Politics

Why is Pierre Poilievre so angry?


The bellowing honks of freedom nearly drowned out Pierre Poilievre’s voice as he stood on a frigid overpass in late January, cheering the truck convoy on its way to lay siege to downtown Ottawa. Wearing a Canada Goose parka and aviator sunglasses, with his normally shellacked side-part blustered into an unrecognizable tuft by the wind, he grinned into a video camera. Poilievre rhymed off an expansive array of grievances he said the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protesters were battling, in addition to vaccine mandates: high grocery prices, small businesses in peril, depressed and isolated teenagers, a political and media elite that ignores anyone they don’t like. Poilievre, a long-time Conservative MP, wore a pair of puffy, red-and-white maple leaf mittens that gave him a soft cartoon quality weirdly at odds with his hard-edged talking points. It was like watching Mickey Mouse shout angry populist slogans.

Nearly every one of the affronts to freedom that Poilievre listed came from pandemic restrictions enacted by the provinces and not Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal government, but that was very much beside the point. “Freedom, not fear. Truckers, not Trudeau,” he hollered over the horns that would soon torment Ottawa residents for days and sleepless nights.

The line of trucks Poilievre was applauding would, over the coming weeks, be joined by thousands of others. Some would come and go as weekend warriors, while others would shut down international border crossings across the country, hamstringing massive sectors of the economy. But the most zealous protesters would occupy a sprawling territory surrounding Parliament Hill for weeks before a massive police operation finally forced them out.

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Still, Poilievre refused to condemn the protest as a whole, slicing and dicing his argument to maintain that he supported anyone fighting for their rights and freedoms peacefully, while anyone who engaged in violence, vandalism or obstruction should be punished. “I’m proud of the truckers and I stand with them,” he said two weeks into the occupation.

The convoy arrived in town with a ludicrous plan to remove Trudeau from office but it was Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole who got ousted, after his tepid response to the protesters sharpened the knife that a large faction of the Tory caucus already had at the ready. And so, in the midst of the protest mayhem, Poilievre released a video announcing “I’m running for prime minister,” immediately becoming the candidate to beat in the sudden leadership race-—the party’s third in five years. “Together, we will make Canadians the freest people on earth,” he said. “With freedom to build a business without red tape or heavy tax; freedom to keep the fruits of your labour and share them with loved ones and neighbours; freedom from the invisible thief of inflation; freedom to raise your kids with your values; freedom to make your own health and vaccine choices; freedom to speak without fear; and freedom to worship God in your own way.”

Poilievre speaks during question period in the House of Commons in May 2018 (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Poilievre speaks during question period in the House of Commons in May 2018 (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Poilievre—“Skippy” to fans and foes alike, after he was assigned the nickname as a very young MP—has been one of the main characters in the House of Commons since he was elected in 2004, largely thanks to his rhetorical skills and his gleeful compulsion to take up absolutely any partisan fight and go to the wall with it. He has been described in media stories over the years as “probably one of the more generally infuriating individuals on Parliament Hill” and someone who “savagely attack[s] opponents without regard to nuance, or even the basic facts.”

He’s also a confounding cipher. He is highly intelligent, insightful and reflective when not on display, but snide and reductive when he is. He is a workhorse who has stuffed his brain with knowledge that is almost old-fashioned in its intricacy; but he is also a corrosively of-the-moment politician dedicated to the meme-worthy partisan kick in the teeth. He didn’t have to be the internet troll of Canadian politics, because he had ample other capabilities at his disposal, but here we are. Poilievre has been the spiritual leader of the Canadian conservative movement, if not the party’s leader, for some time. Now he’s looking to make it official.

***

Poilievre (he pronounces it “paul-ee-EV”) was born in 1979 and grew up in Preston Manning’s Calgary Southwest riding, later represented by Stephen Harper. As a kid, he was a competitive diver, wrestler and hockey player. Early in his life, he developed political beliefs in personal responsibility and small government that remained almost eerily consistent for decades. “I had a teenage unwed mother who had just lost her mother when I was born, and it was two schoolteachers from Saskatchewan who adopted me and raised me and basically gave me a life,” he says. “So I have always believed that it is voluntary generosity among family and community that are the greatest social safety net that we can ever have. That’s kind of my starting point.”

(Photograph by Blair Gable)

(Photograph by Blair Gable)

He grew up in an Alberta he saw as ravaged by Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program. Created in the early 1980s in response to oil shocks that drove prices through the roof in the previous decade, the program aimed to regulate oil and gas prices and free Canada from dependence on foreign oil while increasing federal revenues. But it enraged oil-rich Alberta and Saskatchewan, seeding Western alienation and the political awakening of more than one generation of Canadian conservatives. Poilievre’s parents didn’t lose their teaching jobs, but he says his family had to move because they couldn’t hold onto their house amid the sky-high interest rates of the era. “I didn’t understand politics or anything, I just remember it being a really stressful time for a lot of people,” he says. “And as I grew older and I’ve learned more about how that happened and why, it left a mark on me.” These experiences and the beliefs they instilled found political shape in the Reform Party values that reverberated through Alberta in his formative years, bringing Poilievre to partisan politics at a preternaturally young age.

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At 17, he attended the 1996 Reform convention, where he proved to be irresistible journalistic catnip: an eager partisan not yet old enough to vote. “I’m very concerned about the financial state of the country and think they’re the only ones who can fix it,” he told the local paper. While still in high school, he wrote a letter to the Calgary Herald eviscerating the Liberal government’s hike of Canada Pension Plan premiums.

It was a couple of years later that Rob Huebert, an associate professor of political science, encountered Poilievre in a third-year strategic studies class he was teaching at the University of Calgary, where Poilievre was studying international relations. Poilievre finished fourth in a class of 60. “He’s the type of student that stands out,” Huebert says. “They have that essence about them: ‘I don’t quite know where you’re going to end up, but you’re gonna end up somewhere and people are gonna notice you.’ ” He recalls Poilievre as courteous, never showy or combative, generous with his time and short on ego. Huebert sees Poilievre’s political career as a continuation of the undergrad he knew: not a partisan pit bull, but the kid who always knew how to ask the questions that got to the heart of the issue.

While he was in university, Poilievre was one of 10 finalists to win $10,000 in an “As Prime Minister” essay contest. He told the student newspaper that he cranked out the 2,500-word essay, entitled “Building Canada through freedom,” in a single all-nighter and mailed it off right before the deadline. “Although we Canadians seldom recognize it, the most important guardian of our living standards is freedom,” he wrote. “The freedom to earn a living and share the fruits of our labour with loved ones, the freedom to build personal prosperity through risk taking and a strong work ethic, the freedom of thought and speech, the freedom to make personal choices, and the collective freedom of citizens to govern their own affairs democratically.” That argument is nearly identical to the pitch Poilievre would make more than 20 years later when he announced he was running for real-life prime minister.

In his early 20s, Poilievre was one of the key young activists running Stockwell Day’s campaign to lead the Reform Party’s successor, the Canadian Alliance, and working the phones to drum up donations. They dubbed themselves “Fight Club,” and Poilievre described their phone bank data as their “ammunition” and the phones as “our guns.” A couple of years later, when Day offered him a job as an assistant in his Ottawa office, Poilievre asked his mother, Marlene, for advice. “You better go there and get this out of your system,” she told him. “After the next election, come back here.” But Ottawa proved to be a one-way ticket out of Calgary. In the 2004 federal election, he ran in Nepean-Carleton (since renamed Carleton), a sprawling suburban and rural riding southwest of Ottawa, under the newly united Conservative banner that Stephen Harper knitted together out of the Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives. Poilievre was running against the Liberal defence minister, David Pratt, and he’d figured he stood a chance, but told his parents he expected to lose so they wouldn’t be disappointed. He ended up besting Pratt by 3,700 votes, thanks to the combined Alliance and PC vote.

As the candidate for Carleton in Ottawa, Poilievre talks with residents ahead of the 2019 federal election (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

As the candidate for Carleton in Ottawa, Poilievre talks with residents ahead of the 2019 federal election (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The day after the election, with Paul Martin’s Liberal government reduced to a minority and Poilievre’s newborn party holding the balance of power, CPAC convened a TV panel to unpack the still-cooling election results. It included Ed Broadbent, former leader of the federal NDP, just returned as an MP after 15 years of political retirement; David McGuinty, a new Liberal MP from what passes for a dynastic Ontario political family; and Poilievre, the youngest member of the House of Commons. He was 25 years old, still padded about the jaw with baby fat, wearing a slightly too-big suit jacket; if you ever wanted to see a politician Cabbage Patch Kid, there he was.

“Pierre Poilievre is being painted as a bit of a giant killer,” the CPAC host said by way of introduction, owing to his defeat of a sitting cabinet minister. Poilievre sailed in, cheerfully chippy, but nervous too. He laid out the metrics by which his party was the true winner, if you really thought about it, and the many ways in which the Liberals were corrupt and ruinous. We’ll play ball if the government behaves better, he allowed, “but you’ll also see a vigorous defender of taxpayers in the Conservative party.” He punctuated the statement with a gavel-on-a-table gesture that was touchingly hammy.

“Well, who’s against that?” Broadbent said with an incredulous grin, before vilifying the Tories’ spendy campaign. Poilievre instantly pivoted to accusing the former NDP leader of propping up the Liberals. “I wonder if some of the machinations are already working, because it looks as though Ed Broadbent, a great hero of the Parliamentary tradition, is already stepping up to the plate to defend the Prime Minister,” he purred. Broadbent’s eyes widened ever so slightly. Poilievre no longer looked nervous; he was smiling like someone having an absolutely fantastic time.

This primordial version of Poilievre is as remarkable for the elements that haven’t changed at all as for the things that have. There he was already fully formed as the Skippy everyone would come to know and love/hate, stamping every square on his partisan talking-point bingo card, crediting his opponents with not one ounce of sense or decency, crafting every exchange as an invitation to sort it out behind the bike racks after class. But that chubby-cheeked Poilievre was different too, his goofy lack of polish sanding off some of the sharper edges. It was like he was wearing a Halloween mask of his own face, with his future self behind the eye holes.

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In the House of Commons, Poilievre accumulated a string of controversies that hinged on youthful and partisan intemperance. A mic picked him up hissing “f–k you guys” in a committee meeting; he blamed an “extremist element in the Liberal party” for opposition to extending post-9/11 anti-terror measures; he accused the chief electoral office of being power-hungry. “Are we really getting value for all of this money, and is more money really going to solve the problem?” he asked of compensation for residential school survivors, just hours before Harper was set to deliver a formal apology for the schools.

The impulse running through all of this was that anyone who attempted to thwart the Conservatives was an enemy who must be hacked off at the knees. And if Poilievre had simply toiled away earnestly as a young backbencher, it’s unlikely he would have carved out a name for himself as early or enduringly as he did. Harper offered a tacit benediction of his attack-dog talents when he named him parliamentary secretary to the Treasury Board president and then to the Prime Minister, before appointing him to cabinet as minister of state for democratic reform and, eventually, minister of employment and social development.

John Baird was Treasury Board president and Poilievre his parliamentary secretary when they worked together to shepherd through the Federal Accountability Act to protect civil servant whistleblowers. Baird was impressed by his younger colleague’s ability to negotiate dozens of compromises to win NDP support and pass the legislation. “He showed a real willingness to work across the aisle and get things done,” he says.

Poilievre arrives for a Conservative caucus meeting in Ottawa last November (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Poilievre arrives for a Conservative caucus meeting in Ottawa last November (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Baird was also responsible for Poilievre acquiring the nickname “Skippy.” In 2006, the Harper government was being grilled about a homeless support program called the Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative, which was known by the acronym SCPI, pronounced “Skippy.” Baird stood up one day in question period and barked, “Mr. Speaker, I want to be very clear . . . this government has no intention of cutting SCPI.” With Poilievre sitting directly behind him in the House, Baird says that somehow the quotable quote turned into an inside joke that landed Poilievre the nickname. The funny thing is that, if you watch the tape of the exchange, it’s obvious that Baird, Poilievre and other colleagues nearby are killing themselves laughing before Baird even delivers the line. The origins remain mysterious, but Skippy abides.

When the Trudeau Liberals swept to power and the Conservatives moved into opposition, Poilievre became a smaller presence in caucus, quieter and more isolated, deploying his carefully rehearsed blows in QP and then hustling out. He edged his Liberal challenger by just 1,800 votes in that 2015 election. “One could say he had a near-death experience,” says one Conservative source who spoke on background. “And he just dedicated himself to going door-to-door every single day.”

Poilievre is known as an active constituent MP and a willing guest at fundraising events for other MPs, which is key to cultivating the support that wins you the leadership. He also treats door-knocking—usually the onerous, shoe-leather drudge work of politics—as a free instant focus group where he can hone his messages to see what fires people up or makes eyes glaze over. Poilievre adores language. He is often at his most engaging and insightful when rifling through the great speeches of history for the bits he most admires: Churchill’s choice of language you can see and feel; Lincoln’s logical and orderly structure. In this mode, Poilievre can be astonishingly bookish and thoughtful—or in his other gear, he can sneer “Justinflation” so many times across the aisle that everyone within earshot mourns the day they were born.

There was a time when ordinary citizens would comb Hansard—the complete oral record of the House of Commons—or wade through a big political speech for their own education, Poilievre’s caucus colleague Mark Strahl says. But that is not who we are now. “We’re in an Instagram—instant—generation and moment in politics, where it doesn’t matter what you say if no one’s listening. And Pierre gets people to listen,” he says. “I know his critics will point out that sometimes when you do things that way, maybe the sound bite sacrifices some of the nuance of the conversation, but at least the conversation is being had with Pierre.” Strahl depicts his colleague as a sort of Don Draper of conservative politics, preternaturally gifted at finding just the right catchy phrase to lob: carbon tax cover-up, vaccine vendetta, trust fund twins.

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Now, Poilievre seeks to lead a party that is at war with itself. In order for the Conservatives to dethrone Trudeau and his Liberal government, they have to broaden their appeal to win over swing voters and suburbanites, and they cannot turn off Canada’s big cities. All of that means edging toward the centre, or at least not constantly peacocking their right flank. But the most motivated faction of the Tory voting base and party membership—and a large chunk of the caucus that turfed O’Toole—finds that unsatisfying. Poilievre, on the other hand, is the walking, talking partisan itch that feels so good to scratch. For every moment when O’Toole equivocated on an issue or displayed centrist inclinations, enraging the “true blue” base that propelled him to the leadership, Poilievre was out there snarling exactly what they wanted to hear. But Poilievre is the dessert that is so delicious in the moment, not the vegetables that will help the party grow.

He had a campaign ready to go for the 2020 Conservative leadership race that ultimately crowned O’Toole, but backed out right before he was to make his official launch, citing family considerations. (In 2017, he married Anaida Galindo, a former Senate staffer; they now have a three-year-old daughter named Valentina, and their son, Cruz, was born in September.) Baird was set to chair that campaign, and Jenni Byrne, a stalwart Conservative operative—and Poilievre’s long-ago girlfriend—would also hold a senior role. Both will now work on this campaign.

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The Conservative base—and its rightmost flank at that—is clearly where Poilievre has decided his political bread is buttered now. “I think he’s become the voice of the base,” says Strahl. But for a clever, strategic thinker like him, it’s a significant shift in his assessment of the landscape. In 2006, talking to Paul Wells for his book Right Side Up, Poilievre argued that people misunderstood the strategy of Stephen Harper. “Everyone thinks he seduced the centre,” Poilievre said. “It’s actually the way he tamed the right.” Harper’s true victory was moving the party to a centrist position that was “acceptable to mainstream people” without raising “a peep” of dissatisfaction from the right, he said.

This is not the project Poilievre is working on. His belief in small government, fiscal restraint and personal responsibility is clearly bone-deep. But he’s now fixated on an edgily populist approach that revolves around dismantling the “elites” gobbling up the money and liberty of ordinary Canadians, the powerful who “clamp down” on anyone who disagrees with them, and governments using the permission slip of the pandemic to satisfy their lust to control citizens. Asked about the sorcerer’s apprentice problem—what if you conjure something dark that you can’t control, like people who decide to take real-world action on the things that anger them?—Poilievre bristles. “You seem to be suggesting that I shouldn’t be criticizing the government because someone else might get angry about that and do something that I don’t want them to do,” he says.

Poilievre strenuously disputes being especially combative or partisan—a case he buttresses by taking swipes at his opponents like someone struck his knee with a rubber hammer. He portrays himself in question period like a meticulous lawyer building up a case, slicing through the rhetorical posturing and partisan barbs in a relentless attempt to pry pure, simple facts out of a government that refuses to relinquish them. “The reason that some people find it so devastating is because the facts are devastating,” he says.

Accompanied by his wife, Anaida, and daughter, Valentina, Poilievre attends the Parliamentarian of the Year awards in 2018 (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Accompanied by his wife, Anaida, and daughter, Valentina, Poilievre attends the Parliamentarian of the Year awards in 2018 (Photograph by Blair Gable)

He maintains that his best moments, and the ones that draw the most interest and eyeballs on his busy social media channels (Twitter: 314,000 followers; Facebook: 499,000 followers; YouTube: 205,000 subscribers), are his long, intricate treatises on, say, the history of money or whether we are still capable of the sprawling national ambition that built the Canadian Pacific Railway. Poilievre is skilled at deep musings—he once single-handedly filibustered a budget debate for four days by expounding on the various clauses of the Magna Carta, the proud inheritance of the British judicial system and that time Lord Halifax almost became Britain’s wartime prime minister. But if you mentioned his name to 100 people, chances are 99 of them would identify the hard partisan right hook as his calling card, rather than the learned dissertation.

In the House, debate etiquette functions a bit like a hockey game, in that people volunteer if they’re prepared to fight, and it’s considered gauche to go after a rookie or anyone who keeps their head down and their nose clean. As much as Poilievre can drive people around the bend, heavy hitters from the other parties seem to genuinely enjoy watching the master s–t disturber at work. “For as much as he is always putting the elbow in your face, he can be likable and charming,” says the NDP’s Charlie Angus. Everything Poilievre does comes with a self-aware wink and a nudge, and he can be genuinely funny. During that four-day filibuster, the purpose of which was to badger Trudeau into appearing before the justice committee to answer questions about the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Poilievre at one point smirked, “I know there have been many times when the Prime Minister would have given a great fortune to make me stop speaking. I am offering him the chance right now to do that for free, in the sense that the truth will set him free.” Liberal Kevin Lamoureux, another MP who loves partisan fisticuffs, coaches his colleagues to simply ignore Poilievre because heckling only winds him up.

However, there is a strange void beneath Poilievre’s gamesmanship. It’s not about his sincerity of belief—he could hardly be accused of not really meaning the things he’s been hollering in letters to the editor since he was a teenager—but rather the bigger picture. For someone who is so skilled and devoted to winning every single partisan battle, what is the war for? Angus finds this aspect of Poilievre confounding: he’s so good at the game of politics, but to what end? “Pierre just never seems to want to go there,” he says. “He prefers lighting a house on fire and seeing what happens.” Poilievre, for his part, explains his role in politics in near-mythological terms. “To keep the commoners the masters and the crown the servant,” he says. “That is the only purpose of Parliament.”

Poilievre’s partisan instincts are part of the problem: his reflexive defensiveness of anything that lines up with the home team or his own political advantage, and his equally knee-jerk denunciation of anything associated with the enemy creates an essential hollowness, if not outright hypocrisy.

At the height of the Freedom Convoy, when Poilievre was steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that the whole project was inherently destructive or unlawful, a clip suddenly made the rounds that was almost too perfectly symmetrical to be believed. Two years earlier, when activists blocked railways and pipelines to protest a natural gas pipeline running across Indigenous territory in British Columbia, Poilievre appeared on CBC and applied his trademark rhetorical gifts to arguing that the blockaders were impeding other people’s lives and needed to be dealt with by the law. “You have the right to swing your fist, but that freedom stops at the tip of someone else’s nose,” he said. That’s an entirely reasonable proposition, and it somehow stopped being true when the blockaders were in downtown Ottawa blasting their horns against vaccine mandates and assorted other Liberal-related injuries, because that served the purposes of Poilievre and his party.

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Talking to this would-be prime minister at length instead of watching him on the political stage is compelling and disorienting at the same time. Poilievre’s answers are slow and deliberative, and there’s a depth of insight that’s uncommon on Parliament Hill. You get the sense of a human being in there who really believes many of the ideas he advances. He’s funny, occasionally self-deprecating. He is, in short, impressive and likable.

But if you even brush up against the electrified buzzer of a partisan issue, a trapdoor opens in the floor, plunging you into Skippyland. Here, the intelligence becomes a switchblade, the complexity of thought a dust storm in which you can’t find the point you were sure you had. The Pavlovian partisan thing is frustrating because nothing useful or new is going to come from that conversation. What really stings is the gap between the two, the what-might-have-been quality to it all.

It’s hard to imagine a facet of Canadian politics and public life that would not benefit from having Poilievre’s straight-up smarts applied constructively to it, instead of wielded like a belt sander. He could be the leader of the Opposition forcing an increasingly insular and incoherent Liberal government to answer for itself, with all of the incisiveness he could bring to the task, but one-third of the amped-up “No, eff you” partisan spite. Instead, the Poilievre who is available to us is the one who snarls ceaselessly about Justinflation, lobs bombs just to bask in the glow of the blast and throws in his lot with protesters terrorizing ordinary citizens because—well, frankly, it’s hard to fathom why.

Poilievre is very, very bright, a clever strategic thinker, and at some point he decided to bury one of those versions of himself and make the other his ride-or-die, because that seemed like a more certain path to political success. Maybe he was right. And that is all of our loss.


This profile appears in print in the April 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The ringleader.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.





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