Briefing

Does Canada have its Trump?

Pierre Poilievre is a divisive figure with social media savvy. Sound familiar?

Is Canada getting its very own Donald Trump?

America's neighbor to the north is famed for what might be described as a distinctly un-Trumpian politeness and gentility. But that might be changing: The country's Conservative Party this week elected "firebrand populist" Pierre Poilievre as its leader, making him the leader of the opposition in Parliament, and a leading contender to become the next prime minister. 

"You don't have to squint too hard to see the parallels between former U.S. President Donald Trump and newly crowned Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre," Max Fawcett writes for Canada's National Observer. Both men are "economic populists" who have an "unusual ability to connect with their audiences through social media." (Oh, and social media superstar Jordan Peterson likes him a lot, too.) There are some important differences, yes, but Poilievre might represent a new front in the rise of right-wing populism around the world. Who is he and what does he want to do for Canada? Here's everything you need to know:

Where did Pierre Poilievre come from, anyway?

As long as we're making Trump comparisons, let's start with one obvious difference: Trump was a celebrity outsider who became a politician late in life. Poilievre is a lifer: The 43-year-old "has been a federal Member of Parliament for the last 18 years, becoming the youngest member in the House of Commons at age 25 in 2004," the BBC reports. He served in the government of Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, as parliamentary secretary and as minister of employment and social development. He has served as the party's "shadow government" minister of finance since the Liberal party under Justin Trudeau came to power, and has built a "reputation for hounding the Liberal party on government spending and other government scandals."

That sounds like a typical politician. What makes him different?

Poilievre's approach involves "leveraging divisive, polarizing issues" that divide the Canadian public, Natasha Bulowski writes for the National Observer. (Sound familiar?) For example, he's made a habit of attacking his country's media: 

Poilievre was also a vocal supporter of the "Freedom Convoy" that clogged traffic at the U.S.-Canadian border in February, which was part of a broader opposition to COVID vaccine mandates that Poilievre has also championed. "These mandates have become nothing more than a cruel attempt to demonize a small minority," he said this summer. "They are absolutely unnecessary and without any scientific basis."

But he's not necessarily conservative in the American sense, is he? 

Politics look different in different places. But it's fair to say Poilievre has evolved. In Parliament, he voted against same-sex marriage and for a study on whether a fetus is a human before birth. Politico reports that these days he describes same-sex marriage as a "success," and himself as pro-choice.

How will his approach go over in Canada? 

"Right-wing populism is not new to Canada; it has a long history in the prairies," The Washington Post notes. But it hasn't been popular at the national level before now. So Poilievre's task is to broaden his party's appeal "beyond its traditional base in rural Canada and the strongholds of Alberta and Saskatchewan" to include the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver.

So does he have a real chance to become prime minister, then?

If Poilievre possesses another similarity with Trump, it's probably this: He's beloved by his party's base, but not necessarily as much among the electorate at large. CTV News reported in August that while Poilievre was the leading candidate among Conservatives, polling showed that Canadian voters of all parties preferred his Conservative rival, Jean Charest, to lead the country. But Aaron Wherry at CBC News writes that this seems to be an "opportune time" for Poilievre. "Inflation is high and interest rates are rising," and Trudeau has been in office for seven years already. "All things being equal, one would expect the Conservatives to have a very good chance of winning the next election."

Trudeau won't be giving up without a fight. He's already launched attacks on Poilievre. "Buzzwords, dog whistles, and careless attacks don't add up to a plan for Canadians," the prime minister said this week. "Attacking the institutions that make our society fair, safe and free is not responsible leadership." 

When is the showdown, then? 

Funny you should ask. We don't know precisely. The next fixed parliamentary election date is October 25, 2025. But it could come sooner if a deal between Trudeau's Liberal government and the New Democrats party falls apart before then. If not, Poilievre may have to wait three more years — a long time in politics in any country — before he gets his chance to lead Canada.

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