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Sean Speer: We may have underestimated Pierre Poilievre

Commentary

When Pierre Poilievre became Conservative Party leader almost precisely twelve months ago, many commentators (including to a certain extent me) assumed that a considerable share of the country already had well-developed views about him and his politics.

There was a sense that his youthful reputation as a so-called “attack dog” had permeated beyond the parliamentary precinct to reach the broader public including those elusive swing voters that Conservatives need to overcome the relative inefficiency of their national vote.

Poilievre and his team ostensibly believed that those prevailing assumptions were wrong. Rather than bucking up against a hardened view of him as a polarizing political figure, the past year has actually involved introducing him to most Canadians for the first time. A summer tour and major advertising campaign have been the most notable manifestations of this concerted effort to present Poilievre’s personal story, his values, and political priorities to the country. A recent series of polls—including ones that show his personal popularity rising—tell us that they were right and the rest of us were wrong.

Last night’s speech to the Conservative Party’s convention in Québec City must be understood therefore as part of an ongoing process to introduce Poilievre to voters. Viewed through this lens, it was a highly effective evening that should continue to socialize them to the growing potentiality of a Prime Minister Poilievre.

It started with a multilingual introduction by his wife, Anaida Poilievre, who has proven to have something of the political “it” factor. Her personal story meshes so well with his own and his broader message about what he calls the “promise of Canada” that it was almost hard to discern the point where her speech ended and his begun. The growing view that she’s a major asset to her husband’s political ambitions was reinforced last night.

Poilievre’s own speech, based on my interpretation, had four different key components. It’s worth unpacking each of them to better understand the ideas and messages that we can anticipate from him and the Conservatives between now and the next election.

The first was an empirical takedown of the Trudeau government’s record against a backdrop of growing evidence of economic stagnation and social disorder. Poilievre drew on a range of data and proof points, including crime rates, food bank use, housing prices, and public spending, to convey a stark yet compelling story about the lousy state of the country.

It reflects his effectiveness as a political communicator. He’s uniquely able to absorb Statistics Canada data releases, think-tank papers, and other primary source materials, and compress them into a simple yet effective narrative—one that works in this particular case precisely because it connects to people’s own sense of their personal economy and household circumstances.

The second was a social mobility narrative that similarly draws on the personal stories of him and his wife. Anaida Poilievre’s remarks in particular about working as a teenager at McDonald’s were a powerful marker about who they are and the cultural and social milieu in which they’ve grown up. It’s a signal to middle-class Canadians across the country that they’re genuinely one of them.

I thought that most effective part of the speech was when he spoke of the “promise of Canada” (which he essentially defined as intergenerational mobility) as the “most important promise [that] Justin Trudeau broke.” Polling that shows a growing share of Canadians are anxious about their children’s future affirms this line of argument.

It works as a critique of the government but also as an anchor for Poilievre’s own forthcoming policy agenda. “Restoring the Canadian promise” is a powerful message that unites conservatives (I told Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson as far back as August 2020 that social mobility is “the very core of modern conservatism”), resonates with the broader public, and can manifest itself in a wide range of policy areas including education, employment, families, housing, immigration, regulations, taxes, and so on. It’s promising to see Poilievre and his team settle on it as an overarching framework for his policy priorities.

The third is what can be described as the speech’s “anti-woke” section which loomed larger than one might have anticipated perhaps due to the salience of these issues with Québec conservatives. Poilievre spoke of the Trudeau government’s general discomfort with expressions of nationalism and its tendency to look negatively upon Canada’s history and patriotic sense of itself. He raised in particular the need for English Canada to adopt Québec’s more affirmative sense of its own culture and history.

It suggests that we may come to see a more sustained “anti-woke” dimension to his critique of the Trudeau government. There’s reason to believe that such positioning could find resonance with Canadians based in large part on the nascent view that progressives have overreached with identity politics. It must involve however a careful balancing act for Conservatives to critique the inherent illiberalism of an identity politics based on immutable characteristics such as race, gender and sexuality without appearing indifferent to rare yet ongoing instances of discrimination.

The fourth was housing. This is where, as a matter of policy and politics, he’s at his strongest. Whether it was intuition or better polling, Poilievre has had first-mover advantage on the file for several months and it showed in his speech.

Not only does he have a strong command of the causes and factors that have led to runaway housing prices, but he’s out in front of the other party leaders with a concrete plan to address them. At this point, one gets the sense that the best that Prime Minister Trudeau can aim for is to neutralize the issue by essentially raiding his chief opponent’s ideas. Yet even that would seem like an implicit victory for Poilievre and the Conservatives.

There were of course other issues covered in the speech including crime, climate change, defence spending, deficits, and debt. But these topics were subordinate to his core appeal about restoring the “promise of Canada.”

After a year as Conservative leader, a key takeaway from last night’s convention speech is that Poilievre seems prepared to bet his political future on the ideas and messages outlined above. A key lesson over the past twelve months is that those of us in the commentariat would be wise not to underestimate such a bet.

Malcolm Jolley: Three restaurants to try in Montreal, Canada’s culinary capital

Commentary

I think it was in one of Mordechai Richler’s columns for the National Post, as opposed to the longer pieces in the New Yorker, though I’m not sure because I can’t find it online. It’s the argument in it that I remember: if the Fathers of Confederation and Queen Victoria had chosen Montreal instead of Ottawa as the nation’s capital, Canada would have escaped much of the drama of its 20th-century constitutional crises.

Questions of national unity might be put in the more serious parts of The Hub, but Richler’s idea, or at least the idea that Montreal could have been the country’s capital, stayed with me as I roamed its streets and ate well in its restaurants on a visit last week. I lived in Montreal as a student, while Richler was alive and well and drinking on Crescent Street, and now that my son lives there as a student, I am delighted to visit more frequently.

I live in what’s now the country’s biggest city, but that status is recent. For all of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, Montreal was Canada’s metropolis, as well as its financial and cultural centre. It’s where ambitious people moved to, in both languages, from within Canada and across the world.

Montreal retains its status as the metropolis of Quebec and French Canada, however diminished this might seem from west of the Ottawa River. It also has become a magnet for Francophone immigration, not least for France itself. So, whatever its relative size, Montreal retains its big city vibes and its standing as the country’s most urban environment.

This urbanity and sophistication extend famously to the Montreal dining scene, which gained particular notoriety in the English-speaking world in the first two decades of this century. A new breed of chef restaurateurs, like Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon, and David MacMillan and Frédéric Morin of Joe Beef, combined the city’s Gallic heritage with its reputation as a place to have a good time.

The new Montreal restaurant revolution was televised and promoted by the likes of Anthony Bourdain. It was written up in the newly expanded food sections of newspapers on both sides of the pond and even regionally insular Canada. Montreal had as great a claim to at least being Canada’s dining capital as it ever had. (Richler, and likely any random Montrealer picked off Sherbrooke Street, would undoubtedly argue it had always been.)

The restaurants weren’t downtown, they were in residential areas, sometimes just gentrifying, like Little Burgundy, or long-neglected Old Montreal. The food was classic, often looking like it had come right out of the 1938 Larousse Gastronomique. The rooms were loud and full of energy: everyone ate too much, and a lot of them drank too much too. If you knew where to go, dining out in Montreal was a really good party.

Then, of course, came the COVID lockdowns. The party was over and, like everywhere else, restaurateurs began the slow recovery of the hospitality industry over the last year and a half. On my third late summer or autumn visit in as many years I am happy to report the city is back and I had the pleasure of dining at three very different restaurants that nonetheless were bound by a golden thread of good food and fun Montreal-style.

Outside diners at the restaurant Nolan in Montreal, Quebec. Credit: Malcolm Jolley.

Nolan

1752 Notre-Dame Ouest

Nolan is the newest of three restaurants I dined at last week, having just opened in 2022. It was busy on a Monday night with a crowd that ranged in age from 20 to 50 and beyond. The food is vaguely Italian (some pasta), but mostly farm or forage-to-fork seasonal with a little French thrown in (a duck breast and a steak). The room is warm and homey, as though you had come over to a dinner party.

The food comes in small and larger plates and the idea is to share and pass them around, and it works. The young waitstaff were friendly and more than competent, especially on the tightly curated wine list. (Yes, I ask questions, too.) Nolan’s easy charm made it hard to leave once the last of the pudding chomeur and digestives were gone.

L’Express

3927 rue Saint-Denis

There have been occasions where I have been in Montreal and not gone to Toujours L’Express, but they have been mercifully few, and if I am able to get a seat, at the zinc bar or on the black and white tiled floor of the dining room, I will take it. L’Express has been open since 1980, although it feels older. It was already very much an institution in the early 1990s when I was a student.

I wrote about L’Express in a Hub piece about 10 of my favourite restaurants and the last visit confirmed my ranking. The service at L’Express is veteran and archly professional, and the American tourists in T-shirts and baseball caps are treated no differently than the locals in suits. The food never disappoints and satisfies all palates, as long as you like classic bistro.

Damas

1201 Avenue Van Horne

If Nolan is the present and L’Express the (near) past, is the Syrian restaurant Damas the future of Montreal dining? That would make for a tidy column. I could frame it as Allophone Montreal taking over from Anglo and Franco, except it’s been around since 2010, which is a long time in restaurant years.

Tucked away at the bottom of Outremont, on the other side of the Mountain, Damas is definitely off the beaten tourist track. And yet it took three tries over three years to get a late Wednesday night booking. At nine o’clock the restaurant wasn’t full, but it was close, with all manner of Montrealers from families to first dates.

Syria is a member of the Francophone, and so Quebec, with its particular immigration program, has been settling people from there and its Levantine neighbour Lebanon, for a long time. Damas is a fancy restaurant, and I suspect a point of pride for Montreal’s Middle Eastern community and something of a fine dining novelty for a city dominated by French tradition.

Damas serves very good, classic Middle Eastern dishes made from fresh ingredients whose provenance is declared. It has two large, ornately decorated tiled rooms, and has a humming energy. The portions are large, so it’s best enjoyed in a party of four or more, unless one opts for the long dish of dishes that make up the tasting menu (we did not).

What Damas is not is cheap, and the service may be inclined to encourage pricey dishes involving whole fish or racks of lamb, the restaurant imports a serious red Syrian wine, the Cabernet blend Domaine de Bargylus, whose Mediterranean earthiness pairs nicely with everything. Alas, what price can one put on fun?