Pierre Poilievre and the anti-elite populism that won the day

·8 min read
Newly elected Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks at the Conservative Party of Canada leadership vote in Ottawa on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Newly elected Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks at the Conservative Party of Canada leadership vote in Ottawa on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

As a university student, Pierre Poilievre won $10,000 for an essay explaining how, as prime minister, he would build his government on a platform of freedom — a message he just used to move a step closer to that job by becoming leader of the Conservative Party.

During his campaign for the leadership, Poilievre promised to make "Canada the freest country on Earth" by limiting the reach of government.

It was a theme lifted straight out of that 2,500-word essay he wrote while a 20-year-old student at the University of Calgary.

"The most important guardian of our living standards is freedom," he wrote. The government's job, he argued, "is constantly to find ways to remove itself from obstructing such freedoms."

Poilievre echoed that theme during his campaign in part by promising to repeal Bill C-11, which he said would give the CRTC too much authority to regulate online content and restrict freedom of speech.

Poilievre also said he would ban all future vaccine mandates related to work and travel — a message that aligned his campaign with the stated goals of the trucker protests in Ottawa and across the country earlier this year.

Christopher Cochrane, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said that while he was surprised Poilievre chose to align himself so closely with the messages of the trucker protests, it doesn't appear to have damaged him in the race for the Conservative leadership.

"From a strategic standpoint, it's almost as if they saw a greater threat in the People's Party than they did in losing the progressive element of their party to the Liberals," he said of Poilievre's campaign strategy.

"There's absolutely nothing in his messaging that suggests he is anything other than a Conservative and those sorts of messages have advantages and disadvantages in the electoral context, but the classic advantage is that they appeal to the party base."

An 'unapologetic conservative'

In appealing to that party base, Poilievre has been fishing for votes among those who knew him as an early Harper Conservative first elected at the age of 24 under the banner of the merged Conservative Party.

"He was there when he was young and he was always perceived as somebody enthusiastic, charismatic, willing to fight and willing to engage on the level that was maybe abrasive. But they always liked this kind of combativeness in him," said Jean-Christophe Boucher, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

"He is a kind of unapologetic conservative … and somehow party members have found comfort in this kind of person because he's not somebody that's different. They know what he stands for. They actually respect that."

Born in Calgary to a 16-year-old single mother, Poilievre was adopted by francophone school teacher parents and raised in Calgary, where he found his political affiliations.

If today Poilievre is a known quantity in the party and the new favourite of its base, it may be because he spent much of his life swinging a sword for the conservative cause.

At the University of Calgary he led the campus Conservative club before working as an intern for Jason Kenney in the summer of 1999 and then performing policy work as a staffer for Canadian Alliance MP Stockwell Day from 2002 to 2004.

After winning a seat in the Ottawa-area riding of Nepean-Carleton in 2004 — knocking Liberal defence minister David Pratt out of his seat — Poilievre went on to re-election in 2006.

In the 39th Parliament, then-prime minister Stephen Harper appointed Poilievre parliamentary secretary to John Baird, president of the Treasury Board. The following year he was made parliamentary secretary to the prime minister.

The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick
The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

Even as he rose through caucus ranks, that abrasive and combative behaviour Boucher mentioned did not always avoid the ire of Harper and the party he led.

In 2008, Poilievre was made to apologize after musing in a radio interview about whether Canada was "getting value for all of this money" spent on compensating Indigenous residential school survivors — an interview that aired the same day Harper was scheduled to apologize publicly for residential schools.

Such missteps did not derail Poilievre's career. Harper elevated him to cabinet in 2013, making him minister of state for democratic reform. In that role, Poilievre introduced the controversial Fair Elections Act, which had to be amended when critics claimed it would compromise Canadian democracy.

Poilievre was then made minister of Employment and Social Development in early 2015, gaining further executive experience.

Jean Charest's moderate message failed to resonate

"Poilievre is more credible than [leadership rivals] Roman Baber, Leslyn Lewis ... because he's a high-profile former cabinet member and he seems more conservative than Jean Charest, who literally campaigned on being a moderate," said Randy Besco, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

"Generally, the candidate that is the more conservative and also credible wins."

Political observers note that Erin O'Toole lost his grip on the Conservative leadership after he ran for it seeking votes from social conservatives, moved to the centre during the federal election and ended up with nothing to show for it.

Boucher said O'Toole's ouster, and the reasons behind it, framed the race to replace him as a search for an anti-O'Toole candidate — a race that left former Quebec premier Charest out of the picture.

"The reason why Conservatives really like Poilievre is that he's never changed since he first ran," Boucher said. "He has values that are clear-cut. He doesn't move between options and he's not O'Toole."

Experts say that — aside from offering a moderate message right after O'Toole tried doing the same thing and failed — Charest also suffered from voter fatigue. While he's experienced — he led the federal Progressive Conservatives, served in Brian Mulroney's cabinet and was premier of Quebec — people may have gotten tired of him.

"He is not yesterday's man. He's the day before yesterday's man," said Barry Cooper, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

"He's a very nice, charming man," Cooper said, adding a Charest-led Conservative Party would have experienced "a great diminishing of support ... certainly in Alberta and Saskatchewan and maybe in B.C., although that's a little hard to predict."

Boucher said that Charest's moderate Progressive Conservative message did not resonate in the West and the prevailing view west of Manitoba was that Conservatives lost the last election because O'Toole was not Conservative enough — a problem Charest could not solve.

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

"I was a bit surprised that Charest ran at all," said Cochrane. "It seems like a lost cause for a Progressive Conservative candidate to run in this election.

"In some respects it's admirable that he ran, to give that part of the party a strong voice in the leadership election. But I would be very surprised if he truly believed he had a chance [of] winning this from the get-go."

Poilievre won while promoting a very different populist message. He fanned public anger toward institutions like the Bank of Canada — accusing it of not acting quickly enough to curb inflation — toward the Liberal government's response to that inflation and toward Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's use of vaccine mandates to help manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

He also threw his weight behind cryptocurrency and stated several times that no ministers from a Poilievre government would be allowed to attend World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland.

Poilievre's anti-elite message

The WEF hosts a conference in Davos every January where business leaders and politicians from around the world gather to exchange ideas.

Some Conservative MPs have been accused of spreading anti-WEF conspiracy theories claiming the WEF is really a cabal of global elites planning to remake society, eliminate private property and impose an authoritarian global government.

WATCH | Pierre Poilievre promises to make Canada the 'freest country on Earth': 

Many participants in the trucker protests took that same view — Poilievre has not taken it that far. He paints the WEF as a gathering of elites and billionaires and says politicians should be focused on the needs of Canadians, not clinking glasses with the powerful at a posh ski resort.

Now that he's won the leadership with that anti-elite, populist message, some of his critics say he'll have to moderate his tone if he wants to make inroads in the next federal election outside the party's western base. Others are not so sure that's what he'll do.

"Poilieve's message on economic grievances actually runs a lot further than people think," Boucher said. "I don't think he's just going to be interesting for the Conservatives. I think some people on the left will actually buy this message of anti-elitism."

Poilievre may be able to attract disaffected voters from the left, Boucher said, by focusing a general election campaign "on the idea that the reason why inflation is there, the reason why you can't pay for your groceries and inflation rates are moving up, the reason why you are less well off is because of the elites."