There is a sharp struggle taking place inside the Conservative Party of Canada. Reminiscent of the Republican party leadership race which eventually saw Donald Trump come to power, the Conservative Party is sharply divided between right-wing populism and establishment conservatism. With rightwing populist Pierre Poilievre leading in the polls by a wide margin, many are asking: Is Trumpism coming to Canada?
With the last few polls showing Poilievre at anywhere from 32 per cent to well over 50 per cent, his populist message seems to have garnered him mass support in the Conservative ranks. He has even been holding rallies of thousands of people, an unheard of phenomenon on the right. If Poilievre manages to win the Conservative leadership this would spell a fundamental shift in the Canadian conservative movement and Canadian politics in general.
Polarization and the collapse of the middle
But these developments should not be surprising. As the capitalist crisis worsens, political opinions increasingly become polarized to the left as well as to the right. While the Conservative Party establishment, following their defeat in 2015, turned their backs on Trumpism, they could only hold the flood back for so long. Indeed, the new leader Andrew Scheer failed to make any headway against the Trudeau Liberals and resigned as leader in 2019.
In this climate, establishment politics, of the right or ‘left’ variety become increasingly untenable. A good example of this was the next Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole. While O’Toole pandered to the backwards social conservative base in order to become Conservative leader in 2020, he quickly abandoned this approach and portrayed himself as not all that different to Justin Trudeau. For example, as an odd look for a Conservative leader, O’Toole attempted to appeal to immigrants and the LGBT community. He also tried a pro-worker message on for size and even pandered to unions. All of this frustrated the Conservative Party base.
But this failed to inspire and O’Toole was handily defeated by Trudeau in the 2021 election.
While the Conservative bureaucracy had previously breathed a sigh of relief when Maxime Bernier quit the party, it was only a matter of time until this right populism manifested itself inside the Conservative Party. With O’Toole already unpopular, the breaking point was the so-called Freedom Convoy in Ottawa. O’Toole refused to support the Convoy, instead waffling. This resulted in him being dumped by the party’s MPs.
Pierre Poilievre: A Canadian Trump?
It is in this context that Pierre Poilievre announced his campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party. Although he has been an MP since the time of Stephen Harper, he has now styled himself as an anti-establishment outsider. In a video announcing his leadership bid, Polievre took aim at the policies of the Liberal government stating that they have “ballooned the assets of the billionaires’, the debts of our children and the cost of living of the working class.”
Poilievre highlights the very material problems faced by working class Canadians stating that “over half of families now say that they struggle just to feed themselves and more 30-year-olds live in their parents’ basements because they can’t afford the now typical cost of a home: $800,000.” He has said that “the system is broken” and has viciously attacked inflation caused by the financial policies of the government. Behind all of this, Poilievre blames “a small financial elite with access to all of that printed money, buy up real estate and rent out to a growing class of permanent tenants; people who may never be able to afford a home.”
Of course, similar to Trump, Polievre does not identify capitalism as the problem but “big government” and reckless financial policy. He therefore proposes to “make Canadians the freest people on earth.” In order to do this, he attacks “The Gatekeepers” by which he means things like the carbon tax and regulatory institutions like the Canada Infrastructure Bank. This is a similar populist message to the one Trump used in 2016, when he attacked the bloated bureaucracy in the capitalist state with talk of “draining the swamp”.
When the Convoy began, Poilievre quickly became the most well known Conservative MP to publicly associate himself with the Convoy. He has called them heroes on multiple occasions, and continues to defend them even now. Reminiscent of Trump, he has also come after the existing conservative establishment with knives sharpened. During the first Conservative leadership debate, Poilievre lobbed attack after attack at establishment candidate Jean Charest. In one heated exchange, he attacked Charest saying that “The average trucker has more integrity in his pinky finger than you had in your entire scandal-plagued Liberal cabinet.”
It is clear that this is not your run-of-the-mill Conservative Party leadership race and these divisions are not going anywhere. Poilievre’s incessant attacks on the Conservative Party establishment, and Jean Charest in particular, has worried Conservative stalwarts across the country. Even Jason Kenney has come out emphasizing the need for unity: “Whoever wins…you’ve got to unite the party at the end.” Preston Manning as well has issued a letter decrying personal attacks in the party leadership, as these divisions threaten to seriously fracture the Conservative Party, which would present a serious problem for the establishment.
Jean Charest and the Conservative establishment
In an attempt to strangle Pierre Poilievre’s campaign in the cradle, the Conservative Party establishment is placing all of their hopes in Jean Charest. Despite only polling at around 15 per cent in most polls, Charest is not far behind Poilievre in fundraising with $490,000 raised so far. Most of this money is coming from a small number of donors, showing the consolidation of the establishment behind Charest.
Charest is most well known for his nine year rule as the Quebec Premier. There, his rule was marked by fiscal conservatism which manifested itself as unceasing attacks on the working class and youth, the most famous of which was Charest’s attempts to increase the cost of postsecondary education by $1,625 per year. This attack ultimately led to the 2012 Quebec student strike, the largest student strike in North American history. This strike saw over 300,000 post-secondary students shutdown the public education system for several months, which resulted in bringing down the hated Charest government in a snap election.
Since then, Jean Charest has largely retreated from politics to lick his wounds. Now he is back and attempting to become leader of the Conservative Party. Ten years away from politics have not seemed to change Charest who clings to his serious establishment conservative image. This includes, of course, balanced budgets, which will certainly mean cuts and austerity for workers. As well, he openly discusses privatizing MRI’s and other parts of the healthcare system.
One of his clearest attacks on the working class is his anti-blockade law. His Critical Infrastructure Protections Act proposes to make all blockades of ‘critical infrastructure’ illegal. This would include mines, railways, ports, and other infrastructure projects. Charest claims the aim is to combat movements like the Freedom Convoy, but in reality such an authoritarian law would be used mainly against strikes, environmental activists and the Indigenous movement. Moreover such a law would effectively make picket lines of workers like the co-op refinery workers in Regina (who went on strike in 2020 against cuts to their pensions) illegal.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown finds himself in a similar boat to Charest. Sitting at five per cent in the polls, Brown boasts big fundraising numbers, with the average donation totaling $1,586. Brown was briefly the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, but was forced to quit when allegations of sexual assault from two women surfaced. Only in the Conservative Party would such a man be allowed a shot at becoming leader. Brown is firmly in the establishment camp, with rumours circulating of a deal between him and Charest to funnel votes away from Poilievre.
Can Poilievre become Prime Minister?
Some on the left will be tempted to dismiss these developments in the Conservative Partyas simply the bickering of the ruling class, but as we saw with the rise of Trump in America, it represents a real threat. With society in crisis, the middle is collapsing and there is polarization to the right and the left. Unfortunately, it seems like the first representative of that polarization in mainstream Canadian politics is to the right.
When Andrew Scheer was elected leader of the Conservative Party, rightwing populist Maxime Bernier, who came in second with 49 per cent of the votes, quit the party and formed the People’s Party of Canada. This right populist formation won 840,000 votes or 4.9 per cent in the last election and siphoned Conservative Party support to the right. Now, with the prospect of a Pierre Poilievre Conservative Party looming, it is clear that most PPC supporters would switch to supporting Pierre Poilievre. And he is gathering steam, holding large rallies, most notably bringing out over 1,000 in Toronto and 5,000 in Edmonton.
But can a Poilievre become leader of the Conservative Party? The vast majority of people thought that Donald Trump was a joke and would never become the Republican candidate for president. Could a Poilievre Conservative Party come to power? Again, many people thought that Donald Trump would never beat Hillary Clinton.
Of course, there are no guarantees, least of all in elections. The voting for the leadership will not take place until Sept. 10. Additionally, the voting system in the Conservative Party is weighted by riding. This means that although Poilievre might dominate in some areas, if Charest’s vote is more spread out and he wins enough ridings, he would still be able to beat Poilievre. This makes the election, though swinging in Poilievre’s favour as of now, not a done deal.
But even if Poilievre doesn’t become leader of the Conservative Party, the political polarization cannot be avoided in the long run. Canadian workers have faced over two years of a pandemic that has turned their lives upside down. They are now facing rising living costs, with inflation at 6.7 per cent. The cost of transportation has jumped by 11 per cent and the cost of gas has increased by nearly 40 per cent. Meanwhile, the profits of the billionaires in Canada have increased massively. In 2021 alone, Canadian capitalists made $445 billion in profit.
The anger in society must not be allowed to funnel into right-wing figures like Poilievre, but into actual movements and organizations that will fight to improve the lives of the working class and combat capitalism. That is the only way to stop Trumpism from coming to Canada.
Unfortunately, the NDP–Canada’s labour party–has entirely failed at this thus far. By entering into a confidence and supply agreement with the Liberals, they have tied themselves to the establishment for the next three years. This is a gift to Poilievre who has denounced Jagmeet saying “Yes, the ‘system’ is rigged for the rich but you are the system Jagmeet.” To be perfectly honest, he has a point. The NDP can hardly criticize a government they are propping up. We warned that this deal would expose the NDP to precisely the sort of anti-establishment right populism that Pierre Poilievre is now using, and could pave the way for a Pierre Poilievre government.
What is needed is a bold socialist alternative that provides a serious fightback against the capitalist conditions that have created inflation and the declining living standards that Poilievre pretends to care about. The answer to the crisis is not Poilievre, but a socialist anti-establishment movement that criticizes the capitalist system for all of the problems facing working class Canadians.
This is entirely possible as the overwhelming tendency in society is to the left. This is shown by massive support for a wealth tax, even among Conservative voters. As well, a recent poll showed 35 per cent of Canadians want to move away from capitalism, with only 25 per cent opposed to that. With working class Canadians looking for a way out, it is entirely possible to mobilize them in a left-wing socialist direction which attacks the billionaires and proposes actual solutions to the crisis.