quebec Pierre Poilievre François Legault trumpification

The Trumpification of Canadian politics

“Political strategy that thrives on aggressive opposition and leverages pre-existing discontent, often fixated on elected officials, could lead to the steady deterioration of our political institutions.”

Toxic online behaviour is nothing new. As far back as 2015, I joined forces with other Quebec women to write a letter published in French-language daily Le Devoir imploring for the adoption of new editorial policies, better online moderating practices and legal tools to tackle online hate speech. We also denounced pervasive online threats targeting women. 

In 2018, I argued that some online platforms had become so bad, we ran the risk of letting tech companies stand as unaccountable platforms for content. 

A decade later, things have only gotten worse. In some circles, online abuse and threats issued to public figures are almost accepted as being part of “the job” — an ugly necessity or expected consequence. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is what I often see people callously comment after a politician or pundit shares that they’ve been a target of hate. 

Trump-style politics crossed the border

I like to call it the Trumpification of Canada. Like Donald Trump, who’s long been engaging in his “war” against “fake news” or mocking political adversaries, certain Canadian politicians are now also comfortable demonizing the press. Some don’t think twice about doing the same with their political opponents. Trump has succeeded in normalizing this type of nastiness, which only amplifies online abuse and emboldens partisans to feel that they can behave that way, too. I see far too many online accounts these days comfortably and openly spewing racist, misogynist, xenophobic, antisemitic or Islamophobic language. Some of that has certainly seeped into our politics. 

Much of what I saw written on signs and banners during the infamous “Freedom Convoy” in 2022 was beyond the pale. It deeply worried me. You can disagree with a democratically elected politician all you want, but to be walking around with a sign or piece of clothing displaying a noose and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s name is dangerous. It’s an incitement to violence. 

Last week, Trump posted a video that featured a disturbing image of President Joe Biden hogtied in the back of a pickup truck. Only a few months ago, Trump casually endorsed the idea that he should be able to assassinate opponents without being prosecuted, an idea put forward by his lawyers. He implied that a president should be able to enjoy immunity no matter what. 

None of this should be normalized. 

Toxic post-pandemic political climate

Since the pandemic, I’m sure most of us have noticed an uptick in rude, aggressive behaviour. I sometimes suspect something snapped in people already dealing with an emotionally fragile mental state. People don’t think twice about lashing out violently — online or in real life — at those they disagree with politically or ideologically.

“Not only did the pandemic worsen deep-seated issues such as mental health, homelessness, healthcare and political polarization,” Dalhousie University assistant sociology professor Michael Halpin told CTV, “it has made people think differently about one another.”

That anger has manifested itself in increased threats towards politicians and public figures. Politics has become more confrontational, more rage-filled, more hostile. 

In 2019, Québec solidaire member Christine Labrie filed complaints after receiving online abuse and targeted hate. 

A woman was recently arrested for allegedly harassing Longueuil Mayor Catherine Fournier, who was targeted by death threats in connection with the city’s plan to cull white-tailed deer living in a local park. 

A few weeks ago, a man was arrested for issuing threats against Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon.

Liberal MNA Marwah Rizqy faced death threats while she was pregnant and campaigning in 2022. 

Last month, Gatineau Mayor France Bélisle, the city’s first female mayor, announced she was stepping down, citing a hostile political climate and death threats as the main reasons. 

Of course, the risk of violence in politics isn’t new. Most Quebecers remember only too well the attempted shooting of PQ leader Pauline Marois at Metropolis in 2012, which left one person dead and another injured. 

But threats against Canadian politicians have become increasingly normalized. This could affect our democracy, as it could potentially discourage quality candidates from entering politics at all. 

A newly released intelligence report by a federal task force warned that threats against politicians have become increasingly normalized due to “extremist narratives prompted by personal grievances and fuelled by misinformation or deliberate lies.” The report found that “political polarization, conspiracy theories and growing distrust in the integrity of the state fuelled much of this vitriol.”

Political rhetoric not helping the situation

Yes, there are extremist narratives that some groups are peddling, but we should also be paying close attention to political rhetoric that undermines trust in our institutions. In the current climate, some politicians’ insistence on capitalizing on political discontent about “corrupt” or “compromised” institutions that can’t be trusted, fueling increasingly angry skepticism, runs the risk of aggravating the vitriol.

Despite the very real danger of such political manoeuvres backfiring and undermining the public’s trust in our institutions, more and more politicians appear comfortable playing this game. A game that Trump is very familiar with. 

The Quebec Bar recently criticized Premier François Legault for attacking the impartiality and independence of the courts by insinuating they are beholden to a particular level of government. It was a completely unfounded declaration, yet the premier made it in the hopes of undermining their work — and casting doubt on any potentially unfavourable-to-him legal rulings. It was a cynical political move.  

Along similar lines, when Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre states that “Canada is broken” or when he mocks and criticizes reporters and “corporate media” and “established interests,” he’s taking a page from the Trump playbook. He’s deliberately and preemptively trying to cast doubt about any critical coverage of him. 

Moves like those may have short-term political gain, but they’re dangerous. They risk eroding public trust and forever altering the Canadian political landscape. They cross a line, which then allows others to cross it, too. 

Political strategy that thrives on aggressive conflict and opposition and leverages pre-existing anxiety and discontent, which often fixates on elected officials, could lead to the steady deterioration and undermining of our political institutions. We cannot afford to take it lightly. ■

This column was originally published in the April 2024 issue of Cult MTL.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.