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When Sarah Morin hears the phrase “axe the tax,” what enters her mind is “freedom.”

The 41-year-old is a stay-at-home mother of two who has been using a food bank amid cost-of-living pressures.

She was among those who packed into a crammed room at a convention centre near Ottawa’s airport on Sunday to listen to Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speak.

His signature cause: The party’s long-standing vow to “axe” the Liberal government’s consumer carbon price.

With the price set to increase by $15 per tonne on April 1, Poilievre has spent the past month hosting rallies and releasing a new set of ads pressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “spike the hike.”

During his latest event, a clock projected on the wall ticked down the time remaining until the carbon price increases, as rallygoers waved “axe the tax” signs and Poilievre sported a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan.

But what do those three words actually mean to those who chant them?

“Freedom,” Morin told The Canadian Press.

“Axing the tax – it means that I have a chance, that there’s a chance that my family and I are going to survive.”

Although she has identified as a Conservative supporter in the past, Morin said she wouldn’t have turned out for an event like Sunday’s if anyone other than Poilievre was at the helm.

“I feel like he understands Canadians,” she said.

For 53-year-old John James, who said he voted Liberal when he was younger, the phrase simply means that “everything is too expensive” and signals people cannot afford to live in their homes or pay their mortgages.

A woman named Alissa, who declined to provide her last name, said the slogan refers to her income-tax payments as a minimum-wage worker who puts in more than 40 hours a week.

Another young man quipped that “axe the tax” underscores the need to bring down “the cost of clearly everything.”

That’s just a sampling of the sentiments driving voters toward Poilievre as the Liberals struggle to convince Canadians they have the affordability crisis in hand and while he has successfully turned their signature climate policy into an affordability one.

Heading into spring, Poilievre has spent much of his time outside of Parliament campaigning across the country – and on social media – to keep up momentum as he rides high in public opinion polls.

He is targeting regions where his support runs deep, like with an upcoming rally in Edmonton, where the party wants to win back two seats it lost to the Liberals and NDP in the 2021 federal vote.

But Poilievre is also chasing regions where he thinks he smells success, like in the NDP-held riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith in B.C., where a rally is scheduled for Monday. One that had been planned in Windsor, Ont., was postponed.

He also held a spate of events across Atlantic Canada.

After Liberal MPs from that region warned that people were feeling a major affordability crunch, Ottawa announced its first – and only – major carve-out to the policy.

Trudeau announced in the fall that the government would stop collecting the carbon price on home heating oil for three years. Most households in the region rely on it.

Poilievre’s on-the-road campaign approach has grown more sophisticated, of late.

Before the event in Ottawa, the party pushed out a robocall message from Poilievre himself to locals’ phones. It followed up with a text message prompting people to provide their emails and postal codes.

Collecting names through petitions is a key feature of Poilievre’s political machinery.

Trudeau himself, along with other ministers, has acknowledged his success in tapping into people’s fears and anxieties and directing that toward the government’s signature climate policy.

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada, believes the fight Poilievre is waging is an unfair one baked in “half-truths” about carbon pricing.

He said he tried to attend one of Poilievre’s rallies in Toronto, but he was tossed by security for holding up a Greenpeace banner.

The Conservative approach is full of missing pieces, said Stewart, like the fact climate change itself ends up costing Canadians more because of disasters such as wildfires and drought.

Not to mention, he added, that Canadians also get money back through quarterly rebate cheques that are more generous for low-income households.

But Stewart said the Liberals have failed to sell that part of their policy, and it can be confusing for Canadians to tell if they’ve received the payments.

“The Liberals have done a terrible job communicating.”

Last month, the Liberals announced they were attempting to remedy that by rebranding the quarterly payments as the “Canada Carbon Rebate” instead of the “Climate Action Incentive.”

Poilievre has mocked the “rebrand” and tried to make trouble for the Liberals in Parliament.

He forced a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons over carbon pricing last week. It was unsuccessful. The NDP and Bloc Quebecois both support the policy.

The move prompted Stewart and other environmental groups to sign an open letter against politicians “shamelessly exploiting Canadians’ very real economic pain for political gain.”

This week, it was economists’ turn.

A group of economists from universities across the country released an open letter expressing support for carbon pricing as an example of an economically sensible policy to cut greenhouse-gas emissions at a “low cost” to Canadians and businesses.

“Unfortunately, the most vocal opponents of carbon pricing are not offering alternative policies to reduce emissions and meet our climate goals,” it reads.

“And they certainly aren’t offering any alternatives that would reduce emissions at the same low cost as carbon pricing.”

The letter, signed by a little more than 100 academics as of Tuesday afternoon, doesn’t mention Poilievre by name, but tries to debunk some of his frequent claims about the carbon price.

Poilievre is not alone in his opposition. Seven provincial leaders, including New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs and Saskatchewan’s Moe, are asking Trudeau to forgo the April 1 increase.

Trudeau wrote to them on Tuesday saying they not have provided credible alternatives for fighting climate change that would meet the federal standard.

A recent report from the Canadian Climate Institute shows that while Trudeau’s consumer carbon price is expected to have some impact in reducing emissions, the price for industrial emitters will have much greater impact.

Poilievre hasn’t yet said whether he plans to touch that plank of the policy.

Kate Harrison, a vice-chair at Summa Strategies and conservative activist, said she thinks that barring no major economic shifts, Poilievre will continue with his attacks through the next federal election, which must happen no later than 2025.

He has conviction, she suggested in a recent interview.

“There was a real reluctance with previous Conservative leaders to take a hard line on this because, frankly, Canadians still care about environmental issues.”

Previous leader Erin O’Toole, who took the helm after a 2019 campaign in which Tories were dogged by questions about climate change, proposed a Conservative version of carbon pricing – much to the dismay of his caucus and the party’s base.

High inflation had not been a factor in the 2019 race, said Fred DeLorey, who ran the Tories’ subsequent 2021 campaign.

It’s the perfect backdrop – and the perfect timing – for Poilievre to drive a wedge on consumer carbon pricing, he said.

“You’re able to tie it to the cost of everything going up. Whether it’s true or not – doesn’t matter,” he said.

It helps that Poilievre is a good public speaker, said DeLorey.

“Not anyone could pull off what he’s doing.”

– With files from Anja Karadeglija

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