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‘One of the biggest mistakes of his political career’: New book details what happened when Pierre Poilievre crossed Stephen Harper

May 23, 2024

Harper feared a revolt in his caucus when he decided to go ahead with compensation for residential school survivors, new book reveals.

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“Pierre Poilievre: A Political Life” by Andrew Lawton was released on May 22, 2024.Sutherland House Books

Toronto Star: OTTAWA — Stephen Harper feared a revolt in his Conservative caucus when, as prime minister, he decided to go ahead with compensation for residential school survivors, a newly published book reveals.

That’s part of the reason why Pierre Poilievre got in such hot water in 2008 when he made disparaging remarks about Indigenous people and questioned the point of the payments, writes journalist Andrew Lawton in his new book “Pierre Poilievre, A Political Life.”

Poilievre’s comments in a radio interview came just hours before Harper rose in the House of Commons to deliver a landmark apology to Indigenous people for the creation of the residential school system.

Just four years into his career as an MP at the time, Poilievre’s remarks cast an immediate pall over the historic moment, and drew calls for his resignation. 

Poilievre was dressed down internally, but members of Harper’s innermost circle at the time told Lawton that Harper’s fury was also proactive. 

The apology “was a big, big, big moment,” Ian Brodie, who served as Harper’s chief of staff, told Lawton. 

“Harper had already told caucus, ‘Look, there’s going to be pieces of stuff that not everybody is happy with, but I’ve decided we need to do this in order to get onto other things. We’ve got to draw this issue to a close.”

Lawton goes on to quote Brodie suggesting Poilievre was aligned with a “good chunk” of the Western caucus, whose members weren’t happy with the payment package. 

“I think everybody understood that there was unhappiness in caucus and, God knows, unhappiness in the (Prime Minister’s Office) about setting a precedent for something like the common experience payment” — a lump-sum payment that recognizes the experience of living at a residential school and its impacts— ”but it was the threat that the whole deal was going to come apart if it looked like we had a caucus revolt on this.”

Here are some key takeaways from the first book-length look at a man who could be well on the road to becoming Canada’s next prime minister. 

Lawton writes that some inside Harper’s caucus were uncomfortable with the payments — which had been agreed to by the previous Liberal government — because they believed some people actually enjoyed and benefited from the residential school program.

The payments were part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which flowed from a class-action lawsuit filed against the government by residential school survivors.

In addition to the apology, the agreement mandated the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It would go on to hear thousands of hours of testimony from more than 6,000 women and men who were physically, sexually and mentally abused at the schools over the 100 years of their existence. Upwards of 3,500 children died at the schools, a toll that is still being tabulated.

To this day, Poilievre’s 2008 remarks continue to bubble up in conversations about how the Conservative leader might guide the country’s relationship with Indigenous people if he becomes Canada’s next prime minister.

In the 2008 interview, he referred to the money Indigenous communities make from resource development on their lands, and the money the federal government was already giving them at the time, and wondered aloud where it was all going.

“That is an incredible amount of money. Now, along with this apology comes another four billion in compensation for those who partook in the residential schools over those years. Now, you know, some of us are starting to ask, ‘Are we really getting value for all of this money, and is more money really going to solve the problem?’” he said, according to a transcript published in the book.

“My view is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self-reliance. That’s the solution in the long run. More money will not solve it.”

Criticism of his remarks was as swift as it was fierce. Indigenous leaders were appalled, saying his remarks were insensitive, perpetuated stereotypes about Indigenous people and completely discounted the impact of the trauma inflicted by the residential school system.

Poilievre tried to clarify his comments in a statement before ultimately rising in the House of Commons to apologize for them.

“Yesterday, on a day when the House and all Canadians were celebrating a new beginning, I made remarks that were hurtful and wrong,” he said at the time. “I accept responsibility for them and I apologize.”

In his book, Lawton calls Poilievre’s 2008 interview one of the “biggest mistakes of his political career,” and reports that afterwards, although he didn’t lose his position as a parliamentary secretary, he was kept out of question period and the limelight so as not to attract further attention.

Lawton also quotes a former unnamed aide to Poilievre as saying that despite Harper’s concern of a caucus revolt, Poilievre wasn’t trying to stir up trouble.

“I’m sure he had thought about what he was going to say — I don’t think it was an off-the-cuff comment, but I do not believe that he appreciated how controversial it would be,” Lawton quotes the aide as saying.

“That was a learning moment.”

Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz.