On April 24, a TikToker uploaded several videos of Pierre Poilievre and his wife, Anaida, being grilled by supporters outside Elks Lodge in North Bay, Ontario. In one of them, a member of the group, an older woman, says she drove four hours to meet him. “I want you to know that I have been following you and watching you, and you have given me so much hope,” she says. “There’s times you actually brought me to tears.”
However, she has questions for the forty-three-year-old Conservative politician: Has he confronted Justin Trudeau about all the money the prime minister has reaped from vaccines? (This is in reference to a rumour that spread on Facebook and Twitter in January 2022—and was swiftly debunked—that Trudeau’s family had shares in a Vancouver-based biotech company that produced a key component of the Pfizer vaccine.) A man, standing behind the woman, chimes in: “$70 million in two years.” Poilievre says no, he hasn’t spoken to him.
The woman goes on. “I have heard that you have shares in that company.” Stepping away from her husband, Anaida takes the woman’s hand and gazes into her eyes. “I do not, darling,” she says. “I really do not. And I am honest, and I promise you.”
The crowd applauds. “I hope to God that’s true,” the woman says. “I hope you guys are who we think you are.”
The video provides a behind-the-scenes look at Poilievre’s cultivation of what we might call disinformed Canadians—a significant and growing segment of people who distrust mainstream media and government and instead rely on what they read online, where a lot of disinformation spreads. For several minutes, in front of Elks Lodge, Poilievre fields questions about Bill Gates, the World Health Organization, and the World Economic Forum, all elements of the “Great Reset” conspiracy theory—the claim that elites are using the pandemic to collapse the world’s economy and install a tyrannical global government. In his exchanges, Poilievre parries and deflects. He explains away a 2015 photo with Gates (the Microsoft co-founder was just visiting Parliament, he says). He insists he opposes the WEF. His answers seem to satisfy the group. But his performance is notable for what he doesn’t do as much as for what he does. Just as he is careful to echo the crowd’s anger over vaccine mandates, Poilievre avoids saying anything that will contradict their false beliefs.
Poilievre’s tolerance for those false beliefs appears to have been a factor behind his landslide victory in the Conservative leadership race in September. Poilievre secured two-thirds of votes—a level of enthusiasm that eluded even Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. Jenni Byrne, one of Poilievre’s advisers, claimed in a recent podcast that 95 percent of the followers he had amassed in the run-up to the race had never before been members of a political party. Conservatives signed up a record 312,000 members; most of them, said Byrne, were drawn to Poilievre because they didn’t see Trudeau addressing the economic strife caused by COVID-19 lockdowns.
But it was hard to miss something else: a grassroots excitement kindled by Poilievre’s view of pandemic-related public health measures as “unfair, unscientific bullying.” In the packed rallies he held across Canada, Poilievre seemed to tap directly into fears that the country was under attack from what he called “vaccine vendettas.” As close watchers of Canadian politics for over thirty years—one of us the founder and president of Ottawa-based pollsters Ekos Research Associates and the other a long-time reporter—we had never quite seen a campaign so successfully deploy such extreme narratives to its advantage. It seemed like a new turn in our political history.
From September 13 to 16, just days after Poilievre became Conservative leader, Ekos conducted a poll, specifically for The Walrus, of 1,005 randomly selected Canadians. It measured levels of disinformation using four questions about COVID-19. Every respondent was assigned a score based on how strongly they believed the reported number of COVID-19 deaths was exaggerated, that vaccine-related deaths were being concealed, that vaccines alter DNA, and that they impact fertility—none of which is true. The higher the number of wrong answers, and the more convinced someone was about their wrong answer, the higher the score. Seventy percent of fully disinformed voters—those who scored high on all four questions—backed Poilievre.
This is no longer the party that Harper led. Older mainstream Tories, motivated by a desire for low taxes and smaller government, have been joined by a younger and angrier set of voters. Radicalized into toxic views by vaccine mandates, they are far more economically insecure and display higher levels of institutional mistrust than other voters. Sixty-six percent of Conservatives, according to the Ekos poll, say they never trust the government to do the right thing, compared with 8 percent of New Democrats and 4 percent of Liberals. Their embrace of conspiracy theories reflects a much higher consumption of disinformation. This is a coalition deeply convinced shadowy forces orchestrated COVID-19. They are attracted to the idea of a strong leader who will get things done.
In lashing out against “woke” Liberals, Poilievre has positioned himself as that strong leader. His mission to “give Canadians back control of their lives” is striking a chord with disaffected voters who feel left out of Trudeau’s Canada—voters angry with a government that appears more concerned with virtue signalling than dealing with inflation or creating affordable housing. Some of the problems that Poilievre has identified are critical. His followers complain they have not seen the kind of progress their parents and grandparents did. Pensions and secure retirement are a mirage. But this discontent shows striking similarities to public sentiments that researchers have uncovered beneath the rise of populist leaders elsewhere—Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Narendra Modi in India. In each case, economic grievances became linked with broader fears about a nation in decline. And, in each case, the electorate was buoyed by promises to turn back the clock to better days.
It’s difficult to say if Poilievre’s popularity will survive the rough and tumble of daily politics until the next election is called. (He declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.) But, whether or not he becomes prime minister, he is clearly tapping into a populist fervour that has been a major force around the world. Urban progressives are inclined to assume the governing consensus in Ottawa, which prioritizes their ideas of diversity and inclusion, will continue indefinitely. Poilievre’s rise challenges that. There are now two Canadas eyeing each other with reciprocal contempt.
Researchers call this affective polarization: voters with opposing ideologies harden in their views and become less tolerant and respectful of one another. It means fewer points of compromise are possible, and debates become demonizing, resentment driven, conspiracy fuelled. A key component of authoritarian populism, this polarization is now central to our political life, and Poilievre is harnessing it.
Poilievre has been short on detailed policy positions but long on anger. It’s hard not to think that’s by design. Populist leaders offer an emotionally powerful message about the relationship between the “people,” whom the leader represents, and the “elite,” who stand in the way of the people getting what they want. But, beyond that, there is often no credible program for organizing society. This is why authoritarian populism is better understood as a recipe rather than a philosophy. It is a set of techniques for winning power, refined and honed by electoral entrepreneurs who observe what is happening in one jurisdiction, adjust for regional differences, and apply the lessons elsewhere. After several stillborn efforts in Canada—personified recently by Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party of Canada—Poilievre has cooked up something that appeals to the palates of a growing number of Canadians.
At the heart of that appeal seems to be the relationship Poilievre has forged with the so-called freedom movement that arose in opposition to provincial and federal vaccine mandates. Poilievre began courting Canadians frustrated with pandemic measures as early as November 2020, when he launched a petition against the Great Reset, claiming that “Canadians must fight back against global elites preying on the fears and desperation of people to impose their power grab.” At the time, Erin O’Toole—who would send mixed messages on vaccine mandates—was leader of the Conservatives. Poilievre raised his own profile and became a considerable presence on social media with a series of provocative YouTube videos stoking fears about inflation. When the convoy arrived in Ottawa in January 2022—in a cloud of diesel smoke, clogging the streets around Parliament Hill with semitrucks and other vehicles for weeks—Poilievre went on a charm offensive. He visited the encampment, taking selfies with protesters. O’Toole’s cautious support of the convoy seemed to only galvanize growing unhappiness with his centrist leadership. Within days of the convoy’s arrival, he was overthrown in a caucus revolt, launching the leadership race.
Poilievre seized his advantage. “I’m proud of the truckers, and I stand with them,” he told the National Post in February. In turn, supporters infused his campaign with energy, helping pack unusually large halls across the country and enabling him to beat rival Jean Charest. They are now the bedrock of his support. According to Ekos, 66 percent of those who hold a favourable view of Poilievre are pro–freedom movement. (PressProgress reported that the Elks Lodge video was viewed online hundreds of thousands of times and shared “in private groups run by anti-lockdown and Freedom Convoy organizers.”) Some recent moves are likely to play well with the more reactionary wing of Poilievre’s supporters. Take his picks for the shadow cabinet, in which he gave prominent roles to figures like Leslyn Lewis, who has doubted the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, or his appointment of communications director Sarah Fischer, a 2019 Conservative candidate who, in blog posts, called the convoy protests “glorious” and Canada “a dystopian nightmare where government reigns supreme.”
Most importantly, Poilievre’s profreedom alliance burnished his image as a leader who will stand up to external threats—the chief dynamic of populist electoral successes, from the Aegean to the Baltic, from the Philippines to South America. Poilievre’s slogan, “Take back control of your life,” is adapted from the Brexit campaign, for example. But he has also tweaked the strongman image for local conditions. Populists typically warn the majority they have been betrayed by elites allowing dangerous outsiders into the country and propose to put an end to the situation (Trump promised a wall). Poilievre, however, hasn’t done anything quite like that. True, he was accused of delivering Islamophobic messages when he worked as a minister under Harper, but he has, to date, avoided such rhetoric. In fact, he has condemned white replacement theory—the claim that a secret cabal is plotting to replace white populations with immigrants—and has energetically reached out to new Canadians. His victory speech in September featured his wife, a Venezuelan immigrant.
Recent electoral history suggests the country has been so ethnically diverse for so long that anti-immigrant rhetoric ends in a cul-de-sac. In its early days, the Reform Party flirted with the approach but later abandoned it. Anti-Islam messages didn’t help Harper’s 2015 campaign against Trudeau. Kellie Leitch tried it in the 2017 Conservative race but finished sixth.
Poilievre has, for now, found better political returns by engaging in unflinching attacks on “gatekeepers.” He heaps scorn on the media, experts, universities, and institutions. He has repeatedly vowed to fire the Bank of Canada governor if elected. The terms of his ire—that “a small group of ruling elites” is telling “the rest of us how to live our lives”—are drawn from the idea that he is protecting Canadians. Poilievre’s support for antimasking demonstrations, for example, was framed as a step toward greater liberty. When he briefly endorsed cryptocurrency, before its value crashed in the summer of 2022, his support was based on his belief that cryptocurrency could wrest control of money from bankers. He sometimes sounds more like a libertarian than a populist and cites the influence of the American free-market economist Milton Friedman rather than Steve Bannon or other far-right thinkers. To the extent that Poilievre has a consistent philosophy, it is hostility to government for denying citizens the prosperity and freedom that should be theirs. “When this big beast called government gets bigger and more powerful,” he told media personality and author Jordan Peterson during a long interview in May, “those who have the ability to steer that beast are the ones who are gonna profit.”
The attacks steal another page from the populist playbook: a tendency toward simplistic, repetitive, emotionally charged language. “I’m a believer in using simple Anglo-Saxon words,” he said to Peterson—words “that strike right at the meaning that I’m trying to convey.” Many politicians do this, but it’s hard to find another Canadian figure who relies so heavily on words like “woke,” “elite,” and “gatekeeper.” Poilievre frames policy debates almost entirely in terms of foes and friends. If you are not with him, you are against him. The accusations he has levelled against Trudeau’s government, for example, run from exaggerations (describing public health’s use of cellphone location data to measure the effectiveness of public health directives as “spying”) to falsehoods (claiming fertilizer mandates are driving up food prices). Poilievre’s claims don’t need to be entirely accurate; they just need to create a clear enemy. “This style,” wrote political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their book Cultural Backlash, “allows leaders to appeal to diverse groups with heterogeneous grievances.”
Poilievre honed this style in his days as a parliamentary secretary in Harper’s government, when his job was to goad the opposition. After being promoted to minister for democratic reform in 2013, Poilievre proposed overhauling the Fair Elections Act. Opposition parties and civil society groups charged the new bill would weaken Elections Canada’s enforcement arm and worsen barriers to voting (a milder version of Republican-style voter suppression measures, as it were). When Elections Canada head Marc Mayrand complained he hadn’t been consulted and warned the amendments could hamstring the agency, Poilievre attacked him by implying he was a Liberal, saying the “referee should not be wearing a team jersey.”
Mayrand, who stepped down from his post in 2016, declined to comment, but his predecessor, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, said that he watched with alarm how Poilievre risked eroding the public trust needed to maintain confidence in the electoral process. “We are the oldest independent electoral management body in the world,” Kingsley said of the 102-year-old organization. “The credibility of that institution is worldwide. And, therefore, I don’t see the advantage of attacking it.”
Attacking the nonpartisan officials who run our elections, however, is the sort of thing authoritarians do, and according to Ekos’s polling, Poilievre’s constituency would hardly object to more of the same. Through his celebration of the freedom convoy and his disdain for “elites” and “gatekeepers,” Poilievre is marshalling a powerful political challenge to the status quo governing Ottawa—a challenge he hopes will carry him all the way to Sussex Drive.
The protracted stress of COVID-19, where public focus shifted to a clash over vaccines and mandates, may have helped polarization take hold more fiercely in Canada, but the idea that Poilievre used the pandemic to tap into a new source of political resonance—while accurate—misses the deeper picture. The conditions that underpin his support, even as they are kindled by unprecedented levels of disinformation, are in fact the expression of forces percolating in Western societies for some time. While populism adapts and reflects different features depending on societal context, the circumstances where voters embrace populist leaders begin with economic despair and are expressed culturally in terms of fears of a loss of status and national identity. When it comes to twenty-first-century authoritarianism, such factors are the fundamental ingredient. Without it, Poilievre remains, at best, an unelectable fearmonger; with it, he becomes prime minister.
Five years ago, Ekos started tracking the emergence of these factors in Canada and was one of the first polling firms to do so. It used what it called an open-ordered index, a version of a questionnaire pioneered in the late 1940s by social scientists, some of whom had fled to the United States to escape war in Europe. This group, led by German philosopher and psychologist Theodor W. Adorno, turned its attention to the Nazis’ success and wanted to understand why a person might be prone to fascist propaganda. They discovered that one’s views on family relationships went a long way in helping them identify individuals drawn to centralized control, hierarchy, compliance, and loyalty. They called it the F-scale, or Fascism Scale. Ekos uses neutral language to avoid giving the impression researchers are hunting fascists, but its open-ordered index resembles the F-scale and similar measurement systems used by social science researchers around the world. The basic theory is that certain personality types seek order when faced with an exaggerated sense of external threat. This theory, also called the authoritarian reflex, was an extremely powerful predictor of both Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory.
Ekos’s questionnaire measured authoritarian dispositions as revealed by people’s ideal child-rearing practices. For example: “When raising children, which of the following do you think is more important to emphasize? Order or openness? Good behaviour or creativity? Morality or reason and evidence? Obedience or questioning authority?” Ekos pollsters found that Conservative voters were significantly likelier to answer that children should be obedient rather than creative. Conservatives also significantly favoured strength of character as well as good behaviour and morality—all values associated with authoritarianism. Fifty-four percent of Conservatives scored at the top of the open-ordered index. In comparison, just 23 percent of Liberals, 12 percent of NDPers, and 9 percent of Bloc voters held such values.
One of the compelling insights of open-ordered testing is that latent authoritarianism can be triggered in individuals by certain conditions. In other words, Conservatives don’t always become more authoritarian and Liberals become less. Liberals attracted to the authoritarian spectrum can shift to the Conservative camp. They will submit. They will look for strong leaders. They will fall behind someone who promises to protect them against threats. These are the inclinations Poilievre is playing to.
And the conditions are ripe: antipathy to Trudeau; fatigue with the ruling Liberals; backlash against an increasingly permissive society; and the perceived collapse of racial, religious, gender, and sexual hierarchies. Canadian society seems more divided than at any moment in the recent past, with a vocal minority resisting these changes, a group that has found a political home in Poilievre’s party. If the political winds—anger over the hyper concentration of wealth, the sense the world has become more dangerous—keep shifting in his favour, Poilievre may have access to voters susceptible to his bluster. He is already doing better with younger voters, particularly young men frustrated about not finding a foothold in the new economic world. It’s a striking reversal from recent elections, where progressive parties have tended to win a larger share of the youth vote, especially in urban centres.
The elements enabling his rise mean anti-immigrant tactics might not be the bridge too far that many imagine. The incentive to dog-whistle will be there, if only because there will be a hunger for such messages among his radicalized supporters. In 2019, Ekos polling shows, Canadians who opposed nonwhite immigration were four and a half times likelier to find a home in the Conservative party than among the Liberals, a divide that has been widening since 2015, when Trudeau took office. Poilievre needs to keep those voters in his tent. He has had to pander to other extremist ideologies. While it’s true Poilievre doesn’t use the vulgar, sexist language that populist firebrands typically use to signal authenticity, that doesn’t mean his social media accounts haven’t reached into the internet’s darker corners. In October, Global News revealed that dozens of Poilievre’s YouTube videos, beginning in 2018, included the hidden hashtag #mgtow, short for “Men Going Their Own Way,” a misogynistic online community. Poilievre had the tags removed after Global brought them to light, but he could not say how they came to be there.
Such activity would have been considered beyond the pale by Poilievre’s predecessor, O’Toole, whose career suggested a balanced, traditional world view. A former officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force and a corporate lawyer, he was a consensus builder. Poilievre, in contrast, is a career politician. He has demonstrated his tribal allegiance to Conservatives in a thousand partisan skirmishes, duking it out in the House of Commons and in front of the microphones and cameras, often playing fast and loose with facts, getting under the skin of his opponents, and giving heart to his allies. He seems to take such relish in partisan confrontations that it is hard to know what his limits might be.
There are at least two places in the country where he will need to sow more than just rage. In the past two federal elections, the Liberals hung on to power although the Conservatives won more votes, with the latter piling up majorities in Prairie ridings and losing races that they needed to win—in the “905” ring around Toronto and in Quebec. In both campaigns, the Conservatives looked competitive, but difficult issues got in the way—social issues like abortion for Andrew Scheer in 2019 and vaccine mandates for O’Toole in 2021. The party ended up with just five of fifty-three seats in the Greater Toronto Area.
In order to beat the Liberals, Poilievre will have to do better in the GTA or Quebec. Given that he seems more conservative—or more extreme, critics would say—than either Scheer or O’Toole, that would seem to present a challenge. In the recent 2022 Quebec election campaign, which ended with a majority for François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec on October 3, Philippe J. Fournier was watching to see how well Éric Duhaime’s Conservative Party of Quebec would do. Fournier, a physics and astronomy teacher at Cégep de Saint-Laurent and a columnist, runs a polling aggregation site, 338Canada.com. Duhaime’s election was interesting for Fournier, in part because of what it told him about Poilievre’s prospects in that province in the next federal election. Duhaime was relying on messages—opposition to vaccine mandates, for instance—similar to those that drove Poilievre’s leadership campaign. “There were high hopes that if Duhaime had finished with 18 or 19 percent and maybe three or four seats, as he was hoping, this could have been a blueprint for Poilievre,” Fournier said.
But the provincial Conservative party came fifth, with 12.91 percent of the vote and no seats. The federal Conservatives did better. In both 2019 and 2021, the party won ten of the province’s sixty-five seats, although one MP—Alain Rayes—left after Poilievre won, saying his “ideals, values, and convictions” were now incompatible with the party.
“Poilievre has to find a way in Quebec specifically,” says Fournier. “The number one opponent of Poilievre is not Justin Trudeau. It’s the Bloc Québécois.” Fournier says it is too soon to know if that can happen—if Poilievre, whose French is excellent, can break through in Quebec. But he will have to try. “If he can’t break the 905 [the ring of seats around Toronto]—and the numbers don’t suggest a blue wave right now—he has to get those seats that the CAQ wins, with 60 percent in the suburbs of Montreal. This is his path.”
Will it work? To win a majority, Poilievre will need to overcome negative numbers among women and suburban voters, and he has so little common ground with New Democrats that it’s hard to see him governing with anything less than a majority. But he will be difficult to counter on certain issues. While he voted against same-sex marriage in 2005, his father is gay, as are two members of his leadership team, and unlike in the case of Scheer, his slippery position on abortion (he supports it but has promised free votes for MPs on matters of conscience) may frustrate attempts to attack him as being antichoice. Notably, he has not been deemed antiabortion enough to merit the endorsements of groups like Campaign Life Coalition.
The electability tipping point might not be that far off. Twenty-six percent of the electorate is already with Poilievre, based on Ekos polling. He needs only another 10 percent of Canadian voters to form a government. When you factor in the increasing number ready for a change—especially on the right end of the spectrum, where he is targeting his efforts—his chances start to look better. In September, voters both in Sweden and Italy elected far-right parties, a result some pundits had deemed unthinkable just a decade ago. Poilievre has found the recipe to rally Canadians unhappy with the country’s current direction. Whether or not he wins, federal politics won’t be the same—and he’s only getting started.
Correction, December 16, 2022: An earlier version of this article stated that Jean-Pierre Kingsley is Marc Mayrand’s successor. In fact, Kingsley is his predecessor. The Walrus regrets the error.