To Canadians, Pierre Poilievre is a Conservative politician doing battle with Justin Trudeau and his Liberals. But being the leader of a political party also carries administrative and managerial responsibilities. Most of these are delegated, though it’s Poilievre that sets the tone and must own the decisions. Political parties like to keep their internal affairs out of the limelight, although this is easier said than done when nominations are concerned.

One of the first nomination battles the Conservative Party had under Poilievre’s leadership was in Oxford, a mostly rural southwestern Ontario riding. Dave MacKenzie, who had held the seat for the Conservatives since 2004, retired in January 2023, leaving a vacancy in a safe Conservative seat. MacKenzie wanted the seat to go to his daughter, Deb Tait, a city councillor in Woodstock, Ontario. But she lacked a base of support. Gerrit Van Dorland, a social conservative activist, appeared to be the clear favourite in terms of membership sales, given his local connections and ties to pro-life groups with strong support in the riding. Arpan Khanna, an Ontario co-chair of Poilievre’s campaign, appeared to many to be the party’s choice. He was a well-connected up-and-comer who had been involved with the Conservatives for years and was especially close to Poilievre’s friend and colleague Andrew Scheer.

Van Dorland’s campaign said it had sold nearly 3,000 memberships, which, if true, would have made the contest his to lose were it not for his abrupt disqualification by the Conservative Party’s National Candidate Selection Committee, in a three-to-two vote, less than two weeks before the nomination meeting.

The decision was made by the party’s candidate nominating committee, although Van Dorland’s supporters suspect it had sign-off from Poilievre’s chief adviser, Jenni Byrne, if it wasn’t directed by her outright. The party’s official reason for disqualifying Van Dorland was “failure to comply with the obligation to disclose required information during the candidate application process.”

When they apply, candidates are required to submit social media histories and a record of basically anything they’ve ever said publicly. From the outside, it looked like the party was either trying to get an avowed social conservative out of the race or simply clearing a runway for Poilievre’s choice, Khanna, to be the candidate. Pro-life organization RightNow said Van Dorland was being punished for his beliefs. Khanna issued a statement expressing his disappointment with Van Dorland’s disqualification, believing the members should be the ones to decide the outcome, not the party. Many of Van Dorland’s supporters thought Khanna, a likable and principled conservative who is also pro-life, was a solid candidate, but they rejected the process by which he won the nomination.

It was a messy situation all around. The Oxford Conservative riding association’s president and vice president resigned over it. MacKenzie endorsed and campaigned for the Liberal candidate in the June 19, 2023, by-election, although Khanna still won it handily.

The Oxford incident has been scrutinized by many in the Conservative Party who wonder about Poilievre’s relationship with social conservatism. Like most Conservative MPs, he voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2005 and then in favour of reopening the marriage debate in 2006, although he later changed his tune and called gay marriage a success. There was a claim circulating on social media that Poilievre’s gay father was sitting in the House of Commons gallery during one of these votes, but this never actually happened.

While Poilievre attended some pro-life events in his younger years, abortion has never been a motivating issue for him. However, pro-life activists viewed him as one of their own when he was first elected, and even years later. When Poilievre was being discussed as a leadership contender in 2020, Campaign Life Coalition, a socially conservative political action group, gave him its “green light” with the caveat that it was subject to change based on what he said during a potential campaign. The organization said he had a “good track record, a good voting record for our issues.”

In 2012, Poilievre voted in favour of a House of Commons motion, tabled by pro-life Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, to “review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth.” Then prime minister Stephen Harper voted against it.

In 2021, Poilievre voted against a private member’s bill by Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall to ban sex-selective abortions. By the leadership debates in May 2022, Poilievre was identifying explicitly as “pro-choice.” His wife, Ana, did a French interview with TVA in December 2023 in which she reaffirmed Poilievre’s commitment to abortion rights. “We are pro-choice,” she said, claiming this was part of her values as a woman who grew up in Quebec.

The interview rubbed many pro-life people the wrong way. RightNow, a group dedicated to nominating and electing pro-life candidates, pointed out that most of the Conservative caucus and much of the party’s base identify as pro-life. The party should embolden these people and not resort to “demotivating them by parading spouses in the media quoting Liberal Party policy,” the organization said.

The pro-life question has befuddled many Conservative politicians. Some, including former leader Andrew Scheer, have tried to straddle being “personally pro-life” while committing to never use the weight of government to restrict abortion access. Leslyn Lewis, during her leadership campaigns, tried to pre-empt attacks against her pro-life values by putting forward a “no hidden agenda” abortion plan that committed to ending funding of overseas abortion programs through foreign aid, banning sex-selective abortions, criminalizing coerced abortions, and increasing support for crisis pregnancy centres. It’s rare to see a Conservative politician actively reject social conservatives, who comprise a sizable chunk of the party’s membership and voting base. One exception to this was Peter MacKay, who, after the 2019 election, referred to Scheer’s socially conservative values as a “stinking albatross” hanging around the party’s neck (he later apologized for how his comment was “misconstrued”).

The morsel that pro-choice Conservative politicians typically offer pro-lifers is a commitment to respecting free votes by backbench MPs on matters of conscience. Poilievre has made this promise, but he also told me in one interview during his leadership race that no abortion legislation would pass under his government. When I asked if he was saying he’d actively prevent a bill like that, he said it was “just an obvious fact” that no bill restricting or banning abortion would pass.

Perhaps the best clue to Poilievre’s handling of these issues can be found in a 2006 book by journalist Paul Wells about Stephen Harper. Poilievre praised Harper for managing to keep the social conservatives in the party quiet:

Everyone thinks he seduced the centre. It’s actually the way he tamed the right. Let’s get this straight. He’s now taken the most left-wing position of any conservative party in the world on gay marriage. He’s adopted the position of European socialists that gays should have civil unions—full marital rights without the word marriage. Harper has ruled out any abortion legislation. He has basically moved the party onto an agenda that is centrist and acceptable to mainstream people. And he’s done it almost without a peep from the right—from the people who founded the Reform Party, who had made the bombastic and even embarrassing remarks that had come to typify the Reform era. All of those people have gone along with this swift, centrist move while making almost no sounds at all.

It’s possible Poilievre was making an observational point rather than an explicitly laudatory one. But on social issues, he has very much continued the tradition of non-engagement that frustrated social conservatives during the Harper era.

Did Poilievre shift from being pro-life to pro-choice? Was he never pro-life in the first place? Is he not genuinely pro-choice now? Does he even care about the issue enough to have a position? These are difficult questions to answer as Poilievre has never spoken publicly about an evolution on this issue as he did about same-sex marriage. For how outspoken he is on many issues, he keeps his cards close to his chest on matters of morality.

Poilievre was raised Catholic and makes occasional references to God in his speeches. However, none of his friends and colleagues who spoke to me said that faith has, from their perspective, played a meaningful role in his adult life. One former aide recalls Poilievre regularly attending church for a time earlier in his career but says that he would later on turn up at churches only when he was campaigning or attending events. When Poilievre has discussed and debated faith and spirituality with friends, they say it’s in an abstract and philosophical manner.

This is also true of social issues. One of Poilievre’s friends in caucus bluntly tells me he just doesn’t know what Poilievre’s true beliefs are on the subject. This wasn’t because the two had never spoken about it but, rather, the colleague could never tell what was authentic and what was a persona when Poilievre was in debate mode. “I sometimes wonder if it’s just a game to him,” the member of Parliament says.

At the Conservatives’ 2023 Quebec City convention, there were several policy resolutions advanced by social conservatives and other culture warriors. One resolution expressed support for a ban on gender transitions for children and teenagers. Another declared that biological women are entitled to single-sex spaces and women-only categories in sports and awards. Each of them passed by a resounding margin.

Conservative policy conventions are usually mundane affairs. The major reason people attend is the hospitality suites and opportunities to network and socialize. Officially, the conventions are for electing the party’s national council and debating and voting on policy resolutions and constitutional amendments. Policy resolutions are additions, deletions, and amendments to the party’s official policy declaration. The party has a policy committee that puts some of the resolutions forward, but the bulk of them, especially the contentious ones, are introduced by the country’s various Conservative riding associations.

The policy declaration, or policy book, is distinct from a party’s election platform. The former is decided by party members at policy conventions, while the latter is in the purview of the party leader. If a party forms government, there is no obligation to so much as look at the policy book. While many leaders choose to incorporate party policy into their platforms, they don’t have to. So what’s the point of it?

That’s a fair question. The process has endured because people want to believe political parties are, at their core, grassroots entities. Policy votes are useful only as barometers of where party members’ heads are on certain issues. The Conservatives have historically stage-managed the policy process to prevent potentially embarrassing resolutions from reaching the floor. That said, grassroots groups, particularly in the pro-life community, have become adept at advancing their policies and stacking conventions with delegates who will support them. While they can’t force the leader to do anything, they can make it known that they are at the table and there will be a cost to ignoring them.

Social issues have been where the typically outspoken Poilievre has tended to remain cautious. In the summer of 2023, there had been a wave of parental rights talk, birthed by a policy from New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government requiring parental consent for a student under sixteen to change their gender at school. The governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba soon followed with similar policies. Alberta premier Danielle Smith followed early in 2024. These moves polled well with parents across the country but were maligned by activists as transphobic. When Poilievre was first asked about the policy, he hid behind federalism, saying it was a provincial responsibility, so he wouldn’t get involved. As the weeks progressed and Poilievre was being criticized by his supporters for his silence, he offered a more full-throated defence of parents.

“My view is that parents should be the final authority on the values and the lessons that are taught to children,” he told a Mississauga Urdu–Hindi television channel. “I believe in parental rights, and parental rights come before the government’s rights.”

In September 2023, there was a nationwide protest for parental rights, largely spearheaded by Muslim parents. Poilievre’s office sent a memo to caucus members telling them not to talk publicly about the protest and giving them the appropriate talking points to use if pressed to defend the party’s position with constituents. Once Trudeau called the protests “hateful,” Poilievre felt more comfortable getting involved. He told Trudeau to “butt out” and later accused him of gaslighting when Trudeau claimed he had never said what he said.

By February 2024, Poilievre had become far more forceful on the issue. He was asked by David Menzies of Rebel News whether he “will make female spaces safe again by introducing legislation that bans so-called transgender women from participating in female sports and getting access into female shelters and female prisons.” Poilievre was unequivocal: “Female spaces should be exclusively for females, not for biological males.” He cautioned that a lot of the domains relevant to the question were under provincial jurisdiction but added, “Obviously, female sports, female change rooms, female bathrooms should be for females, not for biological males.”

Trudeau’s response was to accuse Poilievre and the Conservatives of “choosing to attack some of the most vulnerable people in our society as a way of deflecting from the fact that they’re very good at creating division and anger and creating political toxicity and driving wedge issues.” Poilievre’s supporters were nevertheless happy with the position he staked out on these issues, even if some were skeptical of his delay. No one can say he led on the issue with the same zeal he had on inflation and other matters more in his wheelhouse.

Poilievre, like his predecessors, must keep the various different factions of the Conservative Party united if he wants to avoid a civil war. While he makes no claims to being a social conservative, he has said that social conservatives are an important part of the Conservative Party and that he’ll let them advocate for the issues they care about. Harper made a similar commitment, but his office worked hard to keep socially conservative issues off the agenda. Byrne played a large role in that, leading many social conservatives to suspect the same will be true of a Poilievre government.

Excerpted from Pierre Poilievre: A Political Life. Copyright © 2024 Andrew Lawton. Reprinted by permission of Sutherland House Books.

Andrew Lawton
Andrew Lawton is a senior journalist at True North. His work has been published across the world, including in the Washington Post, the National Post, the Toronto Sun, and Global News.