Year Ahead

My Prediction: Pierre Poilievre will try to broaden his base—and we’ll all benefit

How Canada’s most divisive leader could reinvigorate our democracy

Jared Wesley is a professor of political science at the University of Alberta.

Something needs to change in Canada this year. Right now, there’s a pervasive feeling that you’re betraying your political allies if you compromise with—or even listen to—people with different views. According to a study published last spring, three out of four Canadians felt that our society was increasingly polarized. Historically, countries seek democratic reform when they hit some kind of rock bottom. I wonder, watching replays of the Freedom Convoy, if we’ve already hit ours.

Pierre Poilievre has become the politician of choice for many convoy supporters, in part because, unlike the last two Conservative Party leaders, he knows how to make them feel like they’re being heard. He emphasizes issues Canadians deal with daily, like housing prices and inflation. That approach has made more people politically engaged, especially those in blue-collar jobs who feel threatened in a world that’s evolving fast, technologically, socially and environmentally. Poilievre’s support is scattered, but if he makes major inroads beyond western and rural areas—especially in suburban areas, greater Toronto in particular—the Conservatives will have a better chance at winning government.

Taking selfies with convoyers or railing about the economy is easy. Solving problems is difficult. Barring an early election and a Conservative victory, Poilievre will continue to represent the opposition in 2023, but the longer he remains out of power, the more his followers risk entering a cycle of angst and frustration. It’s important that Poilievre instead lead supporters to productive reform, not blind anger. We can look to the Capitol riots in the U.S. for a violent example of what happens when riled-up groups take matters into their own hands.

That’s a worst-case scenario. Compared with many of my colleagues, I’m not too worried about the far right seizing power across Canada. To have an effect on policy, they’d have to take control of a majority of provincial legislatures. Federally, parties are so diverse that it’s hard for one group to dominate.

At best, Poilievre’s ability to lend an ear to followers and provide hope for a political shakeup could reinvigorate our democratic institutions. It’s a sad state of affairs when the only way someone feels reflected in our national politics is by watching a convoy protester occupy a hot tub on Parliament Hill. How can we rebuild our civic institutions to welcome these people? I’m not talking about those waving Nazi flags and promoting hate, but about those who some politicians have unfairly framed as living on the fringes of society. Opening the door to different viewpoints can create rapid change. Look at Alberta, where the two largest cities now have South Asian mayors. That would have been unfathomable even 15 years ago, and it’s happened because those communities were open to new perspectives. My hope is that Poilievre has that effect on a diverse group of Canadians, beyond the ones who attend his rallies. To do that, he’ll need to project a more positive vision, propose real policy solutions and move beyond the impulse to denigrate opponents—especially if he wants support from Canadians who are simply looking for competent government.

Next year, Poilievre will probably avoid issues the Liberals and NDP own, like health and social services, and instead set the agenda with subjects close to people’s daily lives, especially the economy. Two-thirds of Canadians think the economy is on the wrong track, and consumer sentiment has been negative for most of 2022. If Poilievre offers a more positive outlook, he may gain new supporters from outside the party.

Resonating beyond party lines is tricky, but a prime minister must govern for everyone. In 2023, we need leaders to voice what I think has become a silent-majority opinion: polarization is unproductive. Politicians must feel comfortable finding compromise without being skewered as traitors to their party or their region, because another year of partisan fights will strain the bonds of national unity that much more.

Most Canadians don’t want to think a lot about politics, and we’ve long been blessed by not having to face these difficult questions. Now that we’re all paying attention, I want leaders, including Poilievre, to encourage collaborative conversation. Does he have the personality and style to do that? That partly depends on how his advisers craft his message—and they’re still in attack mode.

—As told to Alex Cyr

This article appears in print in the December 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.

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