On a June election night more than 18 years ago, Pierre Poilievre learned that he’d pulled it off.
More than 30,000 voters in the suburban Ottawa riding of Nepean-Carleton had decided that Poilievre, a 25-year-old Alberta transplant, should replace seven-year Member of Parliament and defence minister David Pratt as their man in the House of Commons.
Sure, Poilievre had favourable winds behind him: the riding’s history of electing Tories, the coalescing of PC and Alliance vote behind the merged Conservative party and voter disillusionment with the sponsorship scandal-tainted Liberal government of the day.
Still, the first-time candidate, sporting a Tory-blue boutonnière on his election night suit jacket, had delivered for his party in spades. It was a 4,000-vote margin of victory in a riding they’d been eyeing to snatch from the Liberals and the only Conservative breakthrough in the urban Ottawa area in 2004.
For three months ahead of the election, this newspaper reported at the time, Poilievre campaigned without a day off, papering the riding with signage and literature with the help of 1,500 volunteers. Lifelong Conservative, area resident and then-senator Marjory LeBreton remembers the young MP hopeful as having “a little bit of a hard edge,” incredible energy on the campaign trail and a dogged work ethic that “won over the confidence of the people in this riding.”
On election night, Poilievre balanced his elation with solemn words about his regard for the opportunity he’d just been awarded.
“It’s an extraordinary feeling, and I accept this sacred trust with tremendous humility,” he told supporters gathered at the Bells Corners Legion. “This is no time for boasting though, it is a time for reflecting on the tasks ahead of me.”
Poilievre was still a newcomer to the riding, who moved from Alberta after university and cut his teeth on Parliament Hill as a policy advisor in the office of former Alliance leader Stockwell Day. The ensuing weeks and months would see country’s youngest MP pick the first political battle of his tenure — pressing for whistleblower legislation and answers from the Liberals on the firing of three government scientists, including two of his constituents — and demonstrate his now-trademark ability to launch punishing partisan jabs.
“If you are not with the Conservatives, you are with the adscammers,” declared Poilievre at a local political rally in 2005 alongside soon-to-be Ottawa West–Nepean MP John Baird. “It’s time to end the rule of the caviar-eating, limousine-riding Liberals.”
Today, Baird is one of the co-chairs of Poilievre’s bid for the leadership of their party, Poilievre has taken his anti-elite rhetoric nationwide and he could arrive at his next election night victory party as the country’s new prime minister.
Looking to the riding that’s kept him in office for nearly two decades and talking to locals who’ve watched him in action, one finds the sparks that fuelled Poilievre’s incendiary bid for party leadership: a commitment to getting off the Hill and being present where electors live, populist championing of his people, and shrewd communication skills in service of a political raison d’être that’s been articulated in similar terms throughout his professional life.
There also exists in Carleton a smaller-scale version of the polarized reaction to Poilievre — hope and admiration, anger and fear — that’s now playing out on the national stage as the 43-year-old prepares to take over as leader of the Conservative party.
‘AN ENERGIZER BUNNY’
Canada Day celebrations were coming back to Greely this past summer after a two-year pandemic hiatus, and the president of the area’s community association was in the midst of preparations when he got a call from the office of their MP.
Poilievre’s staff offered to provide some small Canadian flags for the party, president Doug Thompson recalled. His willingness to make the drive into Manotick to pick them up at the MP’s office was waved aside and not long after, the flags were left on his doorstep. He believes it was Poilievre who dropped them off, possibly on his way home. A Greely resident himself, Poilievre also showed up on July 1 at the community’s Canada Day bash and another in Stittsville, a 35-minute drive across his sprawling suburban-rural riding.
Poilievre donned his MP duds not in the midst of constituency downtime that many Parliamentarians get to enjoy when the house breaks for the summer, but during a stop at home as he travelled across the country for his Conservative leadership campaign.
In the week leading up to July 1, he glad-handed in his fluent French in Montreal and Trois-Rivières and walked briefly alongside Canadian army reservist James Topp in the final leg of his march to Ottawa to protest COVID-19 vaccination mandates. Then he headed west in early July, swapping his red Canada Day polo for Calgary Stampede cowboy fashion.
Plenty of politicians are ubiquitous in the lead-up to a voting day, but Thompson said their MP isn’t one to disappear after the ballots are counted.
“Pierre is like an energizer bunny. He’s out all the time in the community, even if it’s not close to an election,” said Thompson, a veteran of municipal politics in the Osgoode area of Poilievre’s riding, who’s now campaigning to reclaim his old city council seat.
“I think that’s one thing that carries his popularity,” said Thompson of Poilievre. “He treats his constituents like good friends.”
Retail politics are part of the arsenal of many a successful politician, and Poilievre’s been honing the craft at soapbox races and plowing matches in his Parliament-adjacent riding for two decades, while growing from brash political whiz-kid to a seven-term MP, husband and father of two young children.
Ask people in the riding about Poilievre, and few won’t immediately know who you’re talking about. Whether they respond with grimace or grin is another matter, but becoming a household name is not simply an inevitable outcome of political longevity.
To critics, Poilievre’s omnipresence in the riding and consistently high profile on Parliament Hill are all about growing his political brand. Supporters, in contrast, see a community-minded MP committed to advancing the interests of the people he’s supposed to be working for: his constituents and Canadians at large.
He can’t be everywhere as leader of the Opposition, campaigning to lead the country in the next election. However, Michael Modesti believes that Poilievre, his first political mentor, will stay committed to the principle behind the voter-level presence he practises, regardless of the office he occupies.
“His biggest thing is the people are in control,” said Modesti, who grew up in the riding and worked on two of Poilievre’s election campaigns. “So if the people are his boss — like he believes — he wants to go to talk to as many as he can in person.”
Thinking back on Poilievre’s seven federal election campaigns, all of which she was involved in, Liz MacKinnon recalled driving the candidate between events in 2011 on a tight timeline when he asked her to stop at the hospital in Kemptville. Reassuring her that he’d only be five minutes, Poilievre went inside to see an elderly farmer he’d heard had suffered a health incident.
When he came back to the car, 30 minutes later, Poilievre explained that the farmer was a riding resident he’d visited with every election at his home just north of the Rideau River.
“He’s really low, I may never see him again, I had to stay and talk to him,” is how MacKinnon describes the ensuing explanation. “I said ‘No problem, we’re half an hour late, I’ll just speed a little bit.’
“That shows what Pierre is like, because no one knew he stopped by to see that guy except for me, all these years. And I thought that was pretty fine of him.”
What Poilievre has gained from meeting thousands of people on doorsteps and now at the large rallies that became a major focal point of his leadership campaign is not just the opportunity to leave his footprint in their psyches.
A speed reader and student of history with an exceptional memory, Poilievre has been able to consume these real-world stories, grow his understanding of how farmers and civil servants and financially frustrated young people are thinking and feeling, and funnel this into his own conception of the country and the role he can play within it.
It’s not intake simply for the sake of furthering his own political prowess, at least in MacKinnon’s estimation. One of Poilievre’s secrets, in her opinion, is that “he actually is interested in what’s going on, and what’s right and what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed.”
In his first term as MP, Poilievre spent a week shadowing a different job-holder in his riding every day: a nurse, a child care provider, a police officer and so on. After his hours on the cop beat, he announced a plan for youth crime: trying and sentencing 14-year-olds as adults in some circumstances and fining parents when kids’ crimes could be linked to a lack of supervision (a local criminologist called it naive and absent of supporting evidence).
In the ensuing years, conversations with constituents would underlie no small number of Poilievre’s political crusades: protection for whistleblowers, such as Nepean-Carleton residents and Health Canada scientists Shiv Chopra and Margaret Haydon; a bill allowing Canadian military members to defer EI benefits for parental leave while on duty; and pursuing a permit to allow a constituent’s family member to come from Canada from Sri Lanka as his kidney donor. After his success on the latter file, Poilievre spoke to the media about the life-saving importance of organ donation but also noted that a kidney transplant saves tens of thousands a year in dialysis costs.
In MacKinnon’s eyes, it’s the same desire to listen, learn and go to bat for people in a plight that triggers Poilievre’s sense of duty which led the MP to the front lines of the winter’s “Freedom Convoy” protest.
It began in response to the federal government’s move in January to require trucker drivers to be fully vaccinated if they wanted to freely cross the Canada-U.S. border, though it ballooned to encompass myriad grievances, mostly with rules imposed by governments during the COVID-19 pandemic and Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in particular.
Poilievre welcomed incoming convoy vehicles at a local overpass in late January, and spoke with “hundreds of cheerful, peaceful, salt-of-the-earth, give-you-the-shirt-off-their-back Canadians,” as he phrased it, when tweeting a photo of himself with two of them outside the Parliamentary gates on Jan. 31.
There were no more in-person appearances with the protesters-turned-occupiers on his social feed after that, but his support for their calls to drop the mandates and pandemic restrictions continued in earnest.
“He wanted to listen to what the truckers had to say, what their big issues were, and then he left. He wanted to know and support something that was right. But he didn’t support breaking the law,” said MacKinnon.
LeBreton — a friend of MacKinnon’s and until February, a fellow board member of Poilievre’s Conservative riding association — interprets his reason for being there differently.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I think Pierre and people around him saw an opportunity to tap into a large group of people that could be … convinced to buy memberships. And I think he saw it as an opportunity to expand his chances of winning the leadership.”
Poilievre announced his bid to become leader of the Conservative party on Feb. 5, a week after the convoy rolled into town.
As the downtown protest wore on, LeBreton said she was overwhelmed by the number of people in the riding who confessed to her — including long-time Conservatives — that they really weren’t happy about “‘the way Pierre is jumping in front of this convoy.’ And they’d be almost afraid to say it to me,” she recalled. “When I’d say, ‘Well, jeez, that makes two of us.’ Then … It was like the floodgates (opened).”
On Feb. 15, LeBreton resigned from the board of the Carleton Conservative riding association, which she joined after her retirement from the Senate in 2015. While she believed the truckers had a legitimate grievance, she also felt that support for the convoy by Poilievre and other Conservative caucus members ran the risk of creating a link in the minds of some Canadians between “unsavoury” elements of the protest and the political party she’s supported all her life.
In addition to her concern about the party brand and its electoral prospects in different parts of the country, “I actually think that Pierre has hurt himself in this riding,” said LeBreton.
There exists some data to support her assessment. In June, Mainstreet Research conducted a poll of voters in Carleton. Asked how Poilievre’s decision to meet with and encourage the “freedom protesters” had impacted their opinion of him, 56 per cent said their opinion of their MP was much less favourable and 10 per cent said it was somewhat less favourable, while three per cent said it was somewhat more favourable and 15 per cent said it was much more favourable. The opinion of 12 per cent was unchanged, while four per cent were unsure.
Poilievre won re-election in 2021 with 50 per cent of the vote in his riding to his Liberal opponent’s 34 per cent, with an 11,000-vote margin between them.
Of those who had voted for Poilievre in that election, the poll found 41 per cent were in the camp of those whose opinion of him was negatively impacted, while 34 per cent said it improved his standing in their eyes.
Kars resident Shaun Tolson says he had voted for Poilievre every election but won’t be doing so in the next one after watching his MP and the Conservative party’s response to the Freedom Convoy protest.
“There were thousands of people not being able to work. All of Centretown … had to lock themselves down. And I just found that he came out and supported that,” Tolson told this newspaper in March. “I served in the military for 39 years. I support the right to protest, but I also support the rule of law. And the rule of law was being broken downtown.
Tolson, 75, said he spoke to a lot of seniors who also felt “let down” by Poilievre and “the populist type of election he’s trying to run.”
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But in other Carleton households, it’s boosting his popularity. Stopping to speak with this newspaper outside his local grocery store last week, Stittsville resident John Stewart predicted his MP will be the next prime minister “because he’s the only one that stands up to the Liberals. And I think he’s going to be the only one that has a sensible head on their shoulders, that wants to … listen to us.”
Stewart said he wasn’t always a Poilievre fan but he’s got his vote now as he feels he’s “actually listening to people and seeing what Canadians need.” His favourite thing about Poilievre is how he challenges Justin Trudeau.
“Trudeau wants to run this country like a dictatorship. And (Poilievre) stands up and says, ‘Where is this money being spent? … Everybody in (the Liberal) caucus, nobody says anything to it.”
Ralph Shaw, president of the Carleton Conservative riding association, said their membership numbers have soared since Poilievre launched his leadership bid. While it’s customary to get more sign-ups during leadership races — Shaw saw it happen in the contests that Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole won — the difference this time is much greater.
While exact membership numbers were closed off to riding associations during the leadership contest, Shaw said he was told in late August that Carleton had over 5,000 Conservative party members — up from around 1,800 previously — and was the fourth-largest Conservative riding association in Canada.
Those who purchased memberships before June 4 were able to vote in the leadership race, and while people may have joined in order to back any of the candidates running, Shaw tied the surge they’d seen to support for Poilievre — who he considers to be “one of the finest politicians in the country” and believes “may be (able to) get us back into a better path.
“If you asked somebody today, are they better off than they were five years ago? And I’m willing to bet you most people would say they’re no better off today than they were five years ago. And that’s got to change,” Shaw said.
The convoy protest was a hot potato for political parties, Poilievre observed in a May podcast interview with former University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson. And he was still holding on to it.
“I pushed through the controversy and stood my ground” and even now, he told Peterson, his position on the protest was the same as it was before the convoy arrived in Ottawa. As for the nature of the wave that he held firm against, Poilievre opined in the interview that “the real backlash by the elites against the truckers” was “this idea that truckers have no business going to Ottawa and raising their voices.
“They think that the working classes should just shut up and pay up and let the experts just run things for us and … the population should provide total deference to these institutional elites to just run our lives for us and do what we’re told.”
It’s not a new message for Poilievre, that those who govern need to serve what he once described as “the common people,” and should be deflated or forcefully course-corrected if they’re not doing it. Stepping back to take his two decades in politics into view, one finds it littered with battles against behaviour by public-sector entities that he could interpret as self-serving, inefficient or pandering.
In his earliest years as a MP, the National Capital Commission attracted the ire of Poilievre over a planned hike to the land lease paid by the Queensway Carleton Hospital, minutes outside his riding. Positioning the situation as one of government self-interest and rigidity at the expense of Ottawans’ health care, Poilievre and political ally Baird triumphed in the end, securing a $1 annual rent deal for the hospital after a petition drive, ad campaign and Baird’s appointment as Treasury Board president in the new Stephen Harper government.
In 2012, it was public-sector unions that found themselves in Poilievre’s crosshairs after the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s National Capital Region branch threw its support behind the separatist Parti Québécois in that province’s election. The MP launched a short-lived offensive against the mandatory paying of union dues by federal public servants, thousands of whom lived in his riding. To labour leaders, it was an attack. To Poilievre, it was about “enhancement of workers rights and freedoms.“
While he’s sometimes characterized as a pitbull that will go for the throat of anyone who gets his partisan hackles up, you can draw a direct line between many of Poilievre’s political fights and public comments over the years and the driving principle he articulated his interview with Peterson.
“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, and that the people who do the nation’s work — the plumber, the electrician, the truck driver, the police officer — have almost no share of voice. I want to empower those people and disempower the political establishment.”
Poilievre sketched out policy front lines for his populist crusade in the pre-recorded, three-minute video he posted to announce his leadership bid, targeting government spending and inflation, unaffordable housing, the regulation of online content, mandatory vaccination, firearms restrictions and taxes.
He also presented the opponents of his cause: “the people with power — the media, interest groups, corporate giants, government authorities,” warning they would “fight tooth and nail to keep on top — so it won’t be easy.”
Whether they find his style attractive or off-putting is another matter, but few who’ve observed Poilievre will dispute his capacity for messaging that packs a punch. In fact, it may be the sharpest tool he’s bringing to his battle for the prime minister’s office. And that disturbs some people.
When Kevin Hua looks at Poilievre, he sees someone willing to stoke rage for his own political benefit, regardless of the consequences. Having challenged the incumbent twice as the NDP candidate in Carleton in 2019 and 2021, Hua recalled a community debate where he felt Poilievre did just that on the subject of the Omar Khadr settlement. According to Hua’s recollection of the event, Poilievre disregarded the violation of Khadr’s Charter rights while “milking out the settlement.”
“You just leave out these important, nuanced details… and just focus on what can (anger) people and try to essentially farm that — to farm into votes, donations, support of some sort, regardless of the consequence of misrepresenting the issue, not informing the public fully what it is, for your own benefit. That’s what happened that night.”
Poilievre did not respond to interview requests for this story, but he did discuss his communication style on Peterson’s podcast. And, rather than rage, Poilievre said it’s hope that his leadership bid was delivering for people, at a time when many are suffering.
“What they see in my campaign is an opportunity to take back control of their lives, to remove the gatekeepers so that we can build affordable housing, to unleash the energy sector so our working class can get good jobs again, to stop the money printing and bring inflation back down so folks can afford things again. And that gives them hope that there’s actually a better day coming.”
And it’s the way he communicates, he explained to Peterson, that makes his message credible. If someone asks Poilievre about the cause of soaring inflation, for example, “I explain to them in direct language that when you print more money, you have more dollars chasing fewer goods, it leads to higher prices. Folks say ‘Yeah, that actually makes sense. Isn’t that what we were taught in grade school?’ And the explanations they get from everyone else are a bunch of convoluted, nonsensical, irrational excuses. And so they like my direct, blunt style. Not because it’s simplistic, but because it’s simply true.”
Meanwhile, those with traditional platforms to challenge Poilievre on the accuracy of his arguments— mainstream media outlets, political opponents — are also those whom Poilievre has presented as protectors of the status quo and opponents of his quest to upend it, and a regular target of his ire.
While sometimes Poilievre is an attack dog, MacKinnon said, he’s not a mean person. “He can be very short with people,” she added, “if he thinks they’re pushing a silly agenda or if they don’t really know what they’re talking about— he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
Thompson, the Greely constituent and former councillor for Osgoode ward, said he thought people in his neck of the woods may have been a little surprised by how “tenacious” Poilievre had been in the Conservative leadership race.
“He’s not pulling any punches in his campaign,” said Thompson, not long before Poilievre was declared its victor on Sept. 10. But in retrospect, said Thompson, it’s a pugnacity their MP had demonstrated in Question Period. As party leader, Thompson predicted, “I think he’ll be just as competent as he always has been. He might have to maybe refine himself a little bit … But, you know, I think nowadays people like to see someone who will stand up and really make a point or try to do something.”
Whether Poilievre will soften his approach after winning the leadership has been a matter of speculation, particularly given that O’Toole, the party’s previous leader, shifted towards the centre of the political spectrum in the general election and was criticized for flip-flopping on policy. It’s not something that Modesti expects Poilievre would repeat.
Modesti, 24, got his introduction to politics as a high-school volunteer on Poilievre’s 2015 campaign, took on a paid staffer role for his next re-election bid, and later served as executive director of the Carleton Conservative riding association and digital marketing manager for the national party.
Something he appreciated about Poilievre, said Modesti — who described the veteran politician, with admiration, as “an absolute shark” — was his determination to stay true to his beliefs about what’s best for their party and what’s best for the country. “It develops, it gets refined, but it doesn’t drastically change dependent on any outside pressure or anything like that.”
As for the style around Poilievre’s substance, Modesti said that what Poilievre is trying to do is “root out what is going wrong in this country” and given its state at present “there’s no more room for tiptoeing.”
Ultimately, of course, it’s the Canadian electorate that will decide if Poilievre for prime minister is a freight train they want to hop on. Wielding his political gifts like a siren call or a shiv, depending on the company, the Carleton MP has spent nearly half his life and all of his professional career in rehearsal for this shot at toppling a system that isn’t working for many people, and doesn’t align with his vision for Canada. Don’t expect a track shift, he told a Postmedia columnist in July.
“People know what to expect from me. You’ve known me long enough to know what to expect. There is no grand pivot. I am who I am.”
With files from Postmedia and The Canadian Press