O’Toole is gone, but there’s nothing to celebrate
Right-wing forces rising
For the second time since the federal election in September 2021, a major party has lost its leader in inauspicious circumstances. Less than three months after Green Party leader Annamie Paul tendered her resignation under less-than-ideal circumstances, the Conservative Party of Canada voted to remove leader Erin O’Toole on February 2 in what Politico called “a stunning takedown.” O’Toole, a so-called “Red Tory” who represents the more socially-liberal faction of the CPC and attempted to sell his party as the party of the working class, beat out Peter McKay for the party’s leadership in 2020 after the resignation of Andrew Scheer.
O’Toole won the popular vote in the 2021 election, but failed to form a government or pick up any new seats. Although the non-confidence vote, which went 73-45 in favour of ousting O’Toole, took some by surprise, Pierre Poilievre, the MP for Ottawa’s Carleton riding and the CPC’s finance critic, announced his bid for the leadership position just three days after O’Toole was turfed and before the party officially declared a leadership race, suggesting that it didn’t come as a surprise to everyone.
Tria Donaldson, who ran as the NDP candidate for Regina-Lewvan in the 2021 election, said that Poilievre, who is 42 and has been an MP since 2004 (and has been active on the Canadian right since 1995, when he was 16 and selling Reform party memberships for Jason Kenney), represents a very different brand of conservatism than O’Toole. “One of the things that is very apparent is that the Conservatives are pandering to far-right extremism and Pierre Poilievre has been kind of leading that charge,” Donaldson said. “Poilievre represents the more right-wing, extremist flank of the party.” She added that, “O’Toole was kind of seen as a moderate within the party.”
Although Poilievre’s riding includes part of Ottawa, he has been an enthusiastic booster of the far-right convoy that descended on Ottawa last week and caused Mayor Jim Watson to declare a state of emergency in the city. Despite the fact that the convoy has been honking horns at all hours, committing vandalism on public property, and, in one case, attempting to commit arson in an apartment building full of people, Poilievre has called them “joyful and peaceful.” “He’s giving a lot of space to embolden the people in Ottawa that are basically holding the nation’s capital hostage,” said Donaldson. “I think we’re seeing Donald Trump-style extremism enter Canadian mainstream politics in a major way with Pierre entering the race and what’s happening across the country right now.”
Although O’Toole’s entreaties to the working class were mostly symbolic, they were still entreaties. Poilievre as Prime Minister would be disastrous for the labour left, and for working Canadians in general. Poilievre regularly tweets links to articles from bastions of right-wing thinking like the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation and the Fraser Institute. He has openly expressed interest in “right to work” legislation, which would allow people to opt out of paying union dues, and he relentlessly attacked popular pandemic assistance programs like CERB. And, as Oliver Mackenzie pointed out in Canadian Dimension, Poilievre has made more than 100 speeches in favour of Bill C-377, which would force unions to publicly disclose financial information about their organizations and restricts their political and lobbying activities. In a country where labour laws are already largely toothless, Poilievre wants to further dismantle the weak protections workers do have.
Poilievre opted out of running against Andrew Scheer for the leadership of the CPC in 2020, citing family reasons. But this time around, he’s the clear front-runner to replace O’Toole, although Donaldson said that doesn’t mean the entire party is united behind him. “I’m not sure who the players on the field are going to be, but there are more moderate forces in the party,” she said. It’s probable that always-bridesmaid Peter McKay and Saskatchewan’s Leslyn Lewis who performed surprisingly well in the last Tory leadership race who will be among those who vie to replace O’Toole. Whoever ends up running and winning, the coup against O’Toole will have consequences for people across Canada. “What concerns me about the Conservatives pulling down their leader in this situation is that it’s giving so much space to far-right extremism,” Donaldson said. “We’re going to see the consequences of that for a really long time.”