OTTAWA, Ont. — Pierre Poilievre is on a quest to replace Justin Trudeau. He’s not out simply to upend the political establishment — he wants to burn it down.
“The most powerful people in the country … will be accountable when I’m prime minister,” Poilievre, the frontrunner in the race for the Conservative Party leadership, says in a campaign ad.
“I’m running for office to give you back control of your life by making this country the freest on Earth. That means making government — and all of its most powerful people — servants and not masters.”
The twist in Poilievre’s drive to drain Canada’s institutional swamp is that he’s very much a product of it. Poilievre has never been anything but a politician. At a youthful 42, he’s already won seven elections since 2004 in his Ottawa-area riding.
And after 18 years in federal politics — including time in Stephen Harper’s Cabinet — Poilievre is hardly an Ottawa outsider. Over the years he has built a reputation as a provocateur against the bureaucracy, and has been condemned for his critiques and the lengths he’s gone to dish it out.
Today, Poilievre is expanding his offensive on the establishment, and his bare-knuckle, freedom-chanting style is resonating in Canadian Conservative circles.
His message has the potential to alter the future of the party — and even the course of Canada.
The right-of-center Conservatives and the country in general have shied away from a sweeping embrace of the kind of populism Poilievre is pitching to the masses. Unlike other Western democracies that have been flirting with nativist demagogues, Canadian voters have continued to elect moderate governments closer to the middle of the spectrum.
That could be about to change.
Crowds of hundreds — huge by Canadian standards for party leadership rallies — have turned out across the country to hear Poilievre expound on a day of reckoning for the country’s “elites,” “bloated bureaucracy” and “gatekeepers.”
The Conservatives, Parliament’s main opposition party to Trudeau’s center-left Liberals, choose their new leader Sept. 10.
Poilievre is not only trying to connect with thousands of the party faithful, he’s making his case ahead of the next election — which isn’t expected until 2025 — to millions of Canadians.
“I don’t want the state to run people’s lives anymore — I want them to be masters of their own destiny,” Poilievre told Jordan Peterson last week on the former University of Toronto psychologist’s hugely popular podcast.
“The central, underlying illness is a monstrous growth in the power and cost of the state, at the expense of the agency and freedom of the people,” he added.
Poilievre’s fiery emergence comes as grassroots-driven forces are rattling the Canadian conservative establishment — and creating divisions.
Jason Kenney, Alberta’s Conservative premier and a former Cabinet colleague of Poilievre’s, announced his resignation last week after a disappointing outcome in a leadership review. He drew support of just 51.4 percent and agreed to step aside once a new party leader is chosen.
Kenney’s result has led to soul-searching among Conservatives.
Sean Speer, who was an adviser to former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, noted the factors that pushed for Kenney’s ouster were those of a “scared and angry minority” rather than a conservatism focused “on the dignity of individuals, respect for tradition and long-standing institutions.”
In later discussion on The Hub Roundtable, he considered if any leader in Canada is capable of walking the careful line between a small-C policy agenda and “deep-seated grievance politics.”
Alberta might very well be the canary in the coalmine. Anger is also bubbling at the federal level.
Following last fall’s third-straight national election defeat by the Liberals, frustrated Conservative lawmakers jettisoned Erin O’Toole from the leadership job. The rebellion came after O’Toole’s attempts to veer his party left to challenge Trudeau on his own progressive turf.
The vote happened days after a convoy of truckers started what would turn out to be a three-week occupation of Ottawa’s downtown core to protest vaccine mandates and other government-imposed Covid-19 measures. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino accused the movement of being driven by elements determined to “overthrow” the government.
Even though polls show the majority of Canadians opposed the “Freedom Convoy,” Poilievre has vocally embraced the trucker movement.
He described the vast majority of the protesters as “hard-working, law-abiding, peace-loving truckers who are fighting for their freedom and their livelihoods and whom we have depended for our very existence over the last two years.”
A closer look at polling data reveals that 46 percent of Conservatives backed the truckers, while 30 percent were against them. Poilievre had his finger on the conservative pulse, while much of the country and media seemed appalled by the protest.
Poilievre has since sought to use the discontent to take on other areas of Canada’s power structure.
To hammer home how far he’d be willing to go, Poilievre dropped a debate-stage bombshell this month when he went after the country’s top economic policy-maker: Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem.
Political leaders rarely criticize the head of the independent central bank in Canada, let alone do it in public. The last example of a clash between the lawmakers and the bank was way back in 1961, when former Bank of Canada Governor James Coyne resigned after a dispute with the Diefenbaker government.
During a back and forth on Canada’s decades-high inflation rate, Poilievre announced that, if he’s elected prime minister, he would give the head of the independent central bank the boot.
“There’s no question that we have to hold those accountable who caused it,” said Poilievre, who has been blaming the runaway price growth on Trudeau’s budgetary shortfalls and the Bank of Canada’s quantitative easing program in response to the Covid economic crisis.
“Money-printing government deficits have caused more dollars chasing fewer goods, driving higher prices. And the Bank of Canada governor has allowed himself to become the ATM machine of this government,” he added.
The announcement dominated headlines out of the Edmonton debate, as intended — and he drew a lot of criticism for threatening the bank’s independence.
Poilievre, who made his name as a parliamentary agitator, has been doubling down ever since.
“The elites in Ottawa are just beside themselves,” Poilievre gloated in a campaign video the day after the debate about his pledge to fire the governor.
Macklem is far from alone on Poilievre’s anti-establishment hit list and the policies with which he’s seeking to distinguish himself from Trudeau.
Poilievre accuses the Trudeau government of trying to crack down on free speech with controversial proposals to impose new regulations on the internet, including legislation to ban harmful online content.
The Liberals argue legislative changes are necessary to protect victims of hate speech that is amplified and spread on social media. The government says it also wants online platforms to be held accountable for hosting content connected to terrorism, the incitement violence and child sexual abuse.
To force major online platforms to help fund and promote Canadian content, the Liberals have also introduced legislation that would overhaul the Broadcasting Act. But Bill C-11 has faced significant pushback because it would also give federal authorities the power to regulate user-generated content on streaming platforms like YouTube.
Poilievre charges the Liberal internet bills are “censorship laws” to control what Canadians can see and say online. On this front, he vows to repeal any Liberal plans on internet regulation that eventually become law.
“I’m going to get rid of all of those laws and restore freedom of expression on the internet,” he told Peterson.
Poilievre also vows to slap financial penalties on universities that “shut down open and free debate” on campuses, something Peterson and American conservatives have long railed against as a spreading problem.
When it comes to Canada’s wealth of natural resources, Poilievre promises to remove regulations and laws that he says are holding back the country’s critical energy sector.
His messaging is clearly aimed at voters in traditional bedrocks of Conservative support: resource-rich regions largely in western Canada.
Poilievre says he would get rid of red tape he argues is preventing the construction of pipelines, the extraction of more resources and that are blocking Canada from becoming energy self-sufficient.
“(The Liberals’) environmental policies seem more designed to give the state more control of the economy than they are designed to deliver an environmental outcome,” he argued. “By attacking the energy sector, it gives them the ability to create more of a command and control economy — which is what they believe in — and to redistribute wealth between industries and towards political friends in a very parasitical manner.”
For example, he’s promised to repeal a ban on oil tankers off the coast of northern British Columbia. The Liberals introduced the tanker ban to protect the fragile ecosystems along the coastline from the risks of major spills. Poilievre would also kill Trudeau’s federal carbon tax — a centerpiece government plan to lower emissions and meet international targets.
On Canada’s skyrocketing housing prices, Poilievre is trying to reach younger voters who see home ownership increasingly out of reach and are feeling neglected by the country’s real-estate policies.
Poilievre blames the soaring prices, at least in part, on municipalities that he says have brought in “invisible gates” in the form of zoning laws and bureaucracy to prevent new construction. As a fix, he wants to boost supply by telling big city mayors that, if they don’t remove their zoning rules to let builders build, he will cut back on their federal infrastructure funds.
Of course, by stepping in to alter the direction of the markets, Poilievre could face criticism for acting like a gatekeeper.
Poilievre has also become increasingly critical of mainstream media — including what he derides as the “liberal media,” the “corporate media” and the “big-government” public broadcaster.
He’s also steering away from them. In recent months, he’s worked to draw support through rallies and an aggressive social-media campaign. Like past Conservative leaders, he is promising to defund Canada’s public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
He frequently complains how the CBC receives around C$1.2 billion in government funding, even though, he argues, it produces very little content that can’t be found elsewhere.
Speaking to Peterson, he accused the CBC of creating a “monolithic ideology and political narrative” straight from the government. He said it’s designed to keep Trudeau’s Liberals in power for as long as possible.
But his frustration with journalists extends beyond the CBC.
“The political media in the Parliamentary Press Gallery are part of the establishment,” he told Peterson. “It finds me threatening because I’m upsetting the apple cart. They are part of the ecosystem of big government.”
All of this is part of Poilievre’s pitch to disempower the political class and empower the “people who do the nation’s work” — the plumber, the electrician, the truck driver and the police officer.
“What bothers me most about politics in Canada is that there’s a comfortable establishment that sits on top and governs for itself at everyone else’s expense,” he said. “I actually do believe in what I say.”