This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
An unaccustomed feeling took hold among attendees at the Conservative Party of Canada’s annual convention in Quebec City in September. For years, they had felt the impoverishment — economic, but also cultural and spiritual — of their country under Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government without being able to do anything to stop it. But polls were now giving the Conservative Party a double-digit lead and a crushing parliamentary majority. For the first time in many years, they felt that victory was at hand.
At the centre of it all was Pierre Poilievre, the party’s newly-elected leader. His keynote speech garnered so many unexpected standing ovations that he went over time by more than half an hour. Afterwards, the line to take photos with him stretched across the entire width of the conference centre and into the small hours of the night.
In two years, Pierre Poilievre will probably be Canada’s prime minster
In two years, Pierre Poilievre will probably be Canada’s prime minster, and quite possibly the only right-wing leader of a major English-speaking country. Yet he remains largely unknown beyond his country, his exotic name as big a stumbling-block (“pawl-ee-EV” in English) as his reluctance to talk to media about his personal life. Here is his story, neither extraordinary nor conventional; but as different from that of Canada’s current prime minister as it is possible to imagine.
Like many of Canada’s Conservative prime ministers, Poilievre’s background is a distinctly modest one. Born to an unwed teenage mother, he was given up for adoption shortly after his birth in 1979. He was adopted by two French-Canadian schoolteachers from Saskatchewan, who later also adopted his biological brother.
He spoke French as a child — his great-grandfather had emigrated from France to western Canada’s agricultural wilderness, where towns have numbers instead of names — but life in decidedly un-Francophone Alberta meant that he had to become reacquainted with the language once he entered politics. Even today, his French has a slightly forced sound to it, not unlike that of Justin Trudeau, raised in radically different surroundings.
The family settled in an unfashionable suburb of Calgary, where Poilievre had a happy and unremarkable all-Canadian childhood, wrestling on his high school’s team until an injury made him look for a new hobby, which turned out to be politics. Soon, he was knocking on doors during the day and reading Milton Friedman at night.
The 1980s were dismal years for Alberta’s economy, brought about by Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program, designed to keep the price of Western Canadian oil low for eastern Canada. Unemployment in Alberta almost quadrupled. As teachers, his parents were shielded from the worst of the economic ramifications; but Poilievre never forgot the misery of that era, nor the role of meddlesome elites who were willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of so many Canadians in the name of national unity.
When Poilievre was at university, Canada had two federal right-wing parties. The Progressive Conservatives (one of whose leaders Margaret Thatcher accused of putting too much emphasis on the adjective rather than the noun) were once Canada’s natural governing party, but spent most of the twentieth century as the Anglosphere’s least successive conservative party. Between 1935 and 1957, the Liberal Party kept the Canadian Tories out of power for 22 years, a British Empire record only bested by the government of Southern Rhodesia.
The other was the Reform Party, the electoral vehicle of alienated western Canadians. In 1993, when Poilievre was a teenager, Reform split the right-wing vote and wiped out the Progressive Conservatives, who went from being the party of government to having two MPs out of 295, a blow from it which it would never recover.
Naturally, Poilievre joined the ranks of Reform on campus, doing battle against both progressives and Progressive Conservatives. After a couple of years, he dropped out and began to work in politics full time. In 2003, the two right-wing parties, tired of splitting the vote and losing, merged and became the Conservative Party of Canada. The next year, Poilievre defeated the Liberal minister of defence and was returned to the House of Commons for a seat in Ottawa. He was 24 years old.
Canada inherited the United Kingdom’s parliamentary institutions, down to the colours of the carpets of the two houses of Parliament. What it did not preserve was its vitality. By the time Poilievre entered it, the House of Commons was a place for MPs to do their correspondence and congratulate elderly constituents for their 100th birthday. Occasionally they would vote on a bill.
Poilievre did not see things that way. Soon, he was lobbing verbal grenades into the Treasury benches on a daily basis and acquiring a fearsome reputation as a parliamentary performer (or “attack dog”, in the press lingo).
Liberal grandees were contemptuously amused and alternatingly alarmed by this upstart and hoped he would be a flash in the pan. But in 2006, the Conservatives eked out a plurality of seats and formed a minority government. Still the youngest MP in the House, Poilievre was given his first junior ministerial office that year. In 2013, he was promoted to Cabinet rank.
The Conservatives were defeated in 2015 by the Liberals, whose fortunes Justin Trudeau turned around. The Tories burned through two leaders in quick succession, neither of whom was able to topple Trudeau in two consecutive elections even though, on both occasions, the Tories had polled more votes than the Liberals.
Meanwhile, Poilievre kept his head down. He almost ran for the party leadership in 2020, before pulling out at the last minute. Later that year, his cross-examination in a parliamentary committee was so effective that it forced out Canada’s finance minister.
In 2022, his chance came. His only serious competitor in that year’s party leadership race was a former Quebec premier with a questionable ethics record who ran on a platform designed to appeal to everyone — except to Conservative voters. On election night, Poilievre won by the biggest margin of any leader since the new Conservative Party’s founding.
Canada has always possessed the transformative ability to take — in Mordecai Richler’s phrase — “the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples” and to turn them into solid bourgeois within a generation or two. By this formula, it managed to become, from unpromising beginnings, one of the world’s most successful countries.
In the past decade or so, this promise has been unravelling. Canada has a housing affordability crisis as bad as Britain’s, a ludicrous situation for a country with one of the world’s lowest population densities. It is projected to have the lowest GDP per capita growth among all OECD countries up to at least 2060. Inflation has become so bad that the Liberal government recently introduced a grocery subsidy, reinforcing fears that Canada is on its way to becoming a colder version of Argentina.
Poilievre’s success has largely come from his understanding of the growing mismatch between the promise and the reality of Canada. His diagnosis — “Canada is broken” — has resonated with a wide swathe of the country, not least younger voters, who are flocking to his banners in numbers unimaginable in almost any other Anglophone democracy.
He has promised to build millions of new homes and to make life affordable again. He has promised to take an axe to parts of the Canadian “blob”, notably the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which has been turned into a de facto Liberal Party media arm.
His politics have been remarkably consistent since his university days, when he was asked to imagine himself as a future prime minister and promised to “relinquish to citizens as much of my social, political, and economic control as possible”.
Unlike many Canadian libertarians, Poilievre does not shy away from the so-called “culture wars”. Then again, in a country whose prime minister claims it has “no core identity” and is supposedly committing an ongoing genocide against Aboriginal women, almost any deviation from the Liberal consensus line amounts to an act of defiance.
In Quebec City, he called on English Canada to follow Quebec’s lead and to stop apologising “for their culture, language or history”, a message at once obvious and taboo in a country in the thralls of progressive cultural hegemony.
The Liberals did not become one of the West’s most successful political parties for nothing. Already, they are painting Poilievre as a far-right demagogue intent on importing “American-style politics” — an effective dog whistle in a country founded as the antithesis to the United States.
But unless Trudeau can repair the country he has helped fracture before the next election, the world will have to learn how to pronounce Poilievre after all.
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