Hillary Clinton, Jean Chretien take shots at Pierre Poilievre at Liberal convention

Hillary Clinton, Jean Chretien take shots at Pierre Poilievre at Liberal convention

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OTTAWA—They laughed with Jean Chretien. They cried with Hillary Clinton.

On the second night of their three-day national convention, the federal Liberal party took different kinds of inspiration from two political figures from years past on Friday. And over it all fell the shadow of the party’s prime challenger for power: Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

At the main stage for a Friday night marquee speakers line-up, former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien regaled a packed auditorium hall with tales from his decades in politics that stretch back to his first election in 1963. As a living link to the eras of Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the 89-year-old Chretien drew laughter and applause with stories about climbing a fence with U.S. President Bill Clinton, and how he wanted to be an architect until his dad pushed him to law school and politics.

Chretien also spoke of wrestling with Canada’s debt when he was prime minister in the 1990s, and his role in fighting Quebec separatism in the 1995 referendum.

“Millions of Canadians were giving up on Canada,” Chretien said. “In this hour of crisis, they turned again to the Liberal party.”

When he turned to the present moment, Chretien quipped in French that Poilievre is so “negative” and right-wing that he makes former Prime Minister Stephen Harper look “reasonable.”

“No, Mr. Poilievre, Canada is not broken,” he said, quoting the Conservative leader’s disparaging slogan for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

“Canada is the land that makes the envy of the world. Canada is still the best. And vive le Canada!”

Shortly after, former U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took to the stage. She was interviewed by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose voice broke with emotion as she spoke about Clinton’s narrow loss to Donald Trump when she almost became the first woman elected U.S. president.

Clinton was quick to return the praise, describing the Liberals as a progressive “trailbreaker” with policies in government like national child care.

In a conversation that touched on subjects like feminist economic policy, the challenge of a more assertive China, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Clinton also spoke of the forces of populism in the United States, embodied in many ways by the man who beat her in the presidential election in 2016, Donald Trump. And in a thinly-veiled reference to Canada’s Conservatives, Clinton said “there are forces in your own country that are trying to figure out if maybe they can tinker with the clock and maybe turn it back a little.”

“There sure are,” Freeland quipped. “I think we need to listen very carefully to Secretary Clinton’s warning.”

Freeland added later that Canadians should take it seriously when Poilievre promises to abolish the CBC or fire the independent governor of the country’s central bank, people should take that seriously.

“It could happen here, but we’re not going to let it happen,” Freeland said.

Earlier in the day, Poilievre’s name was being muttered in conversations all around the convention centre in downtown Ottawa. Some admitted he seems a worthy adversary, perhaps the toughest Conservative leader the party has faced since Stephen Harper. Others predicted Canadians will turn away from his argument that Canada is “broken” under the Liberal government.

The Conservative leader responded to such criticism in a video posted on social media Friday. In it, Poilievre argued the Liberal government — and Trudeau in particular — is out of touch with the Canadian population, and that the country needs a dose of “common sense” to lower taxes and remove burdensome regulations to create jobs and speed up resource development.

He also accused the Liberals of wanting to legalize crack, cocaine and heroin, and of travelling abroad at the taxpayers’ expense.

“Canada must feel foreign to you with how much time you spend abroad,” Poilievre said. “I’m here relying on the common sense of the common people, united for our common home.”

For Steve MacKinnon, the Liberal government’s chief whip in the House of Commons, the next federal election will be a battle of “values” — with the Liberals defending Canadian institutions against what the Liberals argue is Poilievre’s “far right” populism.

“What we’re seeing is two very starkly different versions of how we build a country,” he said.

“They don’t believe in institutions. They don’t believe government is there to do good. They don’t believe in the tools that governments possess to fill our lives with culture, to seek out new investment, to alter markets such that our climate can repair itself. Those are all beliefs that Liberals hold very closely and hold very dear to their heart. Mr. Poilievre rejects all of it.”

If it wasn’t clear before, by Friday evening it was obvious that the Liberals want to frame the next campaign — and their Conservative opponent — as a troubling Canadian iteration of the populist right that has appeared in countries around the world in recent years.

During a panel discussion on the 2021 federal election campaign, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly accused Poilievre of “importing” the “extremist rhetoric” of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement. She referred to Poilievre’s criticism of the World Economic Forum as a summit of global elitists as a “dog whistle” to conspiracy theorists. And linking the Conservatives to “all these far right movements” will be vital for the next federal campaign, she said.

“It’s important that we make clear that the choice is stark.”

With files from Susan Delacourt

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