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Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 15, 2022. The Ontario MP is the heavy favourite to be the next Conservative Party leader.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

“Young people want freedom from the woke control freaks in government, media and academia,” Pierre Poilievre said recently on Twitter. “That is why they are supporting my campaign to put them back in charge of their lives.”

Mr. Poilievre’s campaign for the federal Conservative leadership has been successful, and he’s now in a strong position to win the September vote. But to what extent are the many people buying into his freedom pitch aware of his track record on that very subject?

It’s pertinent to look at his record while serving in the Stephen Harper government. Mr. Harper, as many have attested, was one of the most strong-armed gatekeepers the Prime Minister’s Office has ever seen. Mr. Poilievre relished his role as one of his foremost attack dobermans.

As minister of democratic reform, he introduced the so-called Fair Elections Act, which was attacked for containing so many infringements on democratic freedoms. Among other changes, the bill proposed hardening voter identification rules via changes to vouching procedures. These would have made it more difficult for Indigenous people, students and the poor – hardly your normal Conservative supporters – to vote. The bill proposed a ban on Elections Canada ads encouraging people to vote. It also called for stripping the agency of its investigative powers, this after its probe into alleged fraudulent robocalls by the Conservatives in the 2011 election. Pressured even by members of his own party, Mr. Poilievre had to humiliatingly withdraw the bill and bring back a heavily amended version.

On the Senate expenses scandal, Mr. Poilievre was a big-time defender of the government, saying Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, was protecting taxpayers – not the government’s hide – when he surreptitiously wrote Senator Mike Duffy a personal cheque for $90,000 to cover his housing expenses.

As a backbencher Mr. Poilievre had to apologize for saying Canada’s Indigenous peoples need to learn the value of hard work more than they need compensation for the abuse they suffered in residential schools.

A major player on the Poilievre campaign team is Jenni Byrne, who was a top adviser to Mr. Harper. In an unusual move for a former prime minister – normally they like to be more circumspect for the sake of party unity – Mr. Harper has come out foursquare in support of the Poilievre candidacy despite his reputation as a polarizing figure.

Freedom of speech, something Mr. Poilievre fumes about now in respect to the Trudeau government, was anything but a hallmark of the Harper years. A major controversy erupted over the muzzling of the scientific community. Harper Conservatives went so far as to send out chaperons or minders, as they were called, to track Environment Canada scientists and report on them.

Diplomats and civil servants were also silenced to a degree not seen before. Some Conservative MPs, bitter about being kept on a short leash, protested being censored by their own party in Question Period. MP Brent Rathgeber resigned from the Conservative caucus and wrote a book, Irresponsible Government, decrying anti-democratic practices in Parliament.

The government scrapped the mandatory long-form census – the suspicion being that the social issues data it provided was not helpful to the Harper agenda.

Dirty tricks such as undercover sting operations were carried out. In one instance, PMO interns disguised as normal citizens were sent out to disrupt a Justin Trudeau speech. Human-rights agency Rights and Democracy was brutally shut down. Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission head Linda Keen was smeared and dumped. Gun registry data contradicting government policy was deliberately hidden. Reports such as a Senate committee one on the Duffy affair were mischievously altered. Lapdogs were appointed as watchdogs.

Even the freedom of the Supreme Court was infringed. Mr. Harper went after then-Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, accusing her of trying to meddle in the Conservative nomination of justices, a move she decried as putting public trust in a vital democratic institution at risk.

The Harper government was hardly unique in its ethical abuses. Mr. Trudeau has created quite a record, as did the government of Jean Chrétien, whose transgressions I extensively reported on.

But given the track record of his government, how hypocritical is it for Mr. Poilievre to be making the freedom pitch a driving imperative of his campaign?

Conservative MP Ed Fast doesn’t think much has changed. In May, he resigned as the party’s finance critic after, he says, MPs supporting Mr. Poilievre tried to “muzzle” him to keep him from speaking out about monetary policy.

Mr. Fast has a right to wonder – as do many – what a more accurate description of their front-running leadership candidate might be: freedom fighter – or control freak?

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