Canadians should fear ‘pseudo-American’ populism

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That is what we can expect if Pierre Poilievre wins the Conservative leadership, according to chief rival Jean Charest.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 30, 2022.

OTTAWA—The Americanization of Canadian politics. That is what we can expect if Pierre Poilievre wins the Conservative leadership, according to chief rival Jean Charest.

Charest pulled no punches in an aggressive closing statement at the party’s French, and final, debate in Laval last Wednesday night.

“The question we face is a very serious one. Will we in the Conservative Party take the path of American-style politics, the politics of attack, the politics where we play one group against another, the politics where every answer is a dodge? Or are we going to do Canadian politics for Canadians. That is the option I offer, not to be a pseudo-American. That is not what we want as a country. We want a leader who is able to unite the party and who has judgment, who does not send signals about conspiracy theories, who spills over into theories about the Bank of Canada or Bitcoin.”

Fellow candidate Patrick Brown doubled down in tandem attacks on Poilievre. Both candidates appeared so closely aligned in their views of Poilievre that they were asked whether they had already crafted a political pact to defeat the putative front-runner.

Brown ventured even further in a presser following the debate. He went so far as to say Poilievre has no chance of becoming prime minister.

By contrast, Charest insisted that his character and experience included the qualities to become prime minister, not just the leader of the official opposition.

But Charest’s record also provided fodder for attacks from Poilievre, who accused the former Quebec premier of raising taxes, and supporting carbon pricing.

When Poilievre was attacked for supporting the Truckers’ Freedom Convoy, he blasted back that he had no lessons to learn from Charest, referencing the Charbonneau Commission as an example of Charest’s questionable record.

When Charest told the crowd it would be his job as Conservative leader to retire the 32 Bloc Québécois members currently sitting in the Canadian Parliament, Poilievre retorted that Charest was the one who was retired by separatists.

At the end of the fiery debate, the other three candidates for the Conservative leadership were literally left in the proverbial dust.

Their poor grasp of the French language left them all ill-equipped to spar with the ease of the three on top.

Leslyn Lewis struggled with her cue cards, and Roman Baber used his limited French to primarily decry his birthplace in the former Soviet Union.

Scott Aitchison managed to master the ask in multiple, comic attempts to direct viewers to his website.

That recruitment technique will not vault him to the top, but all candidates are pushing hard to sell as many memberships as possible before the cut-off date on Friday, June 3.

As of Friday, the second phase of the campaign moves from recruitment to conversion. Just because one campaign signed up a member, that new recruit can actually change their mind and vote for another candidate in the voting system on Sept. 10.

Whatever the outcome, it is awfully hard to see how the losers will actually line up behind the winner.

The bad blood amongst the party front-runners could end up killing their chances of forming the next government.

It is hard to see how Charest could align himself with a potential Poilievre prime minister if the former Quebec premier loses the race.

He is an experienced politician who knows what it means to burn political bridges. His attack last week sent the signal that if he does not win, it is unlikely that he will be running as part of the Conservative team.

And the charge of “pseudo-American populism” is one that will stick.

In addition to the Tory leadership last week, the whole country witnessed another mass murder in Texas carried out by an 18-year-old American who had no trouble securing two assault weapons after his 18th birthday.

But instead of tackling the gun availability issue, Senator Ted Cruz blamed the massacre on the fact that the school’s back door was left open.

It is painful to watch the mounting pile of bodies dying at the hands of crazed gunmen almost weekly in the United States. As the issue is so polarized, nothing is ever really done to limit access to weapons beyond the usual plethora of post-mortem platitudes from political leaders.

American president Joe Biden has again promised to fight the gun lobby, but his level of success remains to be seen. Regular mass murders without consequence are one reason that Canadians fear “pseudo-American populism.”

Tory populists may disagree.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.