Pierre Poilievre and Éric Duhaime go way back.
In the spring of 2003, Poilievre, then a young political staffer, sacrificed his vacation weeks to help Duhaime in order to get him elected as MNA for the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), a right-wing provincial party, in Deux-Montagnes, north of Montreal.
“He was an exemplary volunteer,” recalls Duhaime in an interview with the National Post.
Poilievre spent his time off door-knocking and working the phones, and Duhaime said his young volunteer was particularly popular with the English speaking minority in the riding to the point where he was part of a small committee called “Anglos for Éric”.
Duhaime ended up finishing in third place, far behind the Parti Québécois (PQ) and the Liberal Party of Quebec (LPQ). “The anglophones didn’t listen. They ended up voting Liberal and they lost, just like we told them they would,” chuckled Duhaime.
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Fast forward almost 20 years, and the ADQ is far gone. It ended up being swallowed by the nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), which now forms the government.
Duhaime, after a career as a radio commentator, is back in politics leading the Conservative Party of Québec which is gaining traction under his tenure. In his first year, membership jumped from 600 to 57,000 and his party surpassed the Liberals in a recent by-election in Montreal’s South Shore with more than 10 per cent of the vote.
He has also proven to be a thorn in Premier François Legault’s side, notably on the pandemic restrictions that have been particularly severe in Québec.
Duhaime, who announced his intention of running in the riding of Chauveau, north of Quebec City, in this fall’s provincial election, has also managed to attract hundreds of attendees in a recent community centre in the area in early April, with several having to listen to his speech outside because of a lack of space.
“You are the silent majority which is saying louder and louder, ‘Legault, it’s enough’,” Duhaime told them.
He was an exemplary volunteer
Replace “Legault” by “Trudeau” and this could very well be part of a speech by Poilievre who has been attracting crowds by hundreds, even by thousands, across the country in his bid to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in the past few weeks.
Yan Plante, a former Conservative strategist and vice-president of public relations firm TACT Conseil, has known Duhaime and Poilievre for years. He said both are unapologetically Conservative and have an acute sense for political strategy.
“They are not shy to defend their positions, even when they are unpopular with the establishment, with the elites,” said Plante.
He also said that both politicians are using non a Donald Trump-style populism, but a “Canadian, light populist approach” to attract new supporters from all horizons.
Those include parents, who have seen firsthand the devastating effects of the lockdown measures on their children in the past few years, or younger voters who are anxious about their economic future and their chances of buying property in the housing market.
“They’re attracting new Conservatives in the movement,” said Plante. “But will it last? Will those people go as far as putting their ‘X’ in the ballot box when the time comes?”
Duhaime, officially, is not taking a position in the federal Conservative leadership race. He said he encourages his members to vote for whomever they choose and that lots of his supporters are also working for former Quebec premier and candidate Jean Charest.
But Duhaime’s biographer, Frédérick Têtu, recently told a local radio station in Québec City that there is a “close personal contact” between Duhaime and Poilievre, and that it could bode well if Poilievre becomes federal Conservative leader.
“Éric has to stay neutral in the leadership race for the Conservative Party of Canada, out of respect. But for sure, if Poilievre becomes CPC leader, everything is on the table to have a nice informal collaboration, because these are two distinct organizations.”
“But there’s a meeting of minds between the two.”