On Monday in Ottawa, reporters wanted to know whether Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre would expel the three members of his caucus who met with Christine Anderson, member of European Parliament for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, last month — and if not, why not. After all, one journalist noted, Poilievre himself had called Anderson’s views “vile.” Poilievre said Anderson’s “racist, hateful views are not welcome here,” and that he wished she had stayed home in Germany.
“Do you have any plans to remove them from caucus?” another reporter asked.
“No, but I’ll tell you this,” Poilievre responded, “if ever I find out that any of my members of Parliament or candidates have dressed up so many times in ugly racist costumes that they can’t remember them all, they will be thrown out.”
(Interestingly, both the reporters and Poilievre glossed over the key fact that it’s up to the Conservative caucus, not the party leader, to expel an MP. Perhaps that’s just how accustomed we are to the notion of party leader as de facto emperor.)
Poilievre was referring — for the second time in the press conference — to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unfortunate penchant as a younger man for blacking up and capering about for his own amusement. And in that back-and-forth, I suspect, many Canadians will find validation for their skepticism about (if not blinding hatred of) Poilievre.
I had a similar initial reaction: “Ugh, come on, man.”
We journalists can come up with some silly, torqued questions from time to time, but this wasn’t one. Poilievre himself flagged the meeting between Anderson and the three MPs as a grave error, and rightly so. Alternative for Germany’s policies on immigration, refugees, gay rights and Islam — to say nothing of Germany’s role in 20th-century history — place it miles outside the mainstream Canadian conservatism. It’s hardly surprising or unreasonable that Poilievre is still facing questions about it a couple of weeks later — especially since Leslyn Lewis, one of the MPs in question, essentially disavowed his position in a scorching interview with the Toronto Sun.
The more I think about it, though, the more I think Poilievre is really just distilling Canadian politics down to a purer liquor. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
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When Liberals, New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives try to change the subject, deflect blame, paper over obvious hypocrisy, obfuscate and blind reporters with bumf, they usually try to be a bit clever about it. It’s bullshit with a bachelor’s degree. Even when they’re just unabashedly attacking their partisan rivals, they try to imbue it with gravitas: The future of the country is at stake, etc. Trudeau himself exemplifies this approach.
Poilievre sometimes seems to exemplify almost the opposite approach: pure, unapologetic combat. You call me or my three wayward MPs racist? I’ll show you a racist. He lives in Rideau Cottage.
I almost appreciate it. If I have to hear a nakedly self-interested argument, I’d much rather hear it presented as such, not dressed up by Harry Rosen as a point of principle.
It’s not just pure deflection, either. It must be said: Trudeau’s blackface routine isn’t really any less nuts today than it was when it was discovered. I can only imagine how many Liberal war room person-hours have gone into trying to find photographic evidence of Conservative politicians wearing blackface. So far as I know, none has been discovered. Presumably because it’s a bloody weird thing to have done even once, let alone more times than you can confidently remember (something Trudeau has confessed to).
It’s not as though Trudeau repaired his progressive bona fides in the time since — certainly not in the field of caucus management. He cashiered Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, because she dared do her job, and then fired Jane Philpott for supporting Wilson-Raybould. Former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes wrote a book about her dealings with Trudeau as a Black woman, and essentially threw it at him.
It’s not as though Liberals aren’t also caught occasionally in flagrante with baddies. In 2018, there was Jaspal Atwal, the convicted attempted murderer of an Indian state cabinet minister on Canadian soil who popped up at an official reception in Mumbai during the Trudeaus’ disastrous Bollywood-revue tour of India. In 2017 there was Veluppillai Thangavelu, the former leader of a front group for the Tamil Tigers in Canada, photographed with Trudeau at a by-election event. The federal government’s hiring of the clearly anti-semitic Laith Marouf to produce anti-racism content — and the government’s decision to stall for weeks after the gaffe came to their attention — continues to boggle the national mind.
And it’s not as though there’s a statute of limitations on bringing up politicians’ past scandals — or if there is, it’s certainly not the three-and-a-half years since the blackface incidents came to light, or even the 20-odd years since Trudeau swanned into a West Point Grey Academy gala dressed up as Aladdin, blacked up from forehead to fingertips. (If only his government paid such attention to detail!)
We judge politicians on their whole records as public human beings, as we should. Liberals will still tell you about the time Poilievre used the term “tar baby” in the House of Commons — which was in a 100-per-cent apropos, non-racist context. That was 2009. Poilievre was 30, the same age Trudeau was at the West Point Grey gala. Sauce for the goose, as they say.
Needless to say, when next the writ drops, the Liberals will not defer to Poilievre’s recent full-throated support for same-sex marriage, or to his pledge to vote against any abortion-related private member’s bills and ensure they don’t become law. They will cast him as yet another evil so-con come to take away your rights: to abortion, to marriage, who knows what else? Poilievre will do the same basic thing in reverse.
That is absolutely not the election campaign Canada needs — yet another pitched battle over small differences. But it’s the one we will get regardless. It’s the one we always get, and probably will always get until long after everyone reading this column is dead. Maybe it’s better that politicians drop the last of the pleasantries and fight, in public, like the partisan animals they so clearly are.