the Conservatives’ path to victory. If they win power after making a hard-right turn, nativism and populism could become policy. The party could pass laws that restrict immigration. It could divorce health and climate policies from scientific research.

And if the Conservative Party finds that it is no longer competitive, Canadian democracy could suffer in a different way. When political parties stop needing to worry about elections, they tend toward complacency and, ultimately, poor governance. Authoritarian regimes provide the clearest examples, but democracies dominated by one party also run into problems. Canada, in fact, is a case and point. The Liberal Party controlled Ottawa for much of the twentieth century without serious opposition, and it regularly got mired in major corruption scandals.

The Trudeau government has already had its own share of ethical lapses, including allegations that it sought to protect a Liberal-friendly engineering company, SNC-Lavalin, from prosecution. Like any administration, it would benefit from a powerful and scrupulous opposition party that can keep it honest by seriously contending for power. But in order for that to happen, the Conservative Party cannot lose itself to extremism. Otherwise, it risks relegating itself to the wilderness—and poisoning Canada’s political discourse on its way out.

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  • ERIC MERKLEY is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
  • More By Eric Merkley