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Pierre Poilievre is filling a void the left should occupy

The Tory leader is building a new kind of diverse Conservative coalition: one that is younger and angrier and more distrustful of institutions — with a wink to the protest convoy.

Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre participates in the Chinatown Spring Festival Parade, amid Lunar New Year celebrations in Vancouver last week. He is reaching out to a broad spectrum of Canadians who face material struggles. PHOTO BY JENNIFER GAUTHIER /REUTERS

It’s a commonplace notion that Canadian politics mirror American politics — just 10 years behind. 
It should be no surprise, then, that many Canadian progressives think we see Donald Trump reflected in federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre.

But sorry, folks. Despite throwing his arms around the protest convoy, and his efforts to woo low-trust and alienated voters, Poilievre just isn’t Trump. And if progressives treat him like he’s Trump, we’re going to lose.

In poll after poll, Poilievre shows outsized strength among younger voters — contrary to long-held Ottawa assumptions.

In Canada, we younger people have less reason to trust our institutions than most. That’s why, if you’re under 40, you understand who Poilievre is trying to appeal to immediately — because you’ve seen these posts before, on your Instagram feed or on online chat platforms such as Discord. Many millennials love the idea of cryptocurrency, have cheered on attacks on the Bank of Canada, and embraced the convoy’s anti-establishment esthetic.

Poilievre got his start with an embrace of the convoy — prior to, and during, the Conservative leadership race. Ever since, he has catered to this segment of the population. With relish.

Poilievre has also visibly reached out to others who have found themselves with reason to distrust Canada and its institutions. Despite outreach to traditional reactionary voters by appearing at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, whose views on residential schools are highly controversial, he also has a long pattern of appealing to Indigenous voters, appearing with B.C. Liberal MLA Ellis Ross in support of LNG Canada, calling it “economic reconciliation,” and indicating in other videos that he hears from First Nations regularly about the need to “remove the gatekeepers in Ottawa.”

It’s not limited to young voters or Indigenous voters, of course. Poilievre has, at every turn, reached out to racialized voters, and highlighted racialized validators such as “Mustafa from Calgary” or the owners of ARZ Fine Foods. He promises to remove the gatekeepers that prevent them from succeeding.

The Canadian conservative movement’s ability to attract diverse voters has long been noted by Ottawa observers. But those same observers assumed that winning those voters meant tacking to the centre.

What, then, are we to make of Pierre Poilievre?

It is, frankly, a coalition that includes many of the voters progressives need to win.

Poilievre built this coalition not just by winking at radical anti-establishment movements like the protest convoy. He’s also spoken to that coalition’s very real economic and material concerns. He’s successfully paired snappy solutions with attacks on Canadian institutions. Consider housing — alongside health care, the issue dominating young people’s minds and pocketbooks. Liberal politicians may deliver bromides about affordable housing, but they refuse to identify a villain, preferring to make transfer payments to cities (which they are late on delivering). Poilievre, by contrast, correctly identifies “gatekeepers” in local government as his nemesis. He pairs this attack with an attack on the Bank of Canada.

It’s clear that he is building a new kind of diverse Conservative coalition: one that is younger and angrier and more distrustful of media and institutions than the coalition that it has replaced.

It’s an attack that has much more emotional resonance. Because along with anger, it offers hope.

Poilievre and Trump are both practitioners of grievance politics, and channellers of anger. But where Trump sought to channel his voters’ cultural grievances, Poilievre seeks to channel — in part, if not in whole — their material grievances, and build a new Conservative coalition.

Younger voters, diverse voters and marginalized voters — the kind of voter that progressive parties like to imagine make up their base — have material grievances to spare.

Those grievances are justified. And that’s why Poilievre is dangerous.

For too long, left-wing political parties have abandoned working-class, materialist politics in the pursuit of a cross-class majority that unites along false culture wars. This strategy has run its course. That’s why reclaiming real politics, and creating a multi-racial, working-class coalition is the central mission of the Broadbent Institute — and the theme of our upcoming Progress Summit in Ottawa.

The left must recommit itself to the material politics of the better deal, and a more comfortable life. Because if it does not, the right will continue to fill that void, and we’ll all suffer the consequences.

Jen Hassum is the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute.

This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on January 30, 2023.