Pierre Poilievre is rebranding the Conservative party in his own image

Conservative MPs applaud Leader Pierre Poilievre as he stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative MPs applaud Leader Pierre Poilievre as he stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

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Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is in the midst of a major overhaul of the party he's now led for two months.

After members handed him a strong mandate to take the party in a new direction, Poilievre ousted senior staff loyal to former leader Erin O'Toole and rejigged the front bench, with new "shadow cabinet ministers" who are more in line with his populist bent.

He's also redefined the party's relationship with the Parliamentary Press Gallery — skipping interviews and "scrums" with reporters on Parliament Hill in favour of other outlets, including media outfits that serve specific ethnic communities.

The party has hired two new communications directors — one to serve Poilievre personally and the other to work at the party's headquarters.

"I think that part of the problem is that, you know, we're all too obsessed with Parliament Hill," Poilievre told reporters at a rare press conference in Vancouver Wednesday.

"The press gallery believes it should dominate the political discourse. I believe we have a big country, with people who are not necessarily part of the press gallery."

The Parliamentary Press Gallery has over 300 members from dozens of domestic and international news agencies and outlets. As the party's finance critic, Poilievre regularly made himself available to Hill reporters. Since his election as leader in September, he's only fielded questions from Hill reporters once.

It's a strategy similar to one former prime minister Stephen Harper pursued when he was in power. Harper had a frosty relationship with the press gallery.

New executive director, lawyer, directors of communications

Many of the new staff picked for the party's top jobs have longstanding ties to Poilievre and his leadership campaign manager, Jenni Byrne, a Conservative operative and lobbyist who also worked for Harper.

Among Poilievre's new hires is Mike Crase, who recently was picked as the party's executive director after nearly four years doing the same job for the Ontario PCs. Crase and Byrne worked together in provincial politics.

The party's legal counsel, Arthur Hamilton, has been replaced with Michael Wilson, a Poilievre ally.

Marissa Tiel/The Canadian Press
Marissa Tiel/The Canadian Press

Robert Staley, a Toronto-based lawyer and vice-chair of the Bennett Jones law firm, is now the chair of Conservative Fund, the powerful fundraising arm of the party. He replaced James Dodd, an O'Toole pick.

Staley, who was Harper's lawyer, worked with Byrne when she served as Harper's deputy chief of staff and later campaign manager in the 2015 federal election.

Academic and small c-conservative thinker Ben Woodfinden has been tapped to be Poilievre's new director of communications — the point-man on the leader's messaging and a liaison between Poilievre and the press.

Woodfinden wrote a series of pro-Poilievre posts for The Hub, a right-leaning online news outlet, before taking the job.

He praised Poilievre's populist approach to politics and his promise to take on "gatekeepers" such as bureaucrats, regulators and others who are perceived by some as making Canadian life more difficult and expensive.

"There really is some substance and truth to the idea that Canada, and ordinary Canadians, are hobbled by self-interested elite economic and corporate gatekeepers who need to be challenged," Woodfinden wrote in a July post.

"A serious Conservative pro-growth, anti-gatekeepers policy agenda contrasts nicely with the Liberal vision of frivolous spending and subsidized growth where bureaucrats pick winners and losers. It would make the next election a real battle between rival economic visions for the country."

New communications director was supportive of convoy protests

The Conservative Party's new director of communications was named last week — and it's an appointment that raised some eyebrows.

Sarah Fischer, a former Tory candidate and House of Commons staffer, was a vocal supporter of the self-styled Freedom Convoy — a movement that Poilievre also backed as part of his campaign against COVID-19-related vaccine mandates.

"We will work to restore hope in a nation that will one day have a prime minister who will put people before politics and make Canada the freest country on Earth," Fischer said in a social media post announcing her new job.

WATCH | Protest organizers speak at Emergencies Act inquiry:

Fischer, a former policy adviser to Conservative MP Rachael Thomas, ran unsuccessfully in the Toronto-area seat of Don Valley North in the 2019 federal election.

Videos on her Facebook page posted during the convoy show her thanking people who gathered in Ottawa for the anti-mandate protests.

"I just want to say you're beautiful, you are beautiful," she told the crowd.

"This country belongs to you, the people, and you're showing them," she said from the back of a flatbed truck in front of Parliament in January. "Thank you for showing up and for standing for this country and for freedom."

Fischer praised the protest in a separate post on her Twitter feed, saying there was "no other place in the world" she'd rather be as she blasted the horn of a large truck stationed in the downtown core.

The loud honking was a feature of the trucker protest that disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of downtown residents.

Residents of Ottawa's downtown core have told the Public Order Emergency Commission (POEC) studying the federal government's use of the Emergencies Act that the incessant noise made life in the city intolerable.

In an interview with the Western Standard in February, Fischer downplayed the complaints of Ottawa residents, saying that while she understood the horns "could have been annoying for people," for her "the horns were music to my ears."