Right-wing populism gaining foothold in Manitoba
Anti-vaccine sentiments giving rise to disturbing new party

The rise of populism during periods of political crisis is a common trend across the world. Populism is a rhetorical type of politics which aims to centre its discourse around corruption and the people’s desire to topple status quo regimes for common benefit. The movements are generally led by a strong figure who is idealized by audiences by making broad and vague policy promises.

For example, following the 2007-08 financial crisis, nations hit with fiscal hardship were also flooded with populist and far-right political movements. Countries like Italy, Brazil, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States were all gripped with strong right-wing populist movements after the stock market failed. A growing population felt polarized and dogmatic leaders around the world exploited this.

However, Manitoba throughout the decades has been relatively unscathed by the populist fervour that has been rising across the world. Although the People’s Party of Canada, one of Canada’s most central populist parties, had candidates in most of Manitoba’s ridings during the 2019 election, none of them managed to make a significant splash in the political arena that year. COVID-19 could change this, however.

A new group calling itself the Keystone Party of Manitoba — made up primarily of dissatisfied Progressive Conservative (PC) voters — is forming a reactionary party in response to the provincial health mandates. The party aligns itself with vague principles that could mean anything to readers without support from concrete policy statements. Notable listings appearing to align with most PC voters include market economics, small government and — the most blatant contradiction to the latter — the expansion of police forces and the justice system.

Committee member Charlene Hancox-Senow seemed to target the PCs in an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press.

“The PCs can say ‘These are our principles,’ but if your actions are not backing up your principles, you’re losing your credibility among the citizens,” said Hancox-Senow in the interview.

However, the Keystone party is riding the wave of anti-vaccination, mask and mandate rallies in hopes that it can establish a foothold in Manitoba’s legislature. This is a strategy the PCs have been unwilling to overtly commit to, even if there have been moments of pandering and policy failures along the way.

Keystone representatives said they support vaccinations and only wish to purportedly “defend” the rights of the unvaccinated. But support from the party in its early stage is coming from those districts with the largest unvaccinated populations like Winkler, Man. and southern Manitoba at large. Currently, Winkler has some of the lowest vaccination rates in Manitoba.

Winkler mayor Martin Harder has already indicated support for the party. In August, Harder publicly denounced the new health mandates which restricted unvaccinated populations from entering non-essential establishments like bars and restaurants. In a comment with the CBC, the mayor used typical anti-mandate rhetoric, calling the government’s policy “discriminatory” and segregative, raising eyebrows among his political colleagues.

Although Harder has taken the depraved position to represent the unvaccinated in Manitoba, he has indeed been vaccinated, and after his shot this summer he received death threats via text message. This kind of conspiracy-fuelled rage represents the danger of the anti-vaccine fringe. Further, it displays how easy it is to trigger their reactionary character. The Keystone party says it is pro-vaccine, but by championing the unvaccinated, the party may be making its first steps toward a vocal and potentially violent population fuelled by conspiracy and damaging convictions.

Economic insecurity, immigration policy and distrust in government organizations are usually the issues that give rise to populism. As voters watch economic security decline along with rising ethnic diversity, conservative and mostly white populations’ sense of cultural hegemony is threatened, leading to corrosive anti-immigration discourses. However, COVID-19 is influencing a new type of populism. While the pandemic has certainly caused an unprecedented level of economic insecurity, unvaccinated and anti-mandate populations claim their ability to participate in civic forums and public life are being threatened, too — in other words, according to them, their sense of cultural influence is being restrained.

The Keystone party has not yet become official and it may be considered a writeoff now, but Manitoba constituents must be wary of the potential tide of populism that could rise in the province.