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Small Business Radicalism and the Canadian Far Right (Part One)

 March 27th, 2024

Jordan House 

This is the first of a two-part series on small business and the far right in Canada. 


Scholars have long identified the petty bourgeoisie—small business owners, the self-employed, professionals, and some strata of salaried employees—as the main social base of insurgent fascist movements. This, of course, is not to deny historical (and contemporary) support by both elites and workers for far-right movements. It is clear that, even in Canada, far-right movements and politicians enjoy some elite support.

Despite many commentators’ focus on the dangers of an increasingly anxious “white working class,” research from both the US and Canada shows that the precarious (if not actually downwardly mobile) petty bourgeoisie in both countries are undergoing a radical rightward shift and becoming a much more significant political force. This dynamic is clear in Donald Trump's petty bourgeois-supported takeover of the Republican party. As one analysis estimates, 40% of those who participated in the January 6, 2021 storming of the US capitol were business owners and white-collar workers.

The pressures that generate this small business radicalism are real and plentiful. Small businesses (including small farms) have been squeezed by foreign competition in the free-trade era. They are highly sensitive to taxes and regulation—labour, environmental, and, of course, government COVID mitigation measures. As made clear by some small business leaders, wage subsidies for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic were understood as undermining labour market “flexibility” by giving workers (nearly 68% of whom work for small businesses) some protection from illness during the pandemic. At the same time, small businesses, and especially the self-employed, were largely left out of government pandemic assistance programs. These factors easily coalesce into a right-populism that exults hard-working entrepreneurs who are besieged from below by greedy and disloyal workers, and above by elites who have sold them out to international financialized capital—even as they implement “socialism” in the form of minor interventions into the market.

Small business owners played a central role in anti-COVID mandate protests, which served as a critical point of aggregation and mobilization for a revitalized far right. Perhaps the most high profile was Adam Skelly, owner of Toronto’s Adamson Barbecue who, in 2020, openly flaunted restrictions on indoor dining in his restaurant. This act of civil disobedience made Skelly a darling of the anti-mandate movement. Skelly attacked the provincial government for “singling out” locally owned bars, restaurants, and retail outlets while “the big multinational corporations are all essential.” Skelly’s campaign attracted a melange of supporters, including the likes of conservative columnist Rex Murphy, anti-vaccine activist Chris Sky, and notorious white supremacist Paul Fromm.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who did not mince words when denouncing Ontarians who had violated government restrictions as a “bunch of yahoos,” took a much more congenial approach to Skelly. While still disapproving, in the case of Skelly Ford stated, “I’m not going to get up here and start pounding on a small business owner when the guy’s hanging on by his fingernails…My heart goes out.” Skelly’s status as an entrepreneur evidently granted him some veneer of respectability compared to other rule-breakers.

Anti-mandate animus—and the hodgepodge of conspiratorial and far-right politics that was intertwined with it—had some considerable overlap with mainstream conservatism. This was clear in the case of a number of controversial politicians who broke ranks with their parties on issues related to the pandemic, as well as those who publicly supported or participated in anti-mandate protests. In fact, a central way many of these politicians and parties have come to distinguish themselves from their mainstream rivals is by claiming to be the true defenders of small business

Much more could be said about the veneration of entrepreneurialism that is hegemonic in Canadian politics. However, for now, it must suffice to say that business owners and entrepreneurs play a central role in even the most extreme and unhinged corners of the far-right ecosystem. This is sometimes in earnest, as in the case of Thomas White, the owner of a Thunder Bay, Ontario coffee shop who, in 2018, was revealed to be one of the co-hosts of the Canadian neo-Nazi podcast, “This Hour Has 88 Minutes.” In other cases, politics seem to serve as a means of grift. To give just one example, Romana Didulo, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Canada” who leads a QAnon-inspired movement, was reportedly a serial failed entrepreneur, founding several businesses with “questionable output,” before taking up her current role as cult leader. Didulo, it must be noted, appears to sustain her political activities and lifestyle entirely by donations from her followers. 

While workers were undoubtably part of the 2022 Freedom convoy that occupied downtown Ottawa and blockaded border crossings, as others have noted, it is very unlikely that many employees would be able to attend multi-day protests with company vehicles worth tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, without their bosses’ permission. In fact, it is possible that some workers attended these protests on the clock. As Jacob McClean has chronicled in a forthcoming book chapter, it is likely that some of the workers who participated in the earlier 2019 United They Roll convoy were paid by their bosses to be there. Other commentators have highlighted the hostility of the convoy movement to organized labour, as well as denunciation of the protests by trucking industry unions and associations.   

The Freedom Convoy was largely made up of—and led by—business owners. These included owner-operator truckers like protest initator Brigitte Belton and trucking company owners like Belton’s husband Chris Barber. Other prominent figures included Jonker Trucking’s Harold Jonker, a veteran far-right activist and major figure in the Christian Heritage Party. It also included many business owners who are, in whole or in part, dependent on the Alberta tar sands—like OP Fire & Safety owner and convoy leader Glenn Carritt. This “fossilized petty bourgeoisie” represents a rabid vanguard within the movement—with worrying links to big capital in the form of banks and multinational extractive corporations. Tamara Lich, the most prominent leader to emerge out of the convoy, also fits the fossilized petty bourgeois mold. A former personal trainer and daughter of trucking company owners, Lich worked as an administrator in the oil and gas industry before becoming a full-time political organizer for fringe right-wing Western separatist parties, Wexit Alberta and Wexit Canada. 

Small business sympathies for the convoy also manifested through business associations and lobby groups. Business organizations dominated by big capital, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council of Canada, and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, made their opposition to the convoy clear, taking particular umbrage at the disruption to trade caused by boarder blockages—and all supported the use of the Emergencies Act to end the protests. However, one business organization took a very different approach. The Coalition of Concerned Manufacturers & Businesses of Canada (CCMBC), a conservative small and medium-sized business association founded in 2016 in response to Ontario’s adoption of a carbon cap and trade system, openly supported the convoy. Moreover, unlike other business groups, it denounced the invocation of the Emergencies Act, albeit in the name of freedom of speech and assembly.         

There is an urgent need to take seriously the class politics that are driving far right activism. Most critically, such an approach gives lie to notion that centrist politics, of either the left or right variety, are adequate for combatting the far right. In fact, neoliberal economic and social policies —which enjoy near, if not total, consensus among mainstream parties—have laid the foundation for the rise of the far right in Canada and elsewhere. In part two of this series, I consider the class character of the Coutts border protest that occurred within the broader Freedom Convoy and consider the implications for challenging a far right that is rooted in the petty bourgeoisie.

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Dr. Jordan House