American trends tend to reach Canada immediately after they’ve gone out of date – and right-wing populism seems to be no exception. In the February of 2022, a convoy of truck drivers from across Canada descended on the nation’s capital, Ottawa, blockading the streets and keeping the city’s residents awake with incessant honking. The convoy’s original purpose was to protest vaccine mandates, but it quickly evolved into a broader protest against the long-time and long-hated Liberal government of Justin Trudeau.
Everybody knows about Trudeau, and everybody has an opinion on him – even non-Canadians. To liberals, he is the standard bearer of progressivism, feminism, and multiculturalism. To lefties, he is a corrupt phoney enforcer of the neoliberal world order. And to conservatives, he is the demonic ultra-woke lovechild of Fidel Castro and a pawn of George Soros. But even the most ferocious, conspiratorial, foaming-at-the-mouth, non-Canadian critics of Trudeau seem to know virtually nothing about the leading man to replace him. Nor do many other politically engaged non-Canadians. This myopia is a shame. Canada’s internal power struggles may be insignificant compared to larger and more politically divided democracies, like India, Brazil and of course the United States – but by understanding this Canadian case study of right-wing populism, perhaps we can better understand why so many young people across the world are so enhanced by it.
Pierre Poilievre, the poster boy of the anti-vax trucker convoy and brand-new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, was first elected MP in 2004 at the age of 25. He quickly gained a reputation as the Tories’ “attack dog”, frequently engaging in profanity and unruly behaviour in the House of Commons. When the Liberals gained power in 2015, Poilievre postured himself as Trudeau’s most outspoken and uncompromising critic, lampooning big government, corruption, “Justinflation”, and political correctness. Cleverly exploiting YouTube, Poilievre developed a robust online presence, firmly wedging himself into the hearts of discontented culture warriors, disheartened by the moderate Conservative establishment. Canadian politics tends to be quite mild and it is very rare to find quirky and flamboyant characters in Parliament, so Poilievre’s witty bluntness and tendency to engage in attention-seeking stunts came across to many as refreshing. Fusing his unrelenting criticism of Trudeau with an irreverent yet jolly disposition, he jokingly assured the media, “Oh c’mon, I’m a very nice guy!” when accused of being too partisan and radical. When Trudeau was embroiled in a conflict-of-interest scandal, Poilievre held a press conference during which he tossed supposedly damning government documents into a crowd of journalists. After announcing his bid to lead the Tories, Poilievre released an unscripted, blooper-filled video of himself eating breakfast while talking to a camera. In between taking jabs at Trudeau’s vanity and choking on his own food, Poilievre incredulously listed the inflated prices of each food item, exclaiming that a single mom would be better at managing the economy than Trudeau. These stunts endeared him to the right-wing base, sick of the pretentious ultra-scripted language of Trudeau and the meekness of the insufficiently conservative opposition. In this sense, Poilievre very much emulates his American equivalent, Donald Trump.
After two botched attempts by mild-mannered moderate Tory leaders to unseat Trudeau in 2019 and 2021, Poilievre rode to an overwhelming victory in the 2022 Conservative leadership election, thanks in part to young voters – a traditionally left-wing demographic. On the one hand, this appears idiosyncratic as Poilievre embodies many archetypical conservative beliefs. He advocates supply-side economics, opposes a carbon tax to curtail climate change, and constantly bashes woke culture. But like other successful right-wing populists, Poilievre has fused these conservative views with broader cross-ideological complaints. As part of his platform, he denounced big banks and corporate lobbyists as “gatekeepers” in cahoots with the business-friendly Liberal Party to raise the prices of food, housing, and other services for ordinary Canadians. Offering right-wing libertarian solutions to these typically left-wing anxieties, Poilievre has promised to slash government regulations, which he claims are propping up corporate monopolies. Canadian companies have long relied on economic protectionism to avoid competition with American markets, and Poilievre’s platform of deregulation appeals to many consumers. Moreover, in a way that distinguishes him from Trump and other right-wing populists, Poilievre’s social policies are progressive. He is pro-choice and pro-LGBT rights and has actually criticised the Trudeau ministry for not being pro-immigration enough, belittling the inefficiencies of the current immigration system as yet another example of big government “gatekeeping”. Reiterated repeatedly in his campaign for the Tory leadership, he declared his intentions to make Canada the “freest nation on earth”. And unlike US conservatives, Poilievre appears to be consistent, applying this “freedom” mantra to both economic and social issues. These syncretic policies explain why, despite being such a viciously partisan politician, Poilievre is currently poised to take Trudeau’s job.
But despite Poilievre’s populist posturing, he in many ways embodies the very “gatekeeping” he himself criticises. Elected to parliament at the age of 25, Poilievre is the quintessential career politician. Mudslinging for Conservative leaders, he gradually ascended through the party ranks. And despite the apparent grassroots support for his campaign, he, for the most part, has the goodwill of the Conservative establishment, who ousted their previous leader fully knowing that Poilievre would be the replacement. Unsurprisingly, his attacks on “gatekeeping” corporations don’t extend to the oil industry which has long obstructed efforts to shift Canada towards renewable energy. In fact, he accuses Trudeau of “promoting foreign oil interests”, a stark contrast from his anti-gatekeeper attitude towards other protectionist measures. And while Poilievre has postured in video ads about his commitment to ending Canada’s housing crisis, he has yet to release a full plan on how he intends to do this. Consistent with his platform of “freedom”, Poilievre has vaguely promised to reduce building permit fees and processing times. But this laissez-faire policy of “just build more houses” ignores that the chief cause of the housing crisis is not a lack of housing – there are over a million vacant homes in Canada – but rather low affordability. In fact, despite casting the Liberal government as inactive, Poilievre’s proposals are significantly less comprehensive than the current actions of the Trudeau government, which has at least banned foreign investors and provided financial aid to homebuyers. Poilievre’s agenda of tax cuts, deficit reduction and privatisation, despite being bundled in populist garb, regurgitates the same tried and tested neoliberal policies of Reagan and Thatcher, which, as Truss’s fall demonstrates, is hardly anything to be desired in this economic climate.
Along with these conventional neoliberal attitudes towards economics, Poilievre has incorporated his own erratic crackpot plots into his platform, such as his enthusiasm for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his leadership campaign, Poilievre vowed to make Canada the “blockchain capital of the world” – a position which he has since remained silent on now that he has clinched the leadership. And despite his progressive stances on social issues, Poilievre has catered to the conspiratorial Canadian hard-right. Not only was his very rise to power predicated on the anti-vax “Freedom convoy”, but he also has made frequent attacks against the World Economic Forum and their COVID-19 recover plan, dubbed the “Great Reset”, a favourite target of antisemitic conspiracy theorists in Canada. Equally alarmingly, Global News recently revealed that at least 50 videos on Poilievre’s YouTube channel featured the hidden tag #mgtow, invoking the alt-right anti-feminist online community. Though Poilievre claimed he was not aware of the tag, apologised, and had his staff remove it, the fact that his campaign team sought to court these voters in the first place is deeply concerning, and reflects poorly on the movement.
The past seven years of Trudeau have exhausted many Canadians, and with the continuing post-pandemic recession, coupled with the energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many Canadians are looking for a change in leadership. Poilievre, who has injected much-needed energy into the political landscape and has rallied not only conservatives but disaffected liberals and leftists, to his cause, poses a serious threat to Trudeau in the next general election. This past year, both Sweden and Italy have thrown out their long-time governments in favour of coalitions led by or including right-wing populist parties. Canada could very much be the next country to follow this trend. Poilievre has the charisma, the platform, and the grassroots support to win – but does he have the competence and temperament to govern?
Image: CC1:0// Andrew Scheer via Flickr.