This week, on the 90th anniversary of the manmade famine inflicted on Ukraine by the Soviet Union,
and 22 months after Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Canadian Conservative Party voted against a Canada-Ukraine free trade agreement. Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative leader, said it would “force a carbon tax on Ukrainians.”
Except Ukraine already has a price on carbon. And they have had one since 2011.
The Conservative party made a choice. As an opposition party it didn’t matter which way they voted – the Liberals and New Democratic Party had the numbers to make it pass. Mr. Poilievre had a choice:
(1) A symbolic vote showing Canada is united in supporting Ukraine; and
(2) A symbolic vote showing even a mention of carbon pricing is so unacceptable that it outweighs
supporting a beleaguered ally struggling against the tyranny of Putin’s brutal invasion.
Mr. Poilievre chose number two.
A weak-tea commitment to reduce carbon emissions does not force anything on anyone. The idea that Canada’s Parliament can force any country to do anything is laughable. Mr. Poilievre, who has been an MP for two decades, knows this. And he should have known that Ukraine already has carbon pricing.
Just the other week the Conservatives were calling for sending more ammunition to Ukraine. Why would the opposition embarrass themselves in the eyes of the international community, weaken the solidarity between Canada and Ukraine -the Conservative vote was featured prominently in the Ukrainian press-, and create days of negative media coverage when the party looks on track to win the next election, as patience with the stumbling Trudeau Liberals continues to erode.
So, what’s happening?
The Putin-admiring authoritarians that infest right-wing populist movements around the world are common within the Conservative Party. Not within today’s Conservative caucus, elected under Erin O’Toole months before he was deposed by Mr. Poilievre.
Like Mr. O’Toole, most are strong defenders of democracy at home and abroad.
But these are the dying days of that Conservative Party. Mr. Poilievre backed the honking antivaccine/antigovernment movement that occupied Ottawa in early 2022. They returned the favour, rallying to Mr. Poilievre when he ran for the CPC leadership; around 80% of the members of today’s Conservative Party party were not members in January 2022. This isn’t your father’s Conservative party.
Stewing in social media, many of these activists see our politics as an extension of the American culture wars ripping our southern neighbour apart. They side with the strange shell of the US Republican party, open to believing the strangest propaganda if it’s filtered through the Donald Trump campaign or its multiverse of online amplifiers – some directly funded by Russia, China, and other enemies of the West.
Mr. Poilievre is trying to manage the transition from the old Conservative party, purging moderates and replacing them with populist true believers. He knows this new party that won’t take full form until the federal election so, in the meantime he has to keep his new base happy, and if that means sacrificing Ukraine’s interests to appease pro-Russian and climate change denying US social media influencer, well, that’s a sign of things to come.
This week’s vote baffled many observers. But for a party looking to attract the sort of candidates who embrace Russia, reject Ukraine, refuse to accept the reality of climate change, and who will raise money and mobilize voters in an online hard-right echo chamber where those stands are litmus tests of populist purity, it makes sense. When you see federal Conservatives nominate extreme and anti-science candidates recently expelled from provincial Progressive Conservative parties -like Ontario’s Roman Baber- you know things are changing.
Our old political class was united around an ever-shrinking list of issues. Ukraine was one of them. That consensus has broken.
Why does this vote matter?
What Russia is doing in Ukraine is against everything Canada stands for. To give any kind of signal, however symbolic, that we are not committed to Ukraine’s democracy against Russia’s imperialist autocracy, is obscene. It’s a mix of two of the worst ingredients in Canadian politics – making international crises all about local politics, and the increasingly blurred line between Canadians and American political culture.
To be clear, it’s not like the Liberal government has covered itself in glory. It is to be commended for its committed support of Ukraine since the conflict began. When I visited Ukraine in September 2022 I was struck by the appreciation for our contribution, expressed by everyone from politicians to shopkeepers.
But that commitment is undercut by our refusal to live up to our often-repeated promise to our NATO allies, to spend 2 per cent of our GDP on defence. As the Atlantic alliance becomes the focus of the democratic world in the emerging conflict against imperialism and dictatorship, that refusal is inexplicable. This week’s economic statement included cuts to defence. That should have been the opposition’s focus, instead of turning a real cut into an argument over symbolism. This problem, of a government that’s out of touch with the crises bearing down on us from all directions, is made worse by an opposition that’s distracted by the needs of its base, not Canada or global democracy. This week the Trudeau Liberals cut our armed forces while the Conservatives damaged our diplomacy.
This issue is a good example of why I believe the Canadian Future Party is needed.
Earlier this year I laid out our position on Ukraine:
“Canada must support Ukraine. With as much money as we can spend. As much diplomatic leverage as we can muster. As much ammunition and as many weapons as we can prepare. As many military trainers and other experts, military and civilian, that we can provide. Ukraine must win this war.
‘There are free people in the world. And there are people living on a sliding scale toward slavery. Ukraine is on the Canadian side of that line. We are two out of a few dozen countries where average citizens, people like you and people like me, get to vote on who will govern us. Imperfect, that system remains the best guarantee against the return of humanity’s default system of government: rule by the dictator, whether they call themselves president, king, or emperor.
Canadians are buried in graves around the world where they shed their blood to preserve our values. We knew the stakes then and we responded, without question, without doubt, with sacrifice and with courage to protect those values when they were threatened.”
We stand by those words.
We are working to build a party free of obligation to any interest groups. Committed to evidence- based policies within a free and democratic country. Committed to old-fashioned ideas like public service and good-faith compromise as the best way to tackle challenges like the cost-of-living crisis, the threat to democracy, and struggling social programs.
This last week we saw many examples of what happens when elites fail and populists prevail: from Ireland to Argentina to the Netherlands the centre is falling apart and extremists are taking to the stage and to the streets.
We don’t want that in Canada. When politics moves to the streets the room for compromise is lost to conflict and weak politicians embrace the chaos of the extremes. What happens then? A slide to disorder if we’re lucky. Then the search begins for a strong hand to clear the streets.
We can stop this slide. But only if we’re honest about the fact that’s already started. And honest about those who are working hard to push us down even faster. The Conservative committed a small betrayal of Ukraine this week. It should be a sign to Canadians that our politics has changed, for the worse, and it’s our responsibility as citizens to take a stand.
I hope you’ll join me. Let’s stand up.
PS. Thank you if you have already signed up to be a founding member of Canadian Future, and if you haven’t yet joined, just click here to become part of our fast-growing movement to change Canadian politics.