Ottawa

Pierre Poilievre on his combative style of politics and his plans for Canada

In a rare in-depth interview the Conservative leadership frontrunner talks to Shannon Proudfoot about his politics, parenting, and making Canada 'the freest place in the world'

In early February, Shannon Proudfoot interviewed Pierre Poilievre for our April cover story on the Conservative leadership candidate. It was a wide-ranging discussion with a politician who typically doesn’t have such conversations, touching on the roots of his political beliefs, why he continued to support the trucker protest in Ottawa and how he sees his role in the House of Commons and the Conservative firmament at this moment.

What follows is a transcript lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Q. First, how do you pronounce your last name? 

A. People pronounce it probably a thousand different ways. I always say “paul-ee-EV” because it’s the closest thing to accurate that Anglophones can properly pronounce. If you were to pronounce it properly—and no one does—you would say “Poilievre.” [He rolls the R into the last E.] I always tell people I don’t care how you pronounce my name as long as you know how to put an X beside it on election day.

Q. Okay, onto more substantive questions: How do you see your role in the House of Commons and within your party? What are you there to do?

A. To keep the commoners the masters and the crown the servant. That is the only purpose of Parliament. The reason we even have a Parliament is because through hundreds of years, British kings usurped power from the people and abused their authority. The House of Commons was created to restrain the power of the crown in order to protect the freedom of the commoners. The Senate is red because that’s the colour of royalty, the House is green because that’s the colour of the fields in which the common people work. Particularly in opposition, our job is to restrain the power of the government in order to protect the freedoms of the people.

Q. Do you see yourself as a continuation of, say, a Brian Mulroney or Stephen Harper conservatism, or is there something distinct you’re trying to do? 

A. I would say there is something distinct I’m trying to do, but I have no hesitation in telling you the leaders from which I’ve drawn inspiration.

It might surprise you to hear this, but I am a great admirer of Wilfrid Laurier because Laurier believed in individual liberty and decentralized power. He was a champion of freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise, freedom of trade, freedom of speech. One of my favourite quotes from him—he was our first French-Canadian Prime Minister—he said, “As French Canadians, France gave us life and England gave us liberty.” What he meant was that his French heritage was always the core of his personal identity and the parliamentary system in which he operated was an inheritance from England.

He was also a master conciliator between French and English, Protestant and Catholic. He found clever compromises that allowed people of different faiths to live out their aspirations without stepping on each other’s toes. That’s one of the magical things about Canada, that by giving everyone their individual freedom, we make it possible for people of different faiths and backgrounds to co-habitate in harmony.

Q. What does that look like on the ground? If you were to be leader or prime minister, how do you operationalize that?

A. Well, for example, I believe in freedom of speech on the internet, so governments shouldn’t control what we see and say online. We should allow families to make their own decisions—I believe in a country where if you want to raise your kids with traditional Judeo-Christian values, you can do that. If you want to live the secular or even atheistic life, you can do that too. You can marry who you want, make your own personal decisions with minimal interference by the state and maximal freedom for individuals and families.

Q. A political opponent who respects your skill and smarts and enjoys sparring with you commented that they didn’t understand what was at the core of what you were trying to do. There’s no doubt you’re very skilled at practising politics, but if that’s the means, what is the ends? I’m wondering how you would answer that.

A. The ends is to make Canada the freest country in the world.

Q. How does partisan fisticuffs achieve that end? Or maybe a better question is what would that look like if you became leader? Can you still be in that pugilistic mode if you are leader of the party?

A. I’m definitely not as partisan as someone like Justin Trudeau or Charlie Angus or Mark Gerretsen.

Q. I think lots of people would disagree with that, but you’re entitled to see it differently.

A. Those people wouldn’t have any evidence for their claims. I just think it is important to put it in context because I think this complaint is driven mostly by people who just don’t think Liberals should ever be criticized. There are a lot of people in Ottawa’s political establishment who want a one-party Liberal state where the Conservatives do nothing other than offer mild criticisms about procedure and progress, but never really challenge anybody’s ideas. That is horrible for democracy. Our system was deliberately designed for the opposition to prosecute the government’s failings and misbehaviour. That is a feature, not a bug. The role of House of Commons is to bring the mighty low, to remind the prime minister that he is a servant and not a master. So no, there will be no change in my approach with respect to how I hold the government to account, only that I will do it on a bigger scale.

Q. I want to ask you about the convoy protest. I understand the point you’ve made about not holding an entire movement responsible for the repellent views of a few in its midst. But the fact is core organizers have repeatedly threatened violence or spewed racism all over the internet. How do you justify supporting that?

A. I support the legitimate aspirations of individual truckers and other Canadians on whose rights governments have trampled for two years now.

Q. Okay, but I want to understand more about how you slice and dice which elements of that are palatable and worth supporting and which are not.

A. That’s a very simple question to answer. Those people who are championing their rights and freedoms through peaceful means are worth supporting. Anyone who engages in violence, racism, vandalism or obstruction deserves our full condemnation. I believe in individual responsibility. Those who do bad are individually responsible for the bad they have done. That does not change the fact that there are tens of thousands of people who have gathered on overpasses, beside highways, on sidewalks across the country to demand that governments give them their freedoms back.

Q. Do you feel like there should be consequences for people who are unvaccinated given that they create a cost to society? If one of your core beliefs is personal responsibility, are the rest of us not carrying those people and should there not be consequences for the choices they’ve made?

A. I believe vaccines work and that’s why I have chosen to be vaccinated, and that’s why I encourage other people to be vaccinated. But other individuals have made different decisions, and by the way, you don’t know their stories. You find it very easy to judge why they have decided to do what they’ve decided, but they have their own stories that might have led them to their decisions.

MORE: Why is Pierre Poilievre so angry?

Q. Isn’t that what vaccine mandates are about? You can freely choose not to be vaccinated and we can freely chose not to employ you or let you in a restaurant?

A. No. You don’t get to take away someone else’s freedom because they made a personal health decision that you don’t like.

Q. Are you worried about what we could call a sorcerer’s apprentice effect? There’s a lot of anger in society right now, and if you say things that excite certain people, what if you can’t control how they react to that? What if you mobilize people and then something ugly happens that you would never have wanted to happen? 

A. No. Because I have not said anything to provoke something like that. And by the way, the guy who has done more to provoke division and stoke anger across this country is Justin Trudeau, with his jabbing his fingers in people’s faces and baring his fangs and calling people ugly names even though he’s never met them. This is not the sunny ways we were promised, is it?

Q. I know you’re very smart, you’re a strategic thinker, you’re well-read. I would contend that’s not the mode of politics you’ve chosen, so how did it come to be that you chose this very combative style? 

A. I just dispute the premise. If you look at my approach in Question Period, I usually ask for a fact. It’s usually give me the date, give me the number, give me the yes or the no. I think that’s why the government finds it so hard to respond, they’re used to getting rhetorical questions and exchanging partisan barbs. If you look at the most popular exchanges I’ve had in the House of Commons, it’s almost always ‘On what date will the budget be balanced?’ ‘How much money have you printed, Mr. Governor of the Bank of Canada?’ They’re precise, factual questions, and those are the kinds of questions we should be asking. The reason that some people find it so devastating is because the facts are devastating.

I know the Press Gallery in Ottawa has an opinion about me, but if you look at the speeches and interventions in the House that I have made that have garnered millions of views, they are 10-minute dissertations on monetary policy, they are historical speeches, they are insights into governance and deep public policy questions.

Q. The bedrock political beliefs people have are usually rooted in their personal story. Your beliefs in fiscal responsibility and personal freedom have been remarkably consistent, but how is that rooted in your own biography?

A. There are two things. First of all, I’m adopted. I had a teenage unwed mother who had just lost her mother when I was born, and two schoolteachers from Saskatchewan adopted me and raised me and basically gave me a life. So I have always believed that it is voluntary generosity among family and community that are the greatest social safety net that we can ever have. That’s kind of my starting point.

On the flip-side, I grew up in Alberta in the early 1980s, when the first Trudeau was ravaging the economy. I was a toddler when the National Energy Program came in. And I remember how horrible things were. My earliest memories—I didn’t really understand why, I didn’t understand politics or anything—I just remember it being a really stressful time for a lot of people. And as I grew older and I’ve learned more about how that happened and why, it left a mark on me.

We had to move because we couldn’t hold on to our home with rates being that high. My folks were protected from job losses because they were teachers, obviously, but by the time I got into my adolescence, I would hear the stories about how horrible that time was. As I got into my 20s, I read about why it was such a horrible time, and the answer was because the government in Ottawa basically tried to take over the economy. They tried to nationalize large parts of the economy, including most of the energy sector, they imposed massive taxes, ran up huge debts, printed limitless sums of money and they wreaked havoc on the population.

So I know what that can do, and I see it’s happened again.

Q. Given those deep early experiences, do you think your views have evolved over time?

A. I would say my core principles have remained the same. But I understand that I have to work with people who might not share the exact same core principles. As I’ve grown older, I’ve understood that there are competing viewpoints that have to be reconciled so that we can peacefully move forward in a democracy. So you need to have broad principles, but you need also to be humble enough to invite other viewpoints to the table so you can achieve the best part of the principles you believe in.

Q. Are you essentially a small-government proponent? I’m trying to understand how you would frame your own views.

A. I would say I want to maximize people’s individual choices and freedoms. The government should do what people cannot do for themselves: protect the borders, protect people and their property from crime, enforce contracts, build infrastructure that the private sector cannot or will not build, provide for the less fortunate who cannot provide for themselves, and have a basic social safety net of schools and hospitals. So, government does only the things that people can’t do for themselves, then it can leave people the freedom to take responsibility for themselves and each other in a free society.

Q. This is going to sound like a super softball question, but I mean it: What do you love about politics? You look like you love it, so why did you choose this life?

A. Honestly, I believe in what I’m doing. I really do. Sure, there are lots of fun things in politics—the camaraderie, the agony and ecstasy of elections and the daily drama all make it an interesting place to be. But there are lots of interesting places to be in the world, and what drives me is I truly believe in what I’m doing. I truly believe that the principles I fight for are right.

Q. I’m still not sure if I understand what Pierre Poilievre’s Canada looks like. In 20 years, when your career is over, what would you consider a success?

A. That Canada is the freest place in the world. That hundreds of thousands of immigrants want to come here every year because they know it’s the best place on Earth in which to work hard, start a business, raise their kids, earn a scholarship and achieve their dreams. This is a place where you’re free to believe what you want, spend your money how you want, build the future that you want, that we’ve become a country of boundless opportunity because people have the freedom to pursue their own path.

Q. In what ways is that not true now?

A. In countless ways. First Nations communities are blocked from harvesting their own resources. Immigrants come here as doctors and engineers and they’re banned from working in their own professions by gatekeeping bureaucracies. A person on disability is losing 80 or 90 cents of every dollar they earn when they get a job because of clawbacks and taxes. Businesses tell me they spend more time filling out paperwork for the government than they do serving customers and paying employees. Energy workers are stuck taking lower wages because we can’t build a pipeline to get their product to market. The government is stealing small parts of people’s livelihoods every year by printing money and driving up inflation. All of these things represent an attack on the personal and economic freedom of Canadians, and all of them can be fixed.

Q. What is your strategic thinking on how big the market is in Canada for what you are offering?

A. I guess we’re about to find out. Listen, I’ve been elected as a small-government conservative in a big-government town seven times now. People sometimes forget I’m elected in Ontario’s second-biggest city.

Q. Has becoming a dad changed your outlook on politics or your job?

A. It has made me subservient to a very energetic three-year-old and now a newborn.  That’s the interesting thing about parenthood for very small children: they, in reality, are the boss. If somebody came from outer space and saw how humans raise their kids, they would see these little creatures bossing around these big creatures.

The practical consequence of that is you have to learn to put your own priorities aside and put the interests of your little ones ahead of yourself. It doesn’t matter if my wife and I are tired, if the little one is up at two in the morning, we’re up at two in the morning. It doesn’t matter if I have a really important meeting at the crack of dawn, my wife and I have to be up if the kids are screaming.

Forcing me to constantly think of the priority of another human being has made me a better and more selfless person. It has taught me patience. I was never a patient person—I always felt a sense of urgency about time, and focus. But being a parent has taught me to be patient and compassionate in a way that I wasn’t before I was a married father.

Q. Do you find it’s affected your ability to consume what you want to consume to know what you want to know for your job?

A. It’s tricky. But it’s funny, you get these superhuman powers that you didn’t know you had. It must be some feature of evolutionary biology where we couldn’t have lived on four hours of sleep before we were parents, but something in us comes alive and allows us to now.

And the other thing is that we learn to juggle. When we don’t have kids, we spoil ourselves and think, well I have this perfectly curated schedule that just works for me. But when you have kids, I find I just have to learn to adapt. I’ve taken a lot of my reading onto audiobooks now. So I drop my little girl off at daycare, that’s about 35 minutes of driving, and I just fire up an audiobook. I put it up to 2.5 speed.

Q. I find my brain is fuzzy now from having kids, so I have to slow it down to absorb it.

A. Well, I’m not sure how much I absorb, but at least it makes me feel like I’m reading.

Q. What do you think people get wrong about you?

A. [Long pause] I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. I don’t spend enough time thinking about what other people think of me to really know what they’re getting right or wrong.

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