Darrell Bricker, a Laurier alumnus who obtained a PhD at Carleton University, has emerged as an astute observer of Canadian politics. This is not a surprise as observing Canada is his main occupation. As CEO of Ipsos Reid, Bricker continuously tracks public opinion about a wide variety of topics, not least of which is politics. He has published some of his insight in various books and articles, but nothing compares to the impact of his latest book, The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and what it Means for Our Future, co-authored with Globe & Mail columnist John Ibbitson, and published by Harper-Collins. The book is reflection of the authors’ views about some fundamental changes in Canada, supported in several occasions by data Ipsos-Reid gathered in an 2011 online election-day survey.
I interviewed Bricker recently about his book and he offers a wide array of answers touching on social values, immigration, Quebec, ideology and a possible NDP-Liberal merger, all, however, in attempt to provoke a greater conversation among Canadians. He even invokes John Porter, which guided some of Bricker’s thinking for this book. Equally thought provoking are answers to some of my questions.
Perrella: Why did you decide to write the book?
Bricker: Well, it was really very much a joint project between John [Ibbitson] and I. The reason we decided to write a book is that we had been talking about doing something together for a long time, but we never really got to anything that we were really that committed to. It was an interesting conversation. And then the 2011 election came along and both of us had been talking at the time about how much people just weren’t understanding what was really happening. If you listen to the narratives coming out of Ottawa you would think that Michael Ignatieff was in a very strong position of leadership and that Harper was done, that all of these issues about how the campaign was being run were going to be very determinative in the outcome of the election. None of that happened. Both of us were talking through the course of the election about how out of touch people seem to be, particularly in Ottawa, about what was going on in the rest of the country. So after the election, both of us were in a position and had an opportunity to explain what was going on. He did a speech for TVO on what he called the “Laurentian Consensus.” It was essentially about most of what we ended up writing about in the book. He sent me the link, or somebody sent me the link, and I watched it on Youtube and I remember I was sitting in the airport at Heathrow. I watched this thing and picked up the phone and called him and said, “I think you pretty much got it. Interesting argument but you don’t have any numbers – I have numbers and I am going to show you why you are more right than you think.” So what happened was we got together on that basis and the book is really meant, as we say in the conclusion, a provocation. It’s to say to people: “You think you understand the country, but the country that you think you understand no longer exists and it’s going to change even more through the future and you’re going to have to adjust just about everything about how you look at this place.”
Perrella: The term “Laurentian Consensus” is very much the major theme, if not the theme, of the book, and you write about its demise. Does this term appear defined only in your book? Do you now hear others referring to the “Laurentian Consensus?”
Bricker: No, I don’t necessarily hear the term “Laurentian Consensus.” Certainly the concept is interesting, when you take a look at Paul Wells’ book now on the Prime Minister. He’s basically saying the same thing, which is that Harper figured out that there is a new Canada and understands it better than the people that he faces. That’s essentially the argument. The “Laurentian Consensus” is this idea that we lay out in the first chapter, which is that we’re helpful fixers in the world, that the country is forever going to be defined by the poor regions being helped out by the strong regions, that bilingualism is an inherent feature of who we are, that power is determined by what happens in Ontario and Quebec and really not by anything else. It’s the major downtown cities, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal that decide everything and it’s the people who are the elites in those cities who run the country. That’s the way this place has been run for a very long time. And it’s funny, you still see this being played out in Ottawa right now, on the Duffy scandal. It completely dominates the news, everybody’s talking about it. I expect the impact on the rest of the country to be white noise. Why? No one cares. Ottawa as an institution that defines the country, pulling the country together, doesn’t nearly play the same role that it used to.
Perrella: So is the current political intrigue with the Senate and the PMO is just “inside baseball?”
Bricker: So much is these days. So for example, Michael Ignatieff’s bus tour that he did before the election, when he went around to get in touch with Canada. Everybody who was on the bus, basically came back and suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, in which they were all convinced that he was a wonderful campaigner and he was going to do a great job and that his numbers were going to move and that people were going to fall in love with him. But nobody paid any attention, at all. Nothing happened. I mean, go take a look at the last election, Michael Ignatieff walks out in front of the Peace Flame there in Ottawa and started talking about prorogation and undermining the house and that this is about credibility and responsibility of the government and all the rest of it. Look what happened to him. And this is what’s changed. So this idea that Ottawa and the people who are the elites of that group – who run the country – is now in question. And that’s basically the theme of book. The real theme of the book is really about how the population is massively changing.
Perrella: That is my next question actually because in some ways the book ties political and social changes to demographic changes. Which trends should we consider the most? Which ones should we really pay attention to?
Bricker: Well, I think that the biggest single change that we’ve got to look at is the growth in population, mostly from immigration, of the suburbs of Toronto and Western Canada. And given that we have a representation-by-population system and given that we have a birth rate of 1.7, the only way that we can sustain and grow our population is through immigration. And that all these people are choosing to move to “the 905” and Western Canada is going to have major implications for everything.
Perrella: You note that immigrants are key to electoral success in Canada. But are immigrants as cohesive and unified as an electoral bloc? Are they are as cohesive as you suggest or were they just organized effectively by the Conservatives?
Bricker: I think it’s probably Number 2, but there are certain overtones to Number 1 that are worth talking about. So if you look at the immigrants that are coming to Canada now, they’re very different from the immigrants that came here when your family came here or when my family came here. Basically they were Western Europeans, they were very Atlantic in their orientation, they shared a similar religious background and they were usually leaving at a time in their life when they were the most desperate. The immigrants that are coming to Canada now are coming mainly from three countries: 1) The Philippines, 2) mainland China, and 2) Indo-Pakistani. While some of these people do still come in as refugees, and some of them still do come in through family reunification, by far the biggest block that’s coming in now is our economic immigrants. These are people who are coming with skills, ready to hit the ground running and are making an impact on the economy, today. They’re defining what is happening in places like Toronto, particularly the suburbs of Toronto. It’s very different from the way that immigrants were before, which was kind of poor huddled masses looking for an escape from something. These are people who are the new class of immigrants that are coming in, particularly the ones over the last 20 years, are people who are coming to take advantage of the stability and tolerance of Canada in order to make the biggest advantage of the skills that they have. Very, very different from people escaping war and famine.
A lot of the book is: “Where does this go? What’s the logical conclusion in this?” And I’m not saying we have come up with every conclusion. In fact, the best critiques I’ve heard of the book were actually questions like the question you raised, which were “why are you assuming there is this monolithic concept of immigrants?” Different parts of the Asian communities behave differently; they have different values and all of the rest of it. If there’s a weakness in the book, That’s probably it, because all of this is so new and there is so little research to actually prove out points about how immigrants are going to vote and there’s so little history on any of this so that part will have to be proven over time. A lot of what we say on that is based on speculation about what we saw in the exit poll that we did and what John [Ibbitson] heard from the Conservative campaign and heard from other people. But also what we’ve seen on things like the Canadian Election Studies. So, it’s all new. The question is: what happens in the next generation of immigrants? What happens with the kids of immigrants? What happens in the next wave? Maybe the next wave’s not coming from India, maybe it’s coming from Africa. What are they going to do? So that’s the part of it that, for me, is open to a lot of criticism, critique, evaluation and additional information. It’s like when you wrote your PhD thesis, you had to write the chapter on areas of further investigation. If I was to write that at the end of this book, it would be about getting a much better handle on the values of immigrant voters.
Perrella: This demographic change probably challenges how Canadians view themselves. What does the book say about how Canadians actually see themselves?
Bricker: Well it’s very coincidental with how the rest of the world sees Canada. They see us as basically very tolerant, they see us as accepting, they see us having wonderful natural beauty, they see us as doing some things in terms of public policy absolutely correctly. So, for example, like health care. And they see us as a country that’s actually kind of poised and have a very good century. So it’s interesting what Laurier said back in the early 1900’s, that the 20th century will belong to Canada. In fact, he was probably a century early. What he should have said at that time though, was that the 20th century belongs to Quebec.
Perrella: The book suggests that as the government steers right, there will be increased interest for progressive politics, such as those that concern the environment and pipelines. To what extent would such a progressive counter movement raise the salience of issues that have divided people along traditional ideological lines, such as progressive taxation or protecting public health care?
Bricker: It falls around the edges. There’s no real debate whether we should set up a private parallel system of health care and whether you can opt out of the system. There’s really no debate on that big issue, which is the problem the medical community always gets itself into because it wants to start at the end, rather then taking people through the various steps that you need to go through to set up something different. That’s why they always lose, because they want too much change, too fast. But on the last, in fact, that’s the argument we make in the book, and this is going back to my Wilfrid Laurier political science training I got that from reading John Porter. And what I picked out of Porter, because I read the part of it that only guys like you and I read in the Vertical Mosaic, which is the chapter on politics, is the idea that Canada has been stunted in terms of its democratic growth by an over-arching problem, which Porter claims is a false problem of regionality and national meaning, and that the Liberal party has been able to organize a coalition based on that question: The jeopardy of Canada, Canada as a fragile nation. And his view was that when regionality no longer becomes the driving force, and when national unity no longer becomes the driving force, then what happens is elections are driven by issues of economics. And our view in the book is that as national unity becomes less of a question – and by national unity specifically I’m talking about Quebec separation – Quebec has less of a place in national politics, and hasn’t voted for a government party since 1988. As they have a lesser place in Canadian politics, then that allows economics to emerge. That doesn’t mean that Quebec isn’t relevant. Our view in the book is that where we’re going to find that progressive option having a bigger space is actually in Quebec. It’s probably going to start there. It will be Quebec, it will be the people in Atlantic Canada who feel left out by what the Harper government has been doing to regional dispersion and it will be people in the major cities who – you know, educated professionals – people who are in the helping professions, lawyers, public servants, those people who just can’t stomach the values of the conservatives. And you can see all of this coming together.
Perrella: What interest would Quebecers have to support such a progressive countermovement, while at the same time many might want to just simply abandon Canada, especially abandon an increasingly conservative Canada.
Bricker: That’s what Justin Trudeau said and it’s a very interesting comment in the context of 1995. The problem that Quebec has right now is that it’s basically becoming Canada’s grief. The argument that we make in the book, if you remember the chapter on Quebec (which I wrote by the way) is that the sovereignty movement of the 1990’s and the 1980’s is very different from the sovereignty movement today. And I go onto the example of the leadership of the sovereignty movement. And I was sitting there in my Lazyboy chair when I was writing this and just went on the Internet and looked up the age of Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau and Pauline Marois, Gilles Duceppe – they’re all old! There is no real new leadership that’s emerged that really connects with Quebecers today on the sovereignty movement. I was part of that 1995 battle and I remember the people who were having that fight and I remember going out and doing tons of focus groups and surveys at the time, and the mood in Quebec was actually very affirmative; it was very much, “we’re ready to be our own country in the world, we’re ready to see seize this opportunity.” That, to me doesn’t describe the sovereignty movement of today. The sovereignty movement today is like a small-world type of sovereignty movement, which is really focused on trying to hold on to what they have. As a result, I think that the sovereignty movement itself is going to face some fundamental challenges because that kind of aggressive need to be separated from the country to find your own place in the world only comes when you are in a position of strength, and they’re in a position of weakness right now relative to their economy and the status of their society. And we’re seeing it come out in their Values Charter. And as a result, in some ways, Quebec is going to be in a situation where it needs more Canada, and then it’s going to be “what is the kind of Canada that it needs?” What it needs is the kind Canada that is prepared to accommodate the needs of Quebec, which is more of a progressive type of an orientation. So the people who are left out on the snow bank on this, and we say in the book, are the Liberal party. The focus is not going to be on national unity in the old framework, but it’s going to be focused on the economics of distribution and redistribution in the country, what our economic division is going to be, whose is being left out that needs to be helped, and how taxpayers are going to react to that. That’s a very different type of politics and it doesn’t really know voters the same way.
Perrella: Not that your book is written to advise political parties’ strategists, you do advise opposition groups on how to beat Conservative would basically be to go to the suburbs and the West. But how receptive would such voters be to appeals by either the Liberals or the NDP?
Bricker: In my view, Canadians living in the 905 are people, in some instances, are relatively new to the electoral process, so they’ve either only recently become citizens or they’ve only voted in a couple elections or whatever, so it’s not like you’ve created a habit. And if you look at 300,000 immigrants coming every year, you can assume that every year there’s going to be a proportion of those who become voters and who become citizens from people from five or six years ago who came through for the first time in 2015. So I would say that if you can get the values right, if you can connect with those people, that’s how you win elections. And I’m not saying that they’re exclusively available to the Conservatives, just that the Conservatives got there first.
Perrella: You mention that the Liberals and the NDP will have to face one day the real prospect of merging. How would such a party position itself given the demographic and value changes you outline in the book.
Bricker: The other side of the Conservatives. In fact, what we say in this book is really clear on this. Just take everything the Conservatives are doing and do the opposite. There’s a whole coalition out there of people, hugely hungering for that and it’s actually bigger than the side that wants Conservatives. And so, to me, it’s pretty obvious, I mean it’s going to involve putting together the people who have been left out of whatever this economic program has been for Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. So Atlantic Canada, people in more marginal communities, the province of Quebec and people who are living in the downtowns of the major university cities across the country. And you can string it like pearls right across the country. That’s a winning coalition.
Perrella: But that’s not the old “Laurentian Consensus,” is it?
Bricker: No, it’s not. In fact, that’s what the book is about, the “Laurentian Consensus.” It would be a party that combines essentially what the NDP has going for it, which is the party of the afflicted and the people who want to help the afflicted, and those among the Liberal party who feel common cause with that and don’t like what the Conservatives are presenting for their vision for the country. To be very clear, that’s not the “Laurentian Consensus” view of the country. And then the other side of the equation is that of Stephen Harper, you know “economic strivers,” “less government is better,” focus on law and order, cutting taxes, reducing the role of government in the country, Canada as being not necessarily a helpful fixer in the world. All of those things that you see coming out of the Conservative party, and Stephen Harper specifically. He’s get a very good sense of what that other coalition wants.
Perrella: So then, what does this foretell for Canadian politics?
Bricker: Well, in my view, it’s a fool’s errand to try and predict what the future’s going to be. Who really knows? We put it out there more as a hypothesis about what the future looks like as one view of how the future might unfold. And there are probably other compelling ones that will be put together by others. But what I think what we’re seeing is probably the decline of the Liberal party, because it’s a coalition based on an agenda and a consensus that no longer really has as much purchase in the country anymore, and the growth of more of an ideological type of politics and what you have is a more clearly defined left and a more clearly defined right. And that the middle just gets filled in by those two sides of the coin.
Perrella: You seem to be describing a polarized Canada.
Bricker: Well, certainly polarized in the sense that it doesn’t have the centre that is used to. But if you take a look at most democracies around the world, that is basically what they are. And the reason they focus on that is because those are the fundamental questions that drive and animate a national politics, which is really related to economics. Canada, and I agree with John Porter on this, has been distracted by a debate over national unity that’s worked for the advantage of this Laurentian elite – they are the experts on it, they know how to build that coalition. But if that coalition is no longer dominant in Canada because of population change – and that’s what happened, the population changed – then you get what we’re getting now. And so the purpose of the book, as we say in the conclusion, is to politely grab people by the lapels and shake them and wake them up to that. You know, the great thing that the Laurentian elites gave us was an open immigration policy and a multiculturalism that tolerated that level of change. But, it’s also been the root of their own demise.
Perrella: Will you update the book after the next election?
Bricker: Oh, well it’s funny, it was kind of like a one-off project. It was like we were both in kind of the same mood. You can tell in the tone of the book, it’s kind of an aggressive tone and we were both in the same mood about the same topic. I don’t know if that will necessarily be the case after the next election, but knowing John and I, there’s a very good chance that it will be. I don’t know if it’s an article, if it constitutes a whole book, or maybe an update and a revision, maybe we”ll do that. I mean, there is some possibility to do that. I mean, I was somewhat shocked by the success of the book, to be honest. I’ve written four other books and all of them have done reasonably well, but none of them have got the type of attention that this one has. John was of the view that it would; I was of the view that it wouldn’t. So I was pleasantly surprised, met his expectations. So, I don’t know where it goes from here. It’s obviously in terms of what our goal was. Our goal was to try to change the political conversation and have people try to understand that politics is different from what they thought that they understood, and I think to a certain effect we certainly achieved that among the people who read the book. So the question is: is there something we can do to augment or adjust or improve that perspective. And that would be our reason to do a second book.