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York Research Chair

The Observatory of Populism in Canada was founded as part of the York Research Chair in Populism, Rights, and Legality, held by Emily Laxer, Associate Professor of Sociology at York University’s Glendon Campus. The Chair’s broad aim is to discover the impacts of emerging populisms on contemporary debates over constitutional reform, minority rights, and the rule of law in Canada. It is composed of several interrelated research projects, undertaken by Dr. Laxer and a team of York graduate students.

Here is a quick glance at some of these projects:

Introduced in 1982, the Notwithstanding Clause allows Canada’s federal and provincial parliaments to override sections 2, and 7 through 15, of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a period of up to five years. Apart from its repeated use by Québec’s provincial government between 1982 and 1985, the clause was invoked just four times prior to 2000. Yet, since 2017, it has been credibly wielded six times by governments in Ontario, Québec, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick. 

What role, if any, has the rise of populism played in this accelerated use of the Notwithstanding Clause? Laxer and her team are working to answer this question, by analyzing parliamentary debates pertaining to recent, high-profile uses of the clause in Ontario and Québec.

The first-ever Ontario Premier to invoke the clause, Doug Ford used it in 2021 to sidestep challenges to Bill 307, which restricts third party advertising for 12 months preceding elections. Ford’s government also threatened, but ultimately did not use, the Notwithstanding Clause on two additional occasions: in 2018, to circumvent objections to Bill 5, which diminished the size of Toronto’s City Council; and in 2022, to impose a contract on Ontario’s education support workers and override their right to strike (Bill 28). Invoking the Notwithstanding Clause has also become a regular habit of François Legault’s Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) government, which used it in 2019 to prohibit certain public sector employees in Québec from wearing religious signs on the job (Bill 21), and in 2021, to protect its language reforms bill (Bill 96) from Charter challenges. 

Preliminary findings suggest that, in justifying the of the Notwithstanding Clause on these five occasions, the Ford and Legault governments have drawn on a framing of the “people” versus the “elite” that is characteristic of populism. Yet, their differing ideological agendas ultimately produced differing strategic approaches to rights and legality. 

Passed in December 2022, the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act (ASA, for short) ostensibly empowers the Alberta government to disregard federal laws that it deems either outside federal jurisdiction or otherwise “harmful” to Albertans. Proponents describe the ASA as defending the interests of the Albertan “people” against Ottawa “elites” who impose harmful environmental and public health policies. Critics, on the other hand, have described the ASA as undemocratic and even unconstitutional. This bill is therefore an ideal case study of the relationship between populism and the rule of law.

In this project, Laxer and her team aim to discover the underlying forces behind, as well as the consequences of, the ASA. They ask:

  • How does the ASA fit within the history of Albertan political culture, particularly its emphasis on “Western alienation” and the political economy of fossil capitalism? 
  • Is Smith’s populism a simple continuation of longstanding right-wing populist traditions in Alberta?  Or does it represent a radicalization of these tendencies?   
  • What role have autonomist, separatist, and “freedom” groups played in Smith’s rise to power and the ASA, and what are the implications for understanding the “mainstreaming” of the far-right in Alberta?

The study draws on multiple data sources, including newspaper reports, opinion polls, publicly available interviews with – and content published by – influential civil society actors and organizations, and parliamentary debates.