Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson write,Countries around the world have been gripped by an incoherent, rage-fuelled nihilism that rejects elites on the left and the right. It’s not income inequality, as many think, but a fear of immigrants undermining culture and a way of life.”

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

History, social studies, current events

Key Question to Explore:

  • What are the forces driving populism in western democracies?

New Terminology:

Nihilism, nativism, coalesce, counterintuitive, demagogues, synergies, Brexit

Materials Needed:

Globe article

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

The polarization of western societies into two diverging, vehemently opposed groups is evident when the subject of Donald Trump comes up. But it’s not only an American phenomenon. Europeans and Canadians are increasingly polarized on the direction that politicians are taking their countries. No doubt many students in your class are among them, some arguing for leaders like President Trump, and others preferring leaders like Justin Trudeau, for example.

The Trump camp tends to be described as populist and the president as a populist leader. (In Ontario, where a provincial election looms, Conservative leader Doug Ford is so described by many). One dictionary defines populism as “support for the concerns of ordinary people,” and “the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.” Many experts have assumed that the concerns of ordinary people are primarily economic, the result of having been sidelined by globalization. Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson argue that economics is not the major driver.  Rather, they say, it is a nativist issue, “…a fear of immigrants undermining culture and a way of life.”

This lesson allows students to read and reflect on their own and their community’s views relative to populism and/or nativism. Students will read the article in class, discuss it briefly, and then, working in pairs, they will conduct a survey to see the extent to which the article’s main claims apply to the people in their community.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Engage students in a short discussion about polarization in politics. Ask for a show of hands:

  • Does Donald Trump tend to represent your point of view in his speeches and tweets, or does Justin Trudeau? (Note that other Canadian political party leaders are not yet as well-known as Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Trump, hence these examples)
  • Ask students if they can explain their opposing positions. They should attempt to speak directly to the points, without ranting or engaging in personal attacks on the leaders in question.
  • Have students look up meanings for nativism and populism and read them to the class.
  • Although it will take some time, have volunteers read the article aloud in class. Answer questions they may have, as you are able.

Next, students are to work in pairs to conduct a survey to see the extent to which fellow students and citizens of their community agree or disagree with the article’s key claim: that nativism, more than economics, is causing the rift between the two groups and their followers.

For the survey, students are to elicit the opinions of at least five senior high school students, their own parents or guardians, and at least five fellow citizens in their community. They can choose anyone they like, but no one person should be surveyed more than once, and those surveyed are to remain anonymous.


  • In your opinion, what is the main reason that voters have supported and continue to support President Donald Trump:
    • the state of the economy (jobs, for example);
    • too many immigrants coming into the country;
    • the “wrong” kind of immigrants coming into the country?
    • (If all three, arrange them in order of priority)
  • Do you believe that the immigrants coming to Canada are threatening your way of life? Yes/No
  • Do you believe that race or skin colour of immigrants plays a role in the views you hold? Yes/No
  • Would you describe yourself as being a member of a visible minority? Yes/No

Students should prepare a report, indicating the numbers and types of responses received for each question, noting any differences in responses from people who identify as being part of a visible minority. They should suggest explanations for any differences found and summarize findings in a short paragraph which shows the ways, if any, that the survey supports or disputes Darrell Bricker’s and John Ibbitson’s claims. Finally, students should offer their own opinion on whether they feel immigrants are “diluting” their culture or sense of being Canadian.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Students present and discuss oral reports on their findings to class.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students can define populism and nativism and describe ways these terms apply to the current political climate in North America.

Confirming Activity:

  • During coming elections, students identify politicians’ attempts to play to nativist and populist voter sentiments.