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Federal Conservatives feeling the love in B.C.

In a big switch, Pierre Poilievre’s party is picking up young, female, First Nations and Metro Vancouver voters. But can he move beyond one-liners and offer constructive alternative policies?

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It wasn’t a scenario normally associated with Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre.

Encircled by dozens of First Nations leaders, Poilievre was the focus of attention and respect at a ritual-filled gathering this year at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

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“He seems to be an honest person. He’s a good listener,” Allen Claxton, a longtime chief and council member for Vancouver Island’s Tsawout First Nation, said when asked for his impressions of Poilievre.

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The event, one of dozens Poilievre has held in B.C. in recent months, drew little media attention. But it was significant for the chiefs, who gave Poilievre symbolic gifts. It was their joint announcement of a First Nations proposal to directly collect taxes from industry.

The good vibes among the group of First Nations leaders resonated with more far-reaching polls, which show the Conservatives far ahead of the Liberals across the country and especially in B.C. In the next election they’re poised to reduce the Liberals to a few ridings from their current 15 in B.C., all of which are in and around Metro Vancouver.

During the three-hour Vancouver event, Poilievre called the tax proposal, which was developed by the First Nations Tax Commission, a First Nation-led solution to a made-in-Ottawa problem.

“The direct result of the Ottawa-knows-best approach has been poverty, substandard infrastructure and housing, unsafe drinking water and despair,” said Poilievre.

“The trust is building,” said Tewanee Joseph, an entrepreneur and former councillor of the Squamish First Nation. The opt-in program formulated with Poilievre’s team would permit First Nation reserves to directly collect 50 per cent of the federal taxes owed by industries using their land.

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As Poilievre’s aides worked behind the scenes, they expressed amazement at his boundless energy for such small and large gatherings, where he frequently ends up enthusiastically shaking hundreds of hands, creating what they called “a ripple effect.”

Nowhere is the Conservative Party’s recent ripple of momentum more gratifying, the staffers said, than in Metro Vancouver, where the NDP and Liberals have traditionally dominated.

“My God, we’re moving right into their territory,” said media relations director Sebastian Skamski.

A March Abacus poll showed Poilievre’s party is a whopping 27 percentage points above the Liberals in B.C., and 22 percentage points ahead of the NDP. Abacus president David Coletto calls it “the new normal.”

Analysts at 338Canada.com, who amalgamate publicly available Canadian polls, projected this month the Conservatives would win 27 of B.C.’s 42 seats. That would be a gain of 14. The party is also in four more “toss up” B.C. races.

Meanwhile, the Liberals, who are clinging to a minority government because they have support from the NDP, would hold on to only three B.C. seats — two in north Surrey, one in south Vancouver. That’s a drop of 11 ridings.

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The NDP is predicted to maintain six seats and lose seven. The Greens might keep one.

Kitsilano millennials echo national polls

Earlier this month, three friends in their early 30s, a woman and two men, aired their views about politics in Uno Gelato, a stylish café in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano. It is in the Quadra riding held since 2008 by former Liberal cabinet minister Joyce Murray, who has announced she is not seeking re-election.

The millennials, whose long ago overtook baby boomers as the largest age group in Canada, talked about the scandal over Ottawa’s ArriveCan app, which they were shocked cost $60 million, as well as the housing crisis and the meteoric rise of international student numbers under the Liberals.

“There’s not enough room for new people if they can’t find housing,” said Josten Herritt. “International students are being scapegoated and taken advantage of for their fees and low wages. It’s too easy to start a college in Canada.”

The friends’ conversation echoed the worries Canadians are naming in national polls, which also show many young adults have, since the summer of last year, been shifting to Poilievre, even in a province where the B.C. NDP have held power since 2017.

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“The leading factor driving the fortunes of the Conservatives is the fatigue Canadians are feeling with Justin Trudeau,” said Hamish Telford, a political scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley.

While the Conservatives have long had strength in the B.C. Interior, Telford said the party is becoming more popular in parts of Metro Vancouver, which is known for its many “progressive” residents.

“Young urban voters who grew up with Trudeau as prime minister are realizing they’re now in their 30s and wondering how they’re ever going to afford a home,” said Telford. “That’s happened under the current government. So they therefore think: ‘It can’t be worse under another government. Maybe it’ll be better.’”

An Angus Reid poll in March found 60 per cent of British Columbians named the “cost of living” as one of their top three issues, with another 40 per cent citing the related problem of housing unaffordability. Health care was also a leading worry, while those choosing climate change as a top-three concern declined to 21 per cent.

Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, said the cost of living and affordable housing are “non-ideological issues” that are impacting people whether they lean left, right or centre.

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“Pocketbook issues supersede any other issues,” Kurl said.

And they’re particularly pressing for adults ages 34 to 55, many of whom are struggling to pay for day care, hockey equipment, groceries and additional bedrooms for children, she said.

While the Conservatives have customarily ranked high among older Canadians, they’re now also doing well among decided voters ages 18 to 34. More than 40 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women in that age range now favour the Conservatives, according to an Angus Reid poll. The support for Conservatives is significantly higher than it is for the Liberals.

While men continue to be most likely to lean Conservative, Kurl said Poilievre is making “incremental” inroads among women across age groups, especially middle-aged women, many of whom are in families experiencing tremendous financial pressure.

Zeroing in on economic hardship

After years of rhetoric from Trudeau about being the champion of the middle class — he has uttered the term 619 times — it’s perhaps not surprising that 86 per cent of Canadians told Abacus polling company they think he’s “inauthentic” and “phoney.”

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“That’s just indicative of the fatigue,” Telford said. “Ten years is a long time. That’s about the shelf life of most Canadian governments.”

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Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre (front right as political leaders gather in Vancouver in 2023 for Lunar New Year parade) is forecast to clobber Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (second from right) in British Columbia. Photo by DARRYL DYCK /THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservatives, he said, are astute in letting the Liberal party largely self-destruct. Poilievre is also being smart, Telford said, to try to avoid socially conservative issues, such as transgender rights, and zero in on Canadians’ economic hardship.

Poilievre has always excited the Conservative base, on the Prairies and outside big cities, said Telford. Yet his appeal is growing wider after a recent image makeover, which includes more casual clothes, a new hairstyle and replacing his bookish glasses with contact lenses.

As for the unexpected surge of the Conservative Party of B.C., which is normally a minor force in provincial politics, Telford is convinced it’s “riding Pierre Poilievre’s coattails.”

In the B.C. election of 2020, the Conservatives attracted only one out of 50 voters. But last week a Mainstreet Research poll showed 40 per cent support for the B.C. NDP among decided voters, 34 per cent for the B.C. Conservatives, 14 per cent for B.C. United and 10 per cent for the Greens.

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Since few British Columbians know anything about B.C. Conservative Leader John Rustad, a forestry industry consultant who represents the northern riding of Nechako Lakes, says Telford, “He’s benefiting from being in the right place at the right time.”

Telford’s says B.C. voters’ exhaustion with Trudeau and anything associated with him is penetrating B.C. politics in ways advantageous to Rustad. Last August, Rustad was kicked out of the B.C. United Party, which up until less than a year ago had been known as the B.C. Liberal party.

“Even if people might be voting for the B.C. Conservative Party for the wrong reason, it’s still a problem for (B.C. United Leader) Kevin Falcon.”

Poilievre has to move beyond the one-liners

It was in B.C. last fall that Poilievre gained worldwide attention for asking some pointed questions on camera of an Okanagan journalist who wanted him to admit he was “simply taking a page out of the Donald-Trump book” of “right-wing populism.”

When Poilievre, casually chewing a red apple, revealed the journalist could not back up his charges, the B.C. exchange went viral.

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When Pierre Poilievre jousted with a B.C. journalist last fall in an Okanagan apple orchard, the video went internationally viral. It happened at the same time the Conservatives’ popularity was soaring, with the party forecast to win at least 27 of the province’s 42 seats. sun

Poilievre is an effective political communicator, Telford said, good at producing sound bites and memorable quotes. “He has, as my father used to say, the gift of the gab.’”

But his ability in front of a microphone “is probably his greatest strength and greatest weakness,” Telford said, because sometimes it comes off as glib and simplistic.

“Poilievre always goes for the jugular,” Telford said. “While Conservatives lap this up, it may be off-putting to other voters.”

Poilievre is also going to have to move beyond one-liners and offer constructive alternative policies, Telford said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Axe the tax, build the homes, fix the budget, stop the crime.’ It’s another thing entirely to do these things.”

How is Poilievre going to build homes, fix the budget, stop the crime and, in particular, deal with climate change? Telford asks. If the economy improves before the next election, which the Liberals are tentatively scheduling for Oct. 27, 2025, the political scientist said Canadians might return to worrying about carbon emissions.

“And if Poilievre is not going to use carbon taxes, how will he tackle climate change? Right now, he is just offering yet another one liner: ‘Technology, not taxes.’”

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As for the verbal jousting with the Okanagan reporter, Telford said the federal Liberals do indeed appear to be hanging hopes on an electoral bump if Trump proves victorious in November’s U.S. election. Telford, however, believes it’s up in the air whether Canadians actually think Trudeau, who was in power during Trump’s first term, would be any better bet than Poilievre at handling such a bombastic president.

For his part, Skamski, Poilievre’s communications manager, said Trudeau’s party is “desperate” if its strategy relies on the outcome of an election in another country.

Greg Lyle, a former Conservative party activist in the 1990s who runs Innovative Research, a polling and corporate communications company, believes the Liberals are now being clobbered by the standard-of-living issue — just as Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were when Trudeau defeated him in 2015.

The Liberal campaign of that era, Lyle said, featured Trudeau’s famous “escalator ad,” portraying the Opposition leader standing still by walking up a descending escalator, explaining how 10 years of Harper meant average people weren’t able to rise up in life. That Liberal advertising campaign, Lyle said, “was the best I ever tested;” it thoroughly portrayed Trudeau “as on your side.”

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This time it’s the Conservatives’ turn. When Lyle’s company recently asked focus groups for their reaction to seven of Poilievre’s ad campaigns — most of which featured his “Canada is broken” theme — they resonated strongly. Remarkably, Lyle said, the anger-tinged ads produced no negative pushback, even from NDP and Liberal supporters.

“Canadians are at a boiling point now. And it’s not just the standard of living. If you ask people about health care or crime, if you look at housing and homelessness, there’s just this sense that Canada is getting worse. So when you hear things from Poilievre, like ‘Canada’s broken,’ that actually connects.’”

The theme of decline rings particularly strongly among people in the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver, which are crucial to any party’s victory, Lyle said. Many are immigrants who pulled up stakes in their homelands because they “believed the Canadian dream,” Lyal said. But they’re finding reality more grim.

“So they’re very open to a Tory message that you should have the ability to work hard, pay your taxes and get ahead. And that’s not being rewarded now,” Lyle said.

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“The standard NDP message, in contrast, is more focused on you should have your fair share: We should take from the rich and give to the poor. The NDP talk about redistribution. And that has appeal with some people, but it doesn’t reflect the wishes of those who focus on striving.”

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Pierre Poilievre’s messages appeal to suburban voters, including immigrants who pulled up stakes in their homelands because they “believed the Canadian dream,” says pollster Greg Lyal. They’re finding reality more grim. Photo: Poilievre in a Metro Vancouver supermarket, July, 2023. Photo by DARRYL DYCK /THE CANADIAN PRESS

That could be part of the reason the federal NDP are struggling in the polls, even while Lyle said they might hold on to six seats in B.C. largely as a byproduct of the relative popularity of NDP premier David Eby.

“It’s not a slam dunk” that Jagmeet Singh will retain his ethnically diverse riding of South Burnaby, which he’s held since 2019, said Lyle. Like in many immigrant-filled suburbs, Lyle thinks the vote could split three ways and it could go Conservative.

The few seats the Liberals are poised to hold in B.C. appear to be mostly the result of a “micro-issue,” Lyle said, which directly relates to politics in India. The ridings in north Surrey and south Vancouver that are remaining loyal to the Liberals have strong South Asian populations, specifically Punjabi, said Lyal. And it seems Trudeau’s accusation that Indian agents were implicated in last year’s murder of a Sikh Khalistani activist outside a Surrey gurdwara is striking a chord with them.

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Meanwhile, B.C. United MLA Ellis Ross, a former chief councillor of the Haisla nation who has announced he will be running for the federal Conservatives, picks up on the broken theme in B.C.

“Here in B.C. we’ve got a housing crisis. We’ve got a drug crisis. We’ve got a crime crisis. We’ve got a health crisis. Everything we have in B.C. is a crisis,” Ellis said.

“People don’t want the good announcements with no substance,” he said. “They just want a straightforward government that deals with the biggest issues facing us.”

It’s one reason Ross, who negotiated a huge LNG pipeline agreement for the Haisla, is among those drawn to Poilievre’s announcement to allow First Nation reserves to directly tax industry. He wants to see all First Nations, and all British Columbians, get more economic opportunities, to be able to climb more firmly into the middle class.

On top of the many things going Poilievre’s way these days, the Conservative surge itself is another advantage: Everybody loves a winner.

Given the weariness with Trudeau, Telford says people in B.C. and elsewhere “want to be part of the next thing. And Trudeau is very much part of the old thing.”

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The prime minister has precious few options left, says Telford, other than to renew his party’s chances by resigning.

“It would change the conversation. Canadians would start talking about the future.”

But Trudeau, he said, would have to pack it in soon to counter the Conservatives’ head of steam.

“Late is not good.”

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