Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre spends his evenings listening to the dulcet tones of Robert Breedlove—a Bitcoin guru and Youtube streamer with questionable views on vaccines and the Holocaust. 

“My wife and I have been known to watch YouTube and your channel late into the night once we’ve got the kids to bed,”  he told the host during an interview on a recent broadcast. “I’ve learned a lot.” 

But in terms of nerdy preoccupations, the Youtuber had nothing on Poilievre. “I would argue that one of the things that brought down Henry VIII was ‘the great debasement,’” Poilievre told the confused Breedlove, as he went on a historical digression. “He melted down the British pound and filled it with copper so he could make more coins with the same amount of silver.” 

“It’s one of the reasons he was such a horribly unpopular king,” Poilievre continued. “It breaks down the most powerful form of economic communication which is the price signal.”

“Uh, yeah, excellent points,” the flustered Breedlove responded, quickly pivoting to discuss COVID-19 restrictions—“the never-ending excuse being used by power-hungry authorities.”

Poilievre, ever-eager, used the opportunity to delve into the details of the parliamentary calendar and problems with Zoom proceedings.

The Breedlove interview reflects a conflicting pattern at the core of Pierre Poilievre’s persona.

In the weeks since he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party, some have painted him as a would-be Trump, a right-wing faux populist looking to tap into a deep well of frustration at the Liberal status quo.

He greeted the arrival of the “Freedom Convoy” to Ottawa from a highway overpass in late January, and has been diligently collecting contact information from its supporters. In the midst of the convoy’s occupation of Ottawa, he released  his first campaign video. With 4 million views on Twitter, it features him speaking at desk, denouncing “corporate giants,” a “small financial elite” and governments who have “gotten big and bossy,” and promising to “give you back control of your life.” 

Yet even in that video, the career politician and six-time MP from Carleton, Ottawa, couldn’t help himself from deviating into the obscure minutiae of monetary policy—something unlikely to excite a wider base.

These apparently clashing tendencies are a reflection of the Conservative Party’s own status, which has long been an unruly combination of big money and megachurches. Over his career, Poilievre has made a lot of promises to the former—corporate tax cuts, privatization and an all-out assault on the public sector workforce and welfare state. But the leading social conservative forces in the latter camp have grown to distrust him. As the pandemic has unleashed new dynamics into Canadian society, he has built up greater support, lashing out at “gatekeepers” in speeches peppered with conspiracy theory dog-whistling and appeals to the anti-vaccine movement. Could this wider but volatile base help him secure the leadership of the party, and beyond that, challenge for power?

Poilievre offered support for the Freedom Convoy on its arrival to Ottawa. Photo: Manotick Messenger

Campus Conservative keener

In 1999, the 19-year old second-year commerce student at the University of Calgary entered a well-known Canadian essay-writing contest—“As prime minister I would,” sponsored by the autoparts giant Magna International.

Poilievre’s submission was entitled “Building Canada Through Freedom,” and proposed abolishing capital gains taxes and introducing a system of “directed taxation” in which “you tell the government where you want your tax money to go.” 

As one of the finalists—and winner of $10,000—he was interviewed by a judge for a write-up in the Calgary Herald. At a precocious age, Poilievre already exhibited the snarling ideological tones—and the evocative turns-of-phase—that have helped him build up a large social media following recently.

“[The] odorous tax which takes $4 billion out of the economy each year” would need to be gotten rid of, he said. “The tax on capital gains in Canada is twice as high as in communist China and we wonder why our ideas are being held back.”

He had a low, libertarian opinion of politicians and government. “Government’s job is to constantly find ways to remove itself from obstructing such freedoms,” he said. “Any politician promising not to raise your taxes is like a vampire promising to become a vegetarian.”

But he also showed some sensibility about positioning. The Herald noted that Poilievre had swept the grounds at the Calgary Stampede for 10 days over the past summers.

While he didn’t win the essay writing top-prize—a phone-call from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien he was probably happy to do without—the young right-winger soon landed a gig with Magna International.

His worldview had been shaped by a few influences.

At 16, Poilievre had gotten his start in politics selling Reform Party memberships for Jason Kenney. Through highschool and university, Poilievre got involved with both the Reform Party and its successor, the Canadian Alliance. 

He rallied consistently behind the regressive, anti-worker policies of Reform leader Preston Manning. Economic questions dominated its platforms, while opposition to immigration, religious fundamentalism and anti-Quebec rhetoric animated the party’s base. Reform’s 1988 platform proposed mass privatization, a flat tax, ending oil price controls, scrapping closed shop protections for unions, and even abolishing minimum wage laws.

Whether by conscious study or unconscious osmosis, Manning appears to have become a model for Poilievre: the nasally-voiced wonkish Reform leader lacked for all charisma, and his technical proposals didn’t always play well with the base, but he still managed to build an effective coalition by playing to the churches and Albertan parochialism. 

Aside from Manning, Poilievre’s earliest right-wing inspirations came from economist and intellectual godfather of neoliberalism Friedrich Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom. He had also learned the virtues of self-reliance from his uncle, Poilievre told the Herald, an owner of a vending machine business that “everyone said would not pay.”

He held down a brief job writing the Who’s Suing Whom column for Alberta Report, a now defunct far-right Albertan weekly. In a series of newspaper op-eds, he applauded the Ralph Klein government’s grinding austerity measures, especially those introduced by social services minister Stockwell Day. He lauded Day for putting the “government on a diet” to support “a pro-growth flat tax.” 

Day took notice. When he became leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2000, he hired Poilievre as his full time assistant. 

Despite this work, Poilievre remained active on the party’s right flank.  In 2001, strife broke out, in anticipation of Manning’s resignation from parliament. At issue was a proposed merger, backed by Manning, of the Tories and the harder-right Alliance.

Ezra Levant, then a Calgary lawyer and Stockwell Day’s communications director, began campaigning to win Manning’s safe seat. According to the Alberta Report, Levant pledged “the Alliance party can win Calgary Southwest on its own without working with the Tories” who, he warned, would threaten the Alliance’s “fiscal and social conservatism.” Poilievre joined Levant’s campaign as a spokesperson.

He stuck with the “Ezra Express” until Levant stood aside to give soon-to-be Alliance leader Stephen Harper a safe seat. Soon, Poilievre himself was seeking office alongside Harper.

Real quote, real photo, but imaginary yearbook rendering. Illustration: The Breach

The unreliable social conservative

In 2004, at the age of 24 and just a few years out of university, Poilievre was elected to parliament with the recently-unified Conservative Party for the Neapean Ottawa riding. which overlapped with Progressive Conservative MPP John Baird, who would offer him mentorship. He described himself and his younger colleagues to the National Post as on the party’s “libertarian-minded” right. But buoyed by electoral success, the MP was clear he supported Harper.

While Harper came from Reform, his leadership was marked by a careful balancing of the party’s social conservative base with its electoral and corporate ambitions. Poilievre, as an early Conservative MP, has similarly found himself at the centre of significant factional tension. Two ultra-reactionary mouthpieces of the social conservative wing of the party, the Bridgehead and the Campaign Life Coalition,  both note that Poilievre began clearly on the party’s right.

His early comments and votes bolstered that reputation. In 2005, he voted against gay marriage, and vowed that the “meaning of the term ‘marriage’ ought to be preserved as a union between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.” He has also voted against legalizing marijuana and transgender rights legislation, and in favor of a number of restrictions on abortion procedures.

He has fallen on more than a few swords, to this end. In an interview in 2006, just hours before Prime Minister Harper was to issue an apology to residential school survivors, Poilievre protested the government’s financial settlement. “Now, you know, some of us are starting to ask: ‘Are we really getting value for all of this money, and is more money really going to solve the problem?’” he asked. “My view is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self reliance. That’s the solution in the long run—more money will not solve it.”

In 2008, he also suggested “withholding” transfer money to stop provincial health plans from paying for gender transition services. Since then, however, he has fallen out of favour with the social conservatives, especially for not falling into line with the party’s extremist wing on abortion and conversion therapy. That’s earned him a “dissident Catholic” designation from the Campaign Life Coalition. 

Poilievre is hardly the first member from the right of the Conservative coalition to run afoul of its social conservative ideologues. Despite his reputation as an evangelical, Preston Manning himself wrote in his memoir about his interest in avoiding direct mobilizations of “the Christian vote.” Those committed to a candidate in a fit of religious fervor can become a political danger if they’re let down, Manning wrote, planting the “seeds of acrimony and division for years to come.” 

All the same, the religious right largely mobilized itself behind Reform and the Alliance and it has been a vital constituency for the party’s right in the years since. Even former leader Erin O’Toole, lacking Poilievre’s history on the right, opportunistically pandered to this wing to help secure his short-lived leadership in 2020.

The social conservative distrust for Poilievre seems, on the surface, atypical for a candidate with his prominence. This may reflect a strategic choice to distance himself, or it may reflect the religious right’s own drift away from mainstream conservatism

But however much Poilievre’s zealotry may have waned in terms of outward expression, he has hardly softened as a right-winger. His political trajectory has compensated for his lack of social conservatism by way of a profound and unwavering animus toward the working class, poor, and unionized.

Stephen Harper and Poilievre. Photo: Gov of Canada.

Setting precedents in anti-union crusading

In 2009, transport drivers went on strike in Poilievre’s riding, after the city threatened hundreds of layoffs and refused to budge on wages. With federal labour minister Rona Ambrose considering back-to-work legislation, Poilievre denounced the unionized staff for rejecting “such a generous offer.” It was the opening salvo in a fight against labour rights that would become a core part of his political mission.

Not long after, he called the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport a testament to “the power of privatization.” Looking ahead, he promised that “much needed spending reductions in the coming budget offer us the chance to free up the economy, privatize more and see more success stories.”

Poilievre soon become a reliable attack dog for the Conservative Party against unions. He led the charge on a bill to allow the government to roll back wage gains in public sector collective agreements. “I am not here to take marching orders from union bosses,” Poilievre boasted. “I represent taxpayers and frankly taxpayers expect us to keep costs under control so that we can keep taxes down.”

That same year, Poilievre came out staunchly in favor of “right-to-work” legislation, which would allow workers to opt-out of union membership even after a democratic vote to unionize among workers. Poilievre’s proposals were modeled explicitly on similar legislation in Michigan. “I am the first federal politician to make a dedicated push toward this goal,” he told the Toronto Star. “I believe in free choice for workers and I am going to do my part to see that happens at the federal level and I would encourage provincial governments to do likewise.”

In an August 2012 op-ed titled “Escaping big government,” Poilievre called for new, deeper cuts to social programs in Canada to aid the post-financial crash recovery. He urged the government to “cut welfare programs,” “employee wages” and “government jobs” and privatize the “major symbols of the remaining government influence on the economy.”

In 2015, Poilievre would display a characteristic lack of sympathy for migrant workers facing deportation, remarking: “That’s why they’re called temporary foreign workers.”

“What is truly horrific is the existing welfare state”

The Conservative defeat in 2015 has led to seven years of factional infighting. In that time, Poilievre—while falling out of favour with the main social conservative lobby groups—has built up his own social media base, and proposed increasingly drastic changes to Canada’s welfare system.

“Why do governments do so many things to make people poor, only to spend billions of dollars to rescue them from poverty?” Poilievre asked in Parliament in 2017. He proposed instead a system of “work instead of welfare, and family and community instead of bureaucracy.” 

Among the proposals, Poilievre suggested moving people with disabilities into private sector work at “competitive wages,” privatizing housing on reserves, slashing economic development programs and changing funding formulas for Employment Agencies to serve employers. 

In a subsequent article on Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot, Poilievre wrote: “What is truly horrific is the existing welfare state, which survives only by keeping people poor.”

“[A] self-serving bureaucracy whose survival depends on a growing clientele of poor welfare recipients,” gave people incentives not to seek work, he claimed, and demanded a government-wide overhaul. He suggested following Milton Friedman by replacing “the entire welfare state” with “a tiny survival stipend for all low-income people.”

He was explicit that this would mean “eliminating all other programs, including housing, drug plans, child care and the bureaucrats who administer it all”—something the Conservative Party MPs have rarely been so open about. 

More recently, in 2020, Poilievre further insisted that cutting unemployment benefits and social programs to pay for a similar line of corporate tax cuts would mean “getting our businesses making things back in Canada.” That would solve the supposed mismatch of “people without jobs and jobs without people.” 

Illustration: The Breach

A Crypto-Bro at the helm of the Conservative Party?

Should these plans fail, however, Poilievre has an alternative—Bitcoin. 

He has expressed hopes that Bitcoin—a decentralized digital currency that has been heavily influenced by far-right wing libertarian thinking—might supplant “the government monopoly on our cash.” 

As he told one blogger, with Ontario’s manufacturing sector struggling to make use of all its electricity, “we have to explore the possibility that that energy could be bought by Bitcoin mines. Clean, green, emissions-free bitcoin mine that could generate opportunity here.”

“Be ready though,” he warned, “because as these alternative assets start to gain steam and governments feel they are under threat.”

Poilievre has confirmed that he himself has crypto-currency investments. He has also reportedly sought out investment advice from top Bitcoin guru, like Freedom Convoy-backer Greg Foss. 

It seems unlikely that Bitcoin will in fact gain sufficient steam. But this fringe idea reflects Poilievre well—a “free market activist” so committed to new capitalist frontiers that he finds himself in the darker corners of the internet. 

Poilievre’s crypto outreach strategy is only slightly stranger than his apparent sympathies for opponents of public health precautions. Over the past two years, as Poilievre has defended far-right anti-vaxxer protesters, voted against vaccine mandates, and denounced the federal government’s supposed plot for a “great reset,” he has built up a considerable following.

This may help win back voters from the People’s Party of Canada, whose 800,000 votes in the 2021 cost the Conservative several ridings. A recent Leger poll of PPC voters found 26 per cent prefer Poilievre to current leader Maxime Bernier.

While these positions might not appeal more broadly, the Conservative Party membership has never been reflective of general public opinion. Nearly 70 per cent of their voters believe Canada has “too many non-white immigrants,” the party has been plagued for months by anti-vaccine MPs and members, and past party leaders have been confronted by Pizzagate and “cultural marxism” conspiracy theories within their own ranks. 

It is yet to be seen if Poiliere can assemble anti-vaxxers, conspiracy groups and  crypto bros into an effective base, let alone win an elections as Conservative leader. But regardless of whether he succeeds, it is a sign that Canada’s right-wing is becoming more noxious. 

In the end, the Conservative Party, made up of the religious, the deluded and the unhinged, are a battering ram for MPs to put regressive policies into practice. Should Poilievre succeed in winning its leadership, he may finally get a chance to take a sledge hammer to what’s left of Canada’s welfare state—and put workers “on a diet.”

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