Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sharpened his attack on his chief rival Thursday as he tried to rally his caucus for the upcoming parliamentary sitting.
Liberal MPs are holding three days of caucus meetings in Ottawa to plan for the return of the House of Commons, and to shore up party morale after months of polls that suggest as many as half of them would lose their seats if an election were held today.
That morale-building includes fighting back with more vigour against the Conservatives and leader Pierre Poilievre, whose pointed attacks on Trudeau as being out of touch with the real problems Canadians are facing have been successful.
In a 30-minute speech to the full caucus Thursday afternoon, Trudeau mentioned Poilievre at least nine times by name, and his party at least 10 times.
“Let’s remember that on the things that matter deeply in the daily lives of Canadians, Pierre Poilievre and his team voted against the Canada Child Benefit, the Canada Dental Care benefit,” Trudeau said.
“They voted against $10-a-day child care and voted against programs for seniors.”
Trudeau also moved to link Poilievre to the rhetoric of U.S. right-wing TV personality Tucker Carlson, who gave speeches at events in Calgary and Edmonton this week.
Carlson has been vocal in supporting Russia over Ukraine, a position also appearing more frequently from Republicans and supporters of Donald Trump.
Trudeau and the Liberals have been linking Poilievre and the Conservatives to that stance, following Poilievre’s decision in November to vote against an update to Canada’s free trade agreement with Ukraine.
“My very first call this year was with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who wanted to know that Canada still stood with him, that Canadians still stood with him,” Trudeau said.
“And I told him yes, we do. The Canadian government and most of the parties in the House will continue to stand with him. But Pierre Poilievre and his Conservatives chose to vote against support for Ukraine, calling it a faraway foreign land to appease (Vladimir) Putin apologists like Tucker Carlson and those who enable him.”
Before Trudeau spoke, four of his cabinet ministers appeared together to deliver harsh words about Carlson’s Canadian appearances and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s decision to help promote them.
Carlson made what Liberals said was a homophobic joke about Trudeau, and accused Smith of promoting violence for asking Carlson to put Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in his “crosshairs.”
The Liberals demanded Poilievre condemn the remarks.
“He wants to be prime minister of this country,” said Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez. “What happened last night is not acceptable. Is he going to condemn them?”
The Liberals have been running ads and attacking Poilievre for bringing the politics of Donald Trump and his “Make American Great Again”, or MAGA, rhetoric, to Canada.
When asked if Poilievre had any reaction to the comments, his spokesman, Sebastian Skamski, called the Liberals “desperate.”
“Justin Trudeau and his out of touch Liberals are yet again twisting themselves in knots to distract from the hurt and suffering they are inflicting on Canadians after eight years in power,” Skamski said.
“With millions of Canadians forced to rely on food banks and more and more middle class people driven into homelessness, Trudeau and his desperate Liberal ministers will say anything in an attempt to distract Canadians and hope they forget about the misery caused by Liberal policies.”
The Tories have said they stand by Ukraine and voted against the free trade bill because it includes language on promoting carbon pricing.
Ukraine has had its own carbon price in place for several years. The free trade deal update legislation included a clause calling on both Canada and Ukraine to promote carbon pricing.
The Liberals see the Conservative vote against the Ukraine bill as a major weak spot for Poilievre and it helped bring some fire back to the caucus before Christmas.
Many Liberals said Thursday on their way into the meeting that they feel optimistic and believe strongly they can recover from the poll slump.
“I think we start comparing our vision for Canada, the Liberal vision for Canada with the Conservative vision for Canada, which is simply to cut, cut, cut, and lead Canada into a depression,” said Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal.
But the caucus retreat got off to a rocky start when Newfoundland and Labrador MP Ken McDonald said he wanted Trudeau to undergo a leadership review.
McDonald walked back that call quickly, and no other Liberals jumped up to join it. But the move still had bite.
“It’s not helpful if we’re being brutally honest,” said Ontario MP Chris Bittle.
He said he did not support a leadership review and was glad McDonald had retracted.
Liberal whip Ruby Sahota said she had spoken to McDonald but wouldn’t reveal what she said or if she asked him to retract his leadership review request.
As the Liberal caucus met, former justice minister David Lametti announced his decision to leave public office. When he was shuffled out of cabinet last July, Lametti pledged he would run for re-election but ultimately changed his mind.
“This period has been challenging personally, as one might imagine, and I sincerely believe that after eight intense years, constituents of LaSalle-Emard-Verdun — and I am one of them — would benefit from a change of voice and style,” he said in a statement.
The Liberals did give Trudeau a standing ovation as he arrived, but perhaps a clear sign of fatigue and wariness in the troops was the failed attempt to get a chant started calling for “four more years.”
A handful of MPs joined in but were mostly drowned out by others who were clapping, as the chant attempt sputtered and died a quick death.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2024.