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Canada's Conservative Party Elects Populist as New Leader

Newly elected leader of the Canadian Conservative Party, Pierre Poilievre, delivers a speech at the party's headquarters in Ottawa, Canada, Sept. 10, 2022.
Newly elected leader of the Canadian Conservative Party, Pierre Poilievre, delivers a speech at the party's headquarters in Ottawa, Canada, Sept. 10, 2022.

Canada’s opposition Conservative Party elected its go-to attack dog as its new party leader Saturday.

Pierre Poilievre is a firebrand populist who opposes vaccine mandates and blames Canada's inflation on Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He won the party leadership on the first ballot, defeating a moderate, centrist candidate with 68% of the votes cast by the party's members.

The 43-year-old Poilievre is a career politician and was a cabinet minister in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. He embraced Canadians who were against vaccine mandates and supported the freedom truck convoy that paralyzed Canada’s capital and blockaded the border with the U.S.

“Tonight begins the journey to replace an old government that costs you more and delivers you less with a new government that puts you first,” Poilievre said. “By tackling Liberal inflation, we will put you back in control of your life and your money.”

Poilievre won the party base, attracted large crowds and signed up thousands of new members.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said an apt U.S. comparison for Poilievre is Republican Sen. Ted Cruz but without the anti-abortion stance.

“He is a right-wing populist,” Wiseman said. “Most Canadians recoil at his populism now, but he’ll moderate some of his positions and soften his language and image. I expect the next election to be about the incumbent, an incumbent with growing political baggage.”

Wiseman said if his rhetoric keeps up, he may tumble in the polls. “It is a big win for Poilievre, but Conservative members are a poor reflection of the broader public," he said.

Poilievre, who led his campus conservative club while at university, has been a member of Parliament since age 25.

He has urged the firing of the head of Canada’s central bank, calling him Trudeau’s personal ATM. He has also promoted crypto currency and has said he will defund the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“It remains to be seen how much emphasis he will place on populist tropes now that he has secured the leadership of the party and needs to convince people beyond the Conservative base to support the party,” said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal.

In 2005, Poilievre joined other Conservative lawmakers on the losing side of a vote by Parliament to approve same-sex marriage. In 2008, he apologized after questioning whether Canada was “getting value for all of this money” by compensating survivors of the country's widely criticize Indigenous residential school.

Poilievre is a married father of two who represents a district near Ottawa. He was adopted by two schoolteachers and says he was born in Calgary, Alberta, to a teenager who couldn’t raise a child.

Trudeau channeled the star power of his father, the Liberal Party icon and late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he first won election as premier in 2015 and has led his party to the top finish in two elections since. But his popularity has faded.

However, the Liberals and the opposition New Democratic Party reached an agreement that would see Trudeau’s party keep power until 2025. Trudeau has said he will lead his party into the next election.

“We will stand up and speak out against the reckless policies that Mr. Poilievre has been pushing since the start of his leadership campaign, and during his nearly 20 years as a Conservative insider,” Liberal lawmakers Dominic LeBlanc and Rachel Bendayan said in a statement released by the governing party.

“The new Conservative leader is proposing dangerous ideas that would risk our economy, our health and our safety.”