Andrew Lawton’s biography – Pierre Poilievre, A Political Life – explores his family background, personality and political style

Pat Murphy: Who Is Pierre Poilievre really? As we head into summer, a slew of opinion polls and the byelection shock in Toronto-St. Paul’s suggest the strong possibility of Pierre Poilievre becoming prime minister some time over the next 16 months. But just who is he?

Sure, most of us are familiar with the hyper-competitive figure we see on television and read about online or in the newspapers. But what’s he really like?

I turned to Andrew Lawton’s new biography – Pierre Poilievre, A Political Life – to get a sense of the answer. Because Lawton is fundamentally sympathetic to his subject, it’s a book that many will dismiss out of hand. Then again, political biographers invariably bring attitudinal priors to their material. Do we dismiss them all?

Here’s what struck me.

Family background

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Poilievre’s distinctly conservative politics might suggest a conventional – even judgemental – background, one that’s divorced from the often messy complexities of modern life. If that’s your assumption, you’re very wrong.

Poilievre’s maternal grandfather was Patrick Farrell, an Irish Catholic immigrant who came here from County Meath in 1953. In 1979, Farrell’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, gave birth to a boy who was immediately adopted by two schoolteachers, Marlene and Donald Poilievre. They christened him Pierre. And when Jacqueline got pregnant again, her second son – Pierre’s half-brother – was also adopted by the Poilievres.

But upheaval beckoned. The marriage of Poilievre’s adoptive parents disintegrated when he was around 12 years old. And his adoptive father, Donald, came out as gay shortly thereafter.

While this might sound like a surefire recipe for alienation, anger, intolerance and recrimination, such wasn’t the case. Poilievre has maintained a relationship with both his adoptive parents (including his adoptive father’s male partner) and subsequently developed one with his biological mother and grandfather. All of them, other than his grandfather who died in 2017, were present on the night he won the Conservative leadership in 2022.

Personal characteristics

One of the things that stands out is Poilievre’s self-confidence. Or, if you prefer, outright cockiness.

As a precocious teenager, he (unsuccessfully) sought a place on the Reform board for Preston Manning’s Calgary Southwest constituency. But he was also up for the hard work involved in being a party volunteer – “super keen” was the descriptor applied to him. Working the phones drumming up memberships, he struck Jason Kenney – the future federal cabinet minister and Alberta premier – “as an absolute savant, a genius.”

At times, though, this self-assurance morphed into arrogance.

One anonymous Conservative staffer characterized the Poilievre of circa 2013 as “insufferable when he was a minister … He avoided anybody that he thought was beneath him, which was just about everybody.” To be fair, that self-same staffer notes a change since then: “He’s much better and much different now.”

Politician

The Poilievre impression most have is the highly combative, often abrasive, politician who, as Lawton puts it, “has the habit of walking up to the line of acceptable behaviour and perhaps leaning over it a bit.” And there’s no doubting that Poilievre plays offense rather than defense, always opting to engage on his own terms rather than those of his interlocutor or opponent.

Perhaps the most famous example of the latter was last autumn’s interchange with B.C. reporter Don Urquhart, where Urquhart tried to trap him with vague allusions of extremism, only to be demolished by Poilievre’s insistent demand for specifics. The resultant video became an international social media phenomenon.

Of one thing we can be sure. Poilievre is unlikely to be caught in the tongue-tied “deer in the headlights” mode that bedevilled his immediate predecessors. Quick off the mark verbally and unapologetic, he brings a very different dynamic to the table.

He also takes the business of communication very seriously, writing his own lines and framing his arguments in terms his target audience can easily relate to. Although “authentic and full of conviction … every decision he makes – even the most mundane – is the product of calculation.”

Instead of building consensus by splitting the difference, Poilievre’s decision-making style involves “casting a wide net for feedback,” after which he’ll make up his own mind. Detail matters to him.

None of this necessarily implies that he’d be a popular or successful prime minister. But it does strongly suggest that he’s not to be underestimated.

When Poilievre won the leadership in 2022, lots of people believed that the Conservatives had just shot themselves in the foot electorally. One suspects that second thoughts are in order.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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