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Harrison Lowman: Will Poilievre’s coalition of loud new populists and old-guard conservatives hold?


Late last Friday night at some ungodly hour, a gaggle of business casual conservatives stumbled out of Ottawa’s Byward Market and voiced their frustrations in the direction of Parliament Hill. “F— Trudeau!” “Axe the tax!” they were heard yelling into the cold spring night. They repeated these lines over and over again.

Their chants stood in stark contrast to a speech thoughtfully delivered that same week by former long-time Harper cabinet minister Jason Kenney. The one-time Alberta premier, a politician rejected by the populist wing of his provincial conservative party, spoke in Ottawa about how “the conservative tradition,” “origin,” and “philosophy” should inform Canadian public policy. He did not swear once.

The chanting cadre was attending the Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference, a yearly event that brings together Canada’s conservative movement. Tories of all shades of blue descend on Ottawa for three days of hobnobbing, celebrations, campaign training, and policy panel discussions. The event advertises itself as a place to build stronger relationships “amongst the movement’s various components.”

I decided to attend, to take the pulse of a conservative movement on the verge of what polls are showing could be a massive Conservative majority government. What I noticed was two distinct strands of Canada’s new conservative movement under Pierre Poilievre: a partisan intellectual establishment old guard, and a newer loud, proud, and angry populist base. The question of how these two groups get along, who’s in control, and whether their aims are at odds with one another will reveal how an increasingly inevitable Prime Minister Pierre Poilievre will govern. Both groups will understandably expect to be heard.

Changing shape

It’s been just over 20 years since the populist Canadian Alliance (formerly the Reform Party) and the Progressive Conservative Party agreed to merge. As Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party’s first leader, describes it, he set out to create a “populist conservative” movement that he sold as “putting conservative values and ideas into the service of working people and their families.” The conservative ideology would be the vehicle to help the common people. It was, as he says, “about using conservative means for populist ends,” all while avoiding a “populist insurgency.”

Today, as Poilievre continues to fill gymnasiums and factories across the country with hundreds of new voters sick of the “elite” and hell-bent on “axing,” “ditching,” and “defunding,” and having all but swallowed PPC supporters, one wonders if it has now morphed into a sort of “conservative populist” movement seemingly driven by the common people who then dictate the tone of the conservative ideology.

To understand this better I spoke to two young conservatives who had deep insights when it comes to these camps. I granted my old guard and populist informants anonymity, so they could speak freely about the new face of the moment, its strengths, along with its tensions and growing pains.

The populist class

If the Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference had a theme song it would have been Twisted Sister belting out “We’re not gonna take it anymore.” Many of the angry populists testing the conservative waters have simply had enough. They are convinced their worsening standard of living is the direct result of a near decade of Liberal rule in Ottawa.

“The infrastructure that they grew up with, that they could count on and rely on, like health care, is crumbling. The country that they grew up in is not the country that they are living in right now. And their opportunities for themselves, and their opportunities for their kids and grandkids, are not what they had,” describes my populist informant. “And they see Trudeau as the source of their problems.”

It all makes for a depressing outcome. Together, he says it has destroyed their sense of self-worth.

This feeling of being left behind is what Poilievre has been tapping into. Although many of these populists are not traditionally conservative, Poilievre is telling them what they want to hear. And he’s doing it in the form of easily digestible slogans and soundbites. His overall message? I know what’s hurting you. But I also know the simple solutions. And I’m the one who can fix it.

“They believe in the Conservative Party and they believe it’s going to answer their call,” the populist assures me. But the thing is, someone else is on the call.

The old-guard intellectual class

The old-guard establishment sees Poilievre stoking populist anger often at the expense of winning over what they call the ideas and governing class of conservatives. Unlike their populist bedfellows, some are growing tired of the leader’s catchphrases and want some policy meat to be put on the bone.

“Enough of the slogans. Tell me what you’re actually going to do,” says my old guard informant.

Last month, Poilievre said “corporate lobbyists in Ottawa” have been “utterly useless in advancing any common sense interests for the people on the ground.” He’s since called for “more boots, less suits.” At his Strong and Free keynote last week, he again delivered a populist battle cry railing against Trudeau-supporting “ivory tower elites.” He received major cheers but irked some in the crowd.

“We [conservatives] don’t need elitism. But we absolutely need to have elites who are not just well educated, but who embody a certain degree of wisdom and who are to the task of taking on these leadership roles in society,” says the old guard informant. “It’s a certain quality of excellence with which you approach leadership and governance.”

Meanwhile, their populist partners could care less if elites feel targeted. They consider many of the old guard to be political opportunists leaping effortlessly back and forth between government and lobbying firms. To them, these people can’t relate to average Canadians.

“I think it’s really…normal Canadians versus a group of people who are careerists and entirely driven by political opportunity and calculation and want to and seek power and seek a life in politics,” explains the populist.

For him, there is a condescending message from the Canadian establishment to the populists that sounds something like, “We don’t really need to listen to them. They’re just being guided by their own misplaced emotions. And we know what’s best for them.”

Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson waves as he makes his way towards West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.
Nodding to conspiracy and skepticism

A strain of conspiracy and skepticism can also be found within these conservative groups. Upon registering at the Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference each attendee was handed a book entitled “Against the Great Reset: Eighteen Theses Contra the New World Order.” The book describes how the World Economic Forum (WEF) and an “insatiable elite” have been capitalizing on the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and working “to keep the citizenry pacified.” Its jacket includes praise from none other than former Trump strategist and since-criminally sentenced Steve Bannon, who calls the essays “electrifying.” This book highlighted the controversial fringe element that had a small presence at the conference. Their concerns have received a slight nod from Poilevre, who has promised to ban his future ministers from attending WEF conferences.

Our old guard says these are distracting fantasies that swirl online.

“The WEF is a forum. It’s not above criticism,” says the old guard informant. “[But] when you start getting into this conspiratorial stuff, I think you’re playing with fire, and it’s irresponsible because there are people out there who don’t know better and who actually think there is some massive conspiracy, that there’s this globalist cabal of elites that are running the show from which Trudeau is taking his orders.”

But the populist I spoke to says Canadians need to have more sympathy for people inevitably drawn to these conspiratorial ideas. He adds that while the next prime minister should not act on these ideas in a major way, they should not merely dismiss the people who believe them.

“Life for so many in this country has become so miserable, and so difficult. Things have taken such a shocking U-turn for most of them that they can’t pinpoint what’s going on,” he explains. “And they are desperately searching for answers and justification as to why this has happened to them.”

Another element found in the populist mindset reared its head during the conference speech from Boris Johnson. The former U.K. prime minister felt the need to open his remarks by directly addressing Canadian conservatives who are growing wary of funding Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia.

“The lesson is that the Ukrainians will do the job if we give them the tools,” the former Conservative prime minister told a packed conference room to moderate clapping. “There’s a lot of propaganda out there. There’s a lot of negativity. You see it on some of, I’m sad to say, even on the conservative networks in the United States. You see this stuff that is basically taking the Putin line. It is completely wrong.”

But some more isolationist conservative populists disagree with the idea that the $9.5 billion Canadian dollars that has been spent assisting Ukraine has actually improved their lives here at home.

“Foreign policy does not change the lives of people who are in a really bad way right now. Foreign policy cannot bring back the Canadian lives of children who have been killed by fentanyl overdoses. It can’t put money back into people’s pockets who are who are bankrupt,” says the populist.

While one did not come across outright climate change denial at Strong and Free, climate change skepticism was there throughout. Boris Johnson also faced criticism for his former government’s support of “net zero” carbon dioxide by 2050. He defended himself, saying it was because he’d been convinced by the U.K.’s top scientists.

“As conservatives, I don’t think we can afford simply to say to the public, to young people that really care about this, that we are junking the whole agenda,” he insisted to a quiet crowd. “People want to see that there’s a plan and a program in a proper conservative way.”

Poilievre has yet to release a detailed climate plan beyond carbon tax axing.

Skeptic populists see Canada as not having a large impact on global temperatures and view government policies as attacking their resource jobs.

“I think there’s a very slim minority of Conservative Party supporters who are committed to [combatting] climate change and want to see the party really embrace it,” says the populist.


In election year 2025, the modern Conservative Party will be powered by an old-guard and populist twin engine. But winning an election is one thing. Governing a country is something else entirely. For this conservative populist engine to hum while in government, Poilievre will need to figure out how he responds to each of these groups.

In the final discussion of the Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference the Conservative Party’s newest MP Jamil Jivani, likely sensing a greater need for cooperation, asked what compromise looks like when a “diverse conservative coalition” puts ideas into practice.

One wonders how populist anger can be harnessed and translated into thoughtful policy. It’s also more difficult to point to an elite boogeyman who’s making mistakes when your guy is the one in power. There will be no “libs” to “own” if that party is decimated to a handful of seats.

Unlike 2006, when Harper’s newly united party swept to power in the first conservative election win in 18 years, today’s Conservative Party would have old-guard experienced veterans to tap to fill in a Trudeau-sized governance hole. But those elites must not lose sight of the populist base.

“It’s these people that are going to give them their chance to get back into office,” says the populist. “They can disregard them at their own peril.”

‘The gloves have come off’: The Hub reacts to Iran launching the largest drone strike in history against Israel


Iran’s weekend attack on Israel, featuring over 300 projectiles, including drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, was largely thwarted, with only a handful of missiles slipping past Israeli defence systems to hit their mark. Is this attack, launched in retaliation for a recent Israeli attack at an Iranian embassy in Damascus, merely a face-saving response by Iran or the first strike in a larger salvo to come? And what is the risk of this conflict spiralling into a wider regional war? We gathered some of The Hub’s top foreign policy experts to offer their immediate reactions to the attack and discuss what could come next.

Israel emerges unscathed—for now

By Howard Anglin

After a tense Saturday night, as the sun rose on an unscathed Israel, three theories of what just happened began to take shape.

The first school says that Iran’s attack was a serious attempt to do real damage to Israel. This theory points to the sheer size and variety of munitions fired at Israel, which tested the limits of the Iron Dome. Only the scrambled assistance of the United States and the United Kingdom and the (perhaps unexpected) cooperation of Jordan and Saudi Arabia prevented a devastating tragedy. Iran really did try but failed, thanks to Israeli technology, Arab/American support, and, perhaps, Iranian weakness.

The second school believes Iran’s bombardment was for show and not meant to do real damage. Face-saving sabre-rattling. This theory cites Iran’s telegraphing of its attack for days and its announcement that slow-moving drones and missiles were in the air hours before they would arrive (i.e., the opposite of Hamas’s brutally successful surprise attack on October 7th). According to this theory, Iran’s attack was the minimum expected response to Israel’s killing of senior IRGC officials in Damascus, which was why it hit Israel directly and not through one of its proxies. 

Finally, there is the (slightly more fringe) school of thought that thinks this was a probing attack designed to test and deplete the capacity of Iron Dome. According to this theory, Iran will use the lessons learned last night to plan future aerial assaults, either directly or via Hezbollah, to overwhelm Israel’s air defence systems.

For what it’s worth, on the basis of woefully imperfect information and much speculation, I come down somewhere between the first two theories. The attack was large (300+) and complex enough (drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles) that Iran could reasonably have expected it to do real damage while being partially intercepted (but not 99 percent, as blessedly happened). And if I had to rank the likelihood of these theories, I would say it is: 1, 2, 3. But from the point of view of planning and preparedness, Israel and her allies and friends need to assume the worst: 3, 2, 1…

The night’s good news came in the welcome novelty of open support for Israel from Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Even if their motivation is of the “the enemy of my enemy” variety, that is more friendship than Israel has known in the region since its founding. Israel may still be surrounded on three sides by Iranian proxies, but Iran is waking up today to the reality that, between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and American assets in the Gulf and Turkey, it is also now partially encircled. 

The strategic environment has changed

By Joe Varner

It is dangerous to draw lessons or observations so close to a major event, but with a degree of understatement the Middle East strategic environment changed this weekend in three ways. 

First, Iran’s attack using three hundred drones, cruise, and ballistic missiles was a major deviation from Iranian military doctrine. Iranian doctrine since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) which was very painful has centred on avoiding direct conflict with an opponent while maintaining that conventional power and using proxy militias to do Tehran’s dirty work for them along with the IRGC Quds Force.

Something changed significantly for Iran on April 1st with the loss of two brigadiers of the IRGC in an Israeli attack on a diplomatic facility in Damascus. The commander-in-chief of the IRGC, General Hossein Salami, said, “We have adopted a new equation with the Zionist entity, which is to respond to any aggression from its side directly from Iranian territory.” In real terms, Iran is signalling to Israel that the gloves have come off. This represents a clear change in how Iran uses force. 

Second, we just witnessed how Israel’s integrated air defence system, the most advanced in the world backed up with modern fighters and warships with advanced air defences from Israel’s allies, blunted the Iranian strikes, including the largest drone swarm attack in history. The Israeli air defence is very effective—but not perfect. Some of Iran’s Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM), key to any future Iranian nuclear attack, were let through and did hit an Israeli air base in the southern part of the country.

Right now, the Israeli systems prioritise these missiles if they are heading at population centres and they destroy them in space. That will have to change given that Iran is a few weeks out from having the material for three nuclear devices. Any nuclear strike on Israel would be deadly and destructive. Iran attacked Pakistani territory some weeks ago with ballistic missiles and has now done the same in Israel, shattering the myth that countries don’t attack nuclear-armed countries with conventional arms. The opacity of Iranian defence decision-making, the stark change in Iranian doctrine, the uncertainty that the next MRBM to get through and strike Israeli territory might be nuclear-tipped—all these factors open Iran’s nuclear programme up to Israeli preemption.

Third, the reason Israel may push back from the table with Iran and call it a day is that for the first time, Israel was defended by Jordan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, both of whom played active parts in Israel’s defence. On any level that is a major strategic victory in its rivalry with Tehran, and one that has consequences for the entire region. 

Iran’s Air Force Kaman-22 drone is carried on a truck during an annual military parade just outside Tehran, Iran, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. Vahid Salemi/AP Photo.
Israel will have to respond

By Michael Bonner

If you want to understand Iran, you need to grasp two facts first.

First, Iran’s central position and numerous frontiers mean a tense amalgam of imperial ambition and insecurity. The Persian language and the Shiite religion can be found in sizeable groups throughout the Middle East and in Inner Asia. Iran is obliged to influence, and perhaps to dominate, them. Similarly, Iran’s own domestic minorities are also found in quantity outside its borders, and so Iran is ever wary of trouble spilling over its borders.

Second, Iran can ill afford a direct conflict with any of its neighbours. It has a long history of miscarrying dreadfully in this manner. The last time it was tried was the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. The results were an inconclusive outcome and a huge Iranian death toll.

Put those facts together, and you will see why Iran (a) meddles in its near-abroad, (b) has a penchant for proxies, missiles, and drones, and (c) inveighs most vehemently against distant countries like the USA, Britain, and Israel which have no natural interest in harming Iran.

And yet, Iran has its hawks who grow louder and crazier as the Khomeinist regime falters. The slow, much-publicised drone-and-missile demonstration was meant to appease them and avoid further conflict. We now await Israel’s reaction. The worst outcome would be one that strengthens the hawks by justifying their anti-Israel paranoia, so a direct hit on Iran is out of the question. If necessary, Israel can disarm the hawks by retaliating on their proxies throughout the Middle East: a potential distraction from operations in Gaza, but one that the Netanyahu government may find impossible to avoid.

The Trudeau government should immediately end its arms embargo of Israel

By Sean Speer

The underlying fallacy behind the Trudeau government’s suspension of supplying weapons and other military equipment to Israel was on display this past weekend when Israel found itself under an air attack carried out by Iran.

The drone and missile attack demonstrated what ought to have been clear since October 7: Israel isn’t just fighting a war against Hamas. Its enemies in the region are working together with coordination and funding coming from the Iranian regime.

Yet so much of the political discourse over the six months has framed the conflict as somehow between Israel and Palestinian civilians. As Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman wrote over the weekend:

This information campaign is as critical to Israel’s enemies as the physical war, because it erodes the Western support that Israel needs to win and survive. Its successful execution has turned a jihadi war against the Jewish minority enclave in the Middle East into a story about Jewish oppression and even “genocide” of Palestinians, a story that has become the focus of the increasingly deranged discourse in the liberal West.

The NDP motion on the post-October 7 conflict, which passed with the Trudeau government’s support in late March, was shot through with this type of thinking. It’s not obvious whether it ultimately reflects foreign policy naivete, motivated reasoning, or a combination of both. But the outcome is still the same: the Trudeau government’s policy vis-à-vis Israel has come to chiefly understand the source of the attack and the subsequent conflict in terms of the historic tensions between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people.

Put differently: to the extent the prime minister has outsourced his Middle East policy to the NDP and the progressive wing of his own party, he’s intentionally or unwittingly come to apply an oppressed-oppressor framework to guide his policy actions.

The government’s decision to halt weapons exports to Israel is a good (or bad) example. If one thinks narrowly about the conflict through an asymmetrical lens between Israel and the Gazans, then you might reach the conclusion that ending arms supplies to the powerful protagonist is an act of justice. If however you understand that Israel is facing multiple threats that are being back and coordinated by the Iranians, then the just response ought to involve supporting one’s outnumbered ally in a time of great need.

Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has understood this point since the October 7 attacks. He’s consistently laid the ultimate blame for the attacks on the Iranians. As he’s put it: “[The] Palestinian people have been made by the Iranian regime and other dictators in the regime, in the region, into a chess piece in an evil chess game.”

This week’s air attacks launched from Tehran prove Poilievre is right and the prime minister is wrong. The latter can fix his mistake by immediately reversing his government’s arms embargo of Israel.