A young Pierre Poilievre sits in front of a room of Conservative faithful and explains their party’s strategy for winning a majority mandate.
That hasn’t happened yet. It’s 2009 and while the Tories have won two federal elections, they’ve remained in minority territory for three years.
“We will win a majority if we appeal to naturally conservative-inclined voters and get them out to vote, and we turn small-c conservative immigrants into big-C Conservative voters,” the MP says in a video posted to the website of the Cable Public Affairs Channel.
“That’s the formula.”
More than a decade after former prime minister Stephen Harper pulled off that majority in 2011, Poilievre is the party’s leader.
Since Harper’s four-year term, Conservatives have lost three straight elections to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, with losses stacking up in Toronto- and Vancouver-area suburban seats, home to many visible minorities and new Canadians.
If there’s one thing many in the party agree on, it’s the need for Conservatives to build support in such communities. But can Poilievre do it?
Enter Arpan Khanna. This week, Poilievre tapped the Greater Toronto Area lawyer, who served as one of the co-chairs on his leadership campaign in Ontario, to co-ordinate outreach efforts.
Khanna was a political staffer for the man federal Conservatives credit most for making the inroads with immigrant communities that helped Harper along to a majority: Jason Kenney.
Colleagues had nicknamed the former federal cabinet minister and Alberta premier the “minister of curry in a hurry” for spending his weekends darting to dozens of cultural events around Toronto and Vancouver.
Khanna said he sees the same drive in Poilievre, who visited the Toronto area multiple times, plus Vancouver in his first three months as leader, sometimes attending up to 15 events a day. He is planning visits with Chinese community groups in Markham, Scarborough, Vancouver and Burnaby to mark the Lunar New Year.
The new leader has taken the idea of “building a Jason Kenney style of outreach” to heart, Khanna said. “He’s all into this. He understands the importance of it.”
The first step is showing up, he said.
“We recently were at someone’s backyard for a barbecue party with about 100 people from the Tamil community, just having a conversation about their issues.”
Poilievre has been hitting the road nearly every weekend.
Often travelling with him are his two deputy leaders. Melissa Lantsman, who is Jewish and the party’s first openly lesbian member of Parliament, hails from Thornhill, just north of Toronto. Longtime Edmonton MP Tim Uppal, who is Sikh, became Canada’s first minister to wear a turban when Harper appointed him to cabinet in 2011.
For the high-profile finance critic role, Poilievre picked former small business owner Jasraj Singh Hallan, who had been considered an at-risk youth after immigrating to Canada as a child.
It’s stories like Hallan’s that Poilievre promotes, touting the promise of the Canadian dream.
“It doesn’t matter if your name is Poilievre or Patel … Martin or Mohamed,” a video posted online shows Poilievre saying at a Diwali event in October. “If you’re prepared to work hard, contribute, follow the rules, raise your family, you can achieve your dreams in this country.”
Poilievre often points out that he married an immigrant Canadian. His wife Ana and her family were refugees from Venezuela.
Tenzin Khangsar, who worked in Kenney’s office when he was immigration minister and assisted with the Tories’ outreach strategy, said Poilievre is setting an example for his caucus and the entire party. “And frankly shows to all Canadians that look, ‘this is a priority for me. This is not just something I’ll do during an election campaign.’”
Khangsar said that if step one is showing up, step two is following up with policy.
Poilievre has promised to get provinces to speed up recognizing foreign credentials, one of his first policy announcements as a leadership candidate. He’s also railed against “gatekeepers” at the federal immigration department.
During a roundtable with ethnic community media convened during the race, Poilievre said immigrant and Conservative values are the same: “hard work, family, freedom, tradition.”
“Values upon which we need to build a future Conservative party.”
A roughly 50-minute video from the event shared on Facebook shows Poilievre offering more detail on his immigration policy ideas: expanding express entry, making it easier for temporary foreign workers to become permanent residents, improving immigrants’ ability to bring their parents to Canada to help with child care and expanding private sponsorship of refugees.
He was emphatic in an interview with a Punjabi radio show last month: “The Conservative party is pro-immigration.”
But the NDP’s immigration critic, Jenny Kwan, threw water on the idea, saying in a statement that the Harper government cut settlement services for newcomers and made family reunifications more difficult.
Liberal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser didn’t wade into the Tories’ past, but in a statement said speaking to newcomers is the job of any political leader.
“Newcomers are not a voting block to pander to. They are Canadians, and soon-to-be Canadians.”
But many Conservatives believe that the party’s approach to immigration issues lost them the 2015 election, as Tories pushed policies such as banning niqabs at citizenship ceremonies and establishing a tip line for so-called barbaric cultural practices.
Lantsman and Uppal both publicly apologized for supporting what became known as the “niqab ban.” But Poilievre has defended the policy as simply requiring “that a person’s face be visible while giving oaths at citizenship ceremonies.”
An internal review of the Tories’ 2021 election loss found the party’s image remained damaged among immigrant communities.
Poilievre’s immigration critic, Tom Kmiec, said Conservatives believe in an “employer-driven immigration system.”
Asked whether they support the Liberal government’s plan to welcome a record-high number of permanent residents in the coming years, which includes a target of 500,000 by 2025, Kmiec said “the number is not as important as the customer-service experience.”
Kmiec, a Polish immigrant, said the federal immigration department is dealing with massive backlogs and out of control processing times. “It’s a total lack of compassion to over-promise what you can actually deliver.”
Andrew Griffith, a former director of multiculturalism policy for the federal government, predicted Conservatives will avoid attacking the targets for fear of being labelled xenophobic.
Griffith said he doesn’t perceive the party is skeptical about immigration, despite such views being historically present in its base.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press