The Poilievre Conservatives’ Incivility Tests Canadians’ Faith in Democracy

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By now there are likely few Canadians who have not heard about Pierre Poilievre’s latest display of bad behaviour in the House of Commons. The Conservative leader was expelled from the chamber after repeatedly calling the prime minister “wacko” and accusing him of causing drug deaths, and then refusing four times to heed the Speaker’s request to change his choice of words to remove unparliamentary language.

Poilievre’s departure followed hot on the heels of one of his MPs, Rachel Thomas, who was expelled only minutes earlier after she challenged the Speaker’s handling of the debate and referred to him personally as “disgraceful.” It is a seminal rule of the Commons that Members may not challenge the authority of the Speaker, as Ms. Thomas undoubtedly knows only too well since she has been an MP for more than 8 years. Meanwhile Mr. Poilievre has been an MP for more than 20 years. As numerous analysts commented shortly afterwards, there is little doubt that he was aware he was breaking the rules by attacking Mr. Trudeau personally, and may in fact have been deliberately courting expulsion for what he thought would be political advantage.[i]

Like Mr. Poilievre, Ms. Thomas is no stranger to controversy. Six months earlier she was obliged to apologize to the House and the Chair of the Heritage Committee for berating a witness – Heritage Minister Pascale St Onge – for speaking French in answer to some of the MP’s questions in English. And this despite the fact that simultaneous interpretation is provided at all committee and House meetings. (Needless to say, Thomas’ complaint also negates the purpose of the Official Languages Act, which she nevertheless admitted grudgingly that her party supports.)       

Shortly after Poilievre’s departure from the House, the majority of the Conservative caucus also left the Chamber en masse, in what appeared to be an orchestrated rather than spontaneous reaction.   

Sadly, this latest example of unparliamentary behaviour is nothing new since Mr. Poilievre assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party. However it is clearly becoming more frequent and more disruptive. Only two weeks earlier, he and another of his MPs, Stephanie Kusie, had earned widespread criticism for immaturity and poor judgment as they reacted to the news that NDP MP Charlie Angus, one of the longest-serving MPs in the House, was planning to resign. “After seven elections, twenty years of service and the privilege of being the longest-serving MP from Timmins, it is time to pass the baton” Mr. Angus announced.

Mr. Poilievre jumped the gun, posting a message on social media in advance of statements in the House recognizing Mr. Angus. But his message was neither congratulatory nor impartial. Instead, the Conservative leader doubled down on partisan rhetoric, claiming “Charlie Angus jumps ship rather than face voters after he voted to hike the carbon tax and ban the hunting weapons of northern Ontarians.” Ms. Kusie followed up in the House. Rather than the friendly comments traditionally offered by Members of all parties, Ms. Kusie instead chose sarcasm and mean-spirited criticism. “I’d like to thank the Member for Timmins-James Bay for relieving us of our misery and announcing his resignation. Thank you so much. I truly appreciate that”, she shouted while waving her arms about wildly. “You know, we’re all really going to miss him on this side of the House. Not!”[ii] Her comments were greeted with stunned horror by most of the Members in the chamber, but received widespread laughter and approval from her fellow Conservatives. Indeed, on numerous occasions parliamentary observers have concluded that many of the Conservative backbenchers seem to be competing for Mr. Poilievre’s attention and favour by engaging in increasingly disrespectful outbursts.

This unseemly behaviour in parliament has been matched by equally bad behaviour and uncivil language on the part of Mr. Poilievre and many of his MPs in other settings. Take, for example, the Conservative leader’s recent foray into yet another protest camp, this time on the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border. (Apparently the widespread negative coverage of his support for the so-called Freedom Convoy that illegally occupied Ottawa in January 2021 has not deterred him from taking similar positions.) In this case, while travelling to an event during his recent tour of the Maritimes, Poilievre ordered his cavalcade to stop on the side of the highway in order that he might meet and greet a group of far-right extremists. Several of them have been living in their cars on the site since 2021, when they were originally protesting vaccination mandates. The group now claims its principal target is the Liberal government’s carbon pricing system.

“Everyone’s happy with what you’re doing” Poilievre told the group of conspiracy theorists and MAGA supporters, whose vehicles and campsite contained numerous upside-down Canadian flags, signs declaring “F—k Trudeau” and signatures of American far-right influencers including convicted alt-right radio host Alex Jones. After posing for numerous selfies with group members, Poilievre told them to “keep up the good work” and left with a parting comment about the prime minister that “People believed his lies. Everything he said was bullshit from top to bottom.”[iii]

Then of course there is Mr. Poilievre’s unconcealed disdain for the judiciary. Democracies have a clear separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary for very important reasons and a cardinal rule for politicians, whether in government or opposition, is not to criticize the judicial branch.[iv] Like former president Donald Trump in the United States, the Conservative leader’s outspoken criticism of the judiciary is not only unprecedented but dangerous. In Mr. Poilievre’s most recent diatribe, pledging to use the notwithstanding clause to overturn a number of judicial decisions, he once again reveals a deep-seated hostility towards this fundamental pillar of liberal democracies.       

This is particularly significant, since Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives have angrily rejected any comparisons between themselves and the Trump MAGA crowd in the United States. But these various incidents cannot help but draw attention to the similarities. Mr. Trump loves breaking rules and behaving badly by conventional standards. So apparently does Mr. Poilievre. Mr. Trump also enjoys associating with extremist, far-right influencers. Incredibly, the former president has also turned his various criminal charges into a badge of honour, framing himself as a victim and raising funds by selling photos of his mug shots. Is this much different from Mr. Poilievre painting himself as the victim of a biased Speaker and then posting videos of his expulsion to fundraise for his party? Certainly Mr. Trump has never looked presidential. To date, Mr. Poilievre has been equally unable to present any credible image of himself as a future prime minister, and this increasingly aggressive challenge to conventional rules and behaviour of parliamentarians, both in and out of the House, will not help.

More importantly, this uncivil behaviour is increasingly likely to cause many Canadians to tune out of political discourse entirely, if they have not already done so. Disagreement over policies is to be expected of political parties. Personal attacks on opponents and their leaders are not. Nor is behaviour which calls into question the very credibility of democratic institutions such as parliament or the judiciary.  More than thirty years ago prominent Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell argued that civility was an essential virtue in pluralistic societies like Canada. “Civil discourse is a binding feature”, he writes, “of nations that would otherwise fly apart because of their differences”. [v]Today, as he is the first to admit, the lack of civil discourse in any liberal democracy is becoming a huge if not intractable problem.

Describing incivility as “the tragedy of the commons” and Donald Trump as “the avatar” of this debilitating race to the bottom, Kingwell points out that civil discourse first requires both sides of an issue to recognize their common values and then to agree that there are no absolutes in politics. Yet the “clash of absolutes,”[vi] — in which at least one side and often both see the world as black and white (and view those who disagree with them as enemies) — is precisely where we now appear to be. As Kingwell argues, this scenario must be reversed if we are to maintain the credibility of democratic institutions and democracy itself. Or, as Kingwell himself puts it, “Do we want to go on living together? If we do, civility isn’t a luxury good, it’s the lifeblood of democratic ciztizenship.”[vii] Will Mr. Poilievre listen? Will Canadians reject incivility in political discourse before it is too late?    

[i] gin



[iv] See for example Chief Justice Richard Wagner’s seminal speech on judicial independence:


[vi] American legal scholar Laurence Tribe first coined the phrase to refer to the abortion debate