Pierre Poilievre's controversy-ridden rise to front-runner status in the Conservative Party leadership race

·5 min read

Pierre Poilievre has made a name for himself by taking a strong stance on issues many Canadians find divisive. His steadfast support of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” and other related groups, including participation in a march with a prominent anti-vaccine-mandate figure, have made him a fixture in headlines and a controversial political figure.

Now, his tactic of leveraging divisive, polarizing issues has catapulted Poilievre into position as front-runner in the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership race, says one political scientist.

The Carleton MP’s politics revolve around “riling up the base” using “highly partisan rhetoric,” and it appears this strategy is paying off, Max Cameron, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, told Canada’s National Observer.

Fifty-seven per cent of Conservative voters have a favourable impression of Poilievre, according to an Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of Global News between Aug. 29 and 31. A sample of 1,001 Canadians aged 18 and over were interviewed for the survey, which saw Poilievre’s popularity climb eight points compared to a similar poll conducted in mid-July. Jean Charest is viewed favourably by 38 per cent of Conservative voters, down seven points, and MP Leslyn Lewis sits at 32 per cent.

The results of the leadership race are to be announced Sept. 10. Besides Poilievre, Charest and Lewis, former Ontario MPP Roman Baber and Conservative MP Scott Aitchison are also in the running.

Poilievre made headlines in recent weeks after a photo surfaced of him shaking hands with Jeremy Mackenzie, founder of a far-right group known as Diagolon, This is one of many controversial moments for the leadership candidate that has elicited both support and outrage from Canadians.

Poilievre did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Because politicians meet lots of people, Cameron said he is cautious about making inferences around photos, but noted Poilievre’s divisive strategy is premised on mobilizing a “group of supporters who really are passionate about some change that they want to see.”

On June 30, Poilievre also marched alongside James Topp, a Canadian soldier charged after speaking out against COVID-19 vaccine requirements while in uniform. Topp, who marched from Vancouver to Ottawa to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates, has also appeared on Mackenzie’s podcast.

Vaccine mandates have been a key aspect of Poilievre’s messaging, and he even used the so-called “Freedom Convoy” that occupied downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks to shoot a promotional video.

His support of the convoy is not unique. Other MPs have taken the same stance, and some, including fellow leadership candidate Lewis, met with Topp and other key convoy organizers.

In Poilievre’s promotional video, he said the convoy represents "the people who want to stand and speak for their freedoms" and "those that our government and our media have insulted and left behind."

This summer, Poilievre has also decried the work of journalists and the mainstream media. On May 9, Poilievre tweeted that he won seven elections by going around liberal media and speaking “directly to Canadians.”

His campaign put out a statement in response to questions posed by a Global News reporter, referring to the questions as “an attack” and accusing “unprofessional journalists” of trying to set “disingenuous traps” to attack opponents.

Anti-vaccine-mandate attitudes, meeting with far-right organizers or skipping a debate are nothing new for the Conservative Party, but Cameron said Poilievre’s opposition to the World Economic Forum is unusual.

“Historically, that's been the sort of thing that Conservatives have embraced,” he explained. “[Former prime minister Stephen] Harper would go to those, and they're sort of a staple of the kind of corporate view of the world.

“It's not unusual to see people on the left criticizing the World Economic Forum … but for somebody on the right to criticize it, that tells us that there's a big pivot happening in the Conservative movement.”

Poilievre has established himself as a Conservative “bulldog” through these types of defining moments, but his legislative track record also speaks volumes, said Cameron.

“Back in 2014, he, as a member of the Harper government, was instrumental in introducing a series of changes to the Canada Elections Act,” Cameron explained.

The proposed changes (none of which are in place today) sought to impose a set of restrictions on voting, change campaign finance rules, raise the bar on voter identification, eliminate vouching and limit Elections Canada’s ability to enforce the Elections Act and the activities it could undertake to encourage participation, he said.

A group of more than 150 political scientists, including Cameron, voiced concerns about the proposed changes. He says this was one of the rare times a majority of the political science community spoke with a unified voice.

“That was my first sense of who Pierre Poilievre is, and it struck me that this was the kind of partisanship and politicization of electoral institutions that we have been seeing down south, and we know what the consequences of that kind of politicization are,” said Cameron.

To Cameron, Poilievre’s record on this issue as minister of state for democratic reform suggests his vision for Canada’s democracy is not inclusive, doesn’t encourage the broadest possible participation and doesn’t honour and respect non-partisan institutions.

“Then you add on to that, you know, the pandering to the truckers convoy, and so forth. And I think that the picture becomes pretty clear.”

Typically, Conservative leadership candidates draw support from the right during leadership contests and then tack towards centre for federal elections to appeal to a wider voter base, like former leader Erin O’Toole did before being ousted, said Cameron. But if he wins, Poilievre may be the exception, he said.

It’s impossible to know what strategies are unfolding in Poilievre’s camp, but “part of his appeal to his base, at least, is the perception that he actually means what he says,” and with strong stances on divisive issues, it would be hard to walk back, said Cameron.

If he wins the leadership contest, Cameron thinks it’s likely Poilievre will stick to his guns and strong reputation as a Conservative “bulldog” in the hopes it's enough to win a federal election.

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer