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Rahim Mohamed: Poilievre's path to power may be his complicated, very modern family
The Liberals, who have made identity politics central to their party brand and keep trying to connect Poilievre to white supremacism, should be worried.
By: Rahim Mohamed
After an excruciating seven months (which have felt more like an eternity), the Conservative Party of Canada leadership race mercifully ended earlier this month in Ottawa. To the surprise of no one, frontrunner Pierre Poilievre claimed a decisive first-ballot victory. Poilievre, who led wire-to-wire, has finally arrived at his so-called “Etch A Sketch moment” — the fork in his road to 24 Sussex where he must expand his appeal beyond the Conservative party’s base and make himself palatable to the national electorate.
This is a critical moment for any new party leader. Poilievre need only look at his most immediate predecessor, Erin O’Toole, for an example of how quickly it can go wrong. After tacking to the right of rival Peter MacKay to win the party’s 2020 leadership race, O’Toole pivoted sharply to the centre once Conservative party leader, courting labour unions, calling himself a “progressive conservative” and backtracking on a promise to protect the conscience rights of pro-life doctors and nurses. O’Toole’s “authenticity problem” remained a storyline throughout his rocky tenure at the helm of the Conservative party.
Poilievre executed, successfully, an uncommonly combative and partisan frontrunner campaign, making any notion of a centrist pivot a total non-starter. He has tacked even further to the right than O’Toole did as a leadership candidate: branding moderate rival Jean Charest “a Liberal,” sparring with Leslyn Lewis over who supported this winter’s convoy protests first, leading “defund the CBC” chants at his rallies; and, perhaps most brazenly, promising to bar federal ministers from attending the World Economic Forum (a bête noire of far-right conspiracy theorists).
So how will Poilievre (re-)introduce himself to Canadian voters? If his first week as Conservative party leader is any indication, his telegenic, multicultural and decidedly “modern” family will be central to his efforts to cast himself in a softer, more prime ministerial light.
After the results of the leadership vote were announced, the first person to address Conservative party members was not the party’s new leader himself, but his Venezuelan-born wife Ana. Ana Poilievre (née Anaida Galindo) delivered a confident and well-received set of introductory remarks, cycling effortlessly between English, French and Spanish throughout the five-minute-long address.
The most effective moments of Ana Poilievre’s speech centred on her family’s hardscrabble journey from a comfortable middle-class existence in pre-Chavez Venezuela to precariously living paycheque-to-paycheque in the East End of Montreal. “My father went from wearing business suits and managing a bank to jumping on the back of a truck to collect fruits and vegetables,” she reminisced with her family in attendance; adding, “there is no greater dignity than to provide for your own family” to one of the loudest rounds of applause of the evening. These words captured the Galindo family’s distinct immigrant story, yet undoubtedly resonated with thousands of immigrants and first-generation Canadians across the country. (My own parents, for what it’s worth, were forced to start from scratch after being exiled from their birth country of Uganda as young adults.)
Pierre Poilievre returned to this theme in the victory speech that followed: “my wife’s family not only raised this incredible woman, but they came to this country … with almost nothing; and they have since started businesses, raised kids, served in the military, and like so many immigrant families, built our country.” He went on to thank members of his own family, including his (adoptive) father’s same-sex partner Ross and his biological mother Jackie (who gave Poilievre up for adoption after having him as a teenager). “We’re a complicated and mixed-up bunch… like our country,” he later joked.
All kidding aside, no major federal party leader has ever had a family that looks more like Canada. Members of Poilievre’s extended family span multiple nationalities and speak English, French and Spanish as first languages. He has a South American wife, an adoptive father who is in a relationship with another man, and a biological mother who’s young enough to be his sister — Pierre Poilievre is basically a character from the hit sitcom Modern Family. The governing Liberals, who have made identity politics central to their party brand and spent the past seven months trying to connect Poilievre to white supremacism, should be worried.
In a happy coincidence, Poilievre’s first caucus meeting as Conservative party leader fell on his son Cruz’s first birthday. The (objectively adorable) tyke blew out the lone candle on his birthday cake and was serenaded with a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” by the Conservative party caucus. Members of the press present at the meeting were completely transfixed by baby Cruz. Even Global News’s Rachel Gilmore, who has been a persistent thorn in the Poilievre campaign’s side, was moved to tweet: “BREAKING: Poilievre’s son Cruz is one year old. Lol.”
The wholesome scene, which just happened to unfold in full view of the media, served as a reminder that Poilievre’s multicultural family, comprising Ana, Cruz, and Cruz’s (equally cute) big sister Valentina, will frustrate the Liberal War Room’s inevitable efforts to paint the new Conservative party leader as racist and anti-immigrant.
The families of politicians occupy a liminal space in Canadian politics. On the one hand, our current prime minister would almost certainly still be teaching high school if it weren’t for his dynastic last name. On the other, the Canadian public has mostly treated political spouses and children with indifference (the club-hopping Margaret Trudeau being a notable exception). The Canadian media has generally (and admirably) taken the high road when the family members of prominent politicians have run into trouble. For instance, a story about a package of cocaine being found hidden in a vessel chartered by Canadian Steamship Lines, a company co-owned by then prime minister Paul Martin’s three sons, barely made a blip on the media radar, despite breaking just one day after Martin’s 2004 re-election. This general apathy is a welcome contrast from the intense scrutiny faced by the family members of politicians in the United States, where political spouses and children are often fodder for salacious headlines (for instance, the right-wing blogosphere was abuzz over the contents of First Son Hunter Biden’s laptop for much of last year).
There is no formal title or defined role for a prime minister’s spouse. Incumbent Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has largely stayed out of the spotlight since raising eyebrows with an impromptu musical performance at a Martin Luther King Day event in early 2016. Her predecessor, the endearingly quirky Laureen Teskey Harper, was known more for her animal welfare work than her partisan activities, memorably opening the doors of 24 Sussex Drive to dozens of foster cats. Ana Poilievre, an impressive multilingual communicator with over a decade of experience as a legislative aide under her belt, is a different sort of political spouse, falling more in the mold of high-powered First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. She may well be her husband’s biggest political asset.
Poilievre may have left himself with little ideological room to manoeuvre after spending much of the past seven months burnishing his conservative bona fides and playing to the Conservative party’s base; but he can still find other ways to appeal to the moderate swing voters who will determine the outcome of the next federal election. As Canadians who are not members of the Conservative party learn more about Canada’s new Opposition Leader, many will see glimpses of themselves in his “messy, mixed-up” family history. Ana Poilievre’s powerful “Canadian Dream” story will be especially appealing to immigrant and first-generation Canadians — a voting bloc that the Conservative party has struggled to connect with since losing power in 2015.
With no viable path to the middle of the political spectrum following a scorched-earth leadership campaign, Pierre Poilievre may bank on the broad, cross-partisan appeal of his multiethnic, multilingual, and complicated family — a family that looks a lot like the country Poilievre wants to lead. This is an uncommon stratagem for Canada, a country where the family members of political leaders have generally stayed out of the headlines, but one that may just succeed if it can help Poilievre gain traction with cultural communities that past Conservative leaders have failed to reach.
In a national political landscape where image is everything, the image of Pierre Poilievre flanked by his attractive young family is likely one that haunts Justin Trudeau’s nightmares. Trudeau, who has lived by the selfie through his entire political career, may find himself felled accordingly if the Conservative party can sell the image of Poilievre as a modern family man to a broad enough cross-section of Canadians.
Rahim Mohamed is a freelance writer based in Calgary. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has taught at Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC) and Centre College (Danville, Kentucky).
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