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Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks at a news conference outside the West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Aug. 1.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Near the end of July, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre paced a rally stage in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., showing off his summer makeover: no glasses, grey pants, a white henley shirt with the sleeves pushed up, but still with the expensive-looking shoes.

He was in full what-a-nice-young-man mode, cracking cheesy jokes that the crowd ate up, mocking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and flexing about how everything would be better if he took the top job.

Mr. Poilievre had drawn a good crowd of about 400 and opened with a classic campaign-style anecdote. A local waitress ran over to give him a big hug that morning, he said, and she ordered him to “Get him out, get in there and fix this” – meaning the various ways in which Mr. Trudeau was laying waste to the country.

Later in his remarks, Mr. Poilievre returned to this waitress to make a point about the burden of taxes and benefits clawbacks.

”I don’t know her personal story, but let’s say that she has three kids,” he said. “And let’s say that she earns $60,000, 25 bucks an hour.” At this point, several people even in that extremely friendly audience made little strangled noises of surprise and confusion, the human equivalent of a record-scratch sound effect.

A waitress in a blue-collar Northern Ontario city pulling down a cool $60,000 a year? The median income of everyone in Sault Ste. Marie – including the lawyers, the doctors, the teachers and all the people who work in the service industry or manufacturing jobs like Algoma Steel – was $40,800 in 2020. The average annual income of people working in the food service industry across Canada was $21,175 last year.

Outtakes from a ‘kinder, gentler’ Pierre Poilievre’s efforts to flip the script

It would be as churlish to make a big thing out of a minor gaffe like that as it would be to point out that Mr. Poilievre began making $141,200 as a 25-year-old MP in 2004 and now makes $287,400, so perhaps his voter narratives are graded on a curve.

Or rather, it would be cheap to point out such discrepancies – if Mr. Poilievre didn’t keep saying out-of-touch or insulting things as he wages his chosen game of class warfare.

A week earlier, in trying to make a point about housing, he asked why it cost $550,000 in Niagara Falls to buy a “tiny little shack,” and even gave the address of this supposedly decrepit abode. As it turned out, a real person lived there and she found his remarks “a little embarrassing” for reasons we can all understand.

What’s more, her house was a perfectly lovely 1.5-storey postwar home that would not look at all odd or shack-like to many, many Canadians – especially the working-class people Mr. Poilievre keeps fetishizing. Sault Ste. Marie, which is where I grew up, is home to entire blocks lined with identical houses, and many in that crowd of political admirers would have left a house exactly like that to attend his rally.

Back in May at an airport, Mr. Poilievre recorded a selfie video that can only be described as deeply weird. “I just had a great weekend, meeting with the common people, listening to their common sense. I just want to remind everyone politics is supposed to be a blue-collar job. Check out these boots,” he said into the lens, before panning toward his blurry and apparently muddy feet.

“That’s what it’s like to be out with the people, in the rain, attending their festivals, listening to their stories, hearing their dreams.”

If I know anything about the working class, it’s that they constantly refer to themselves, in the manner of a particularly cringey museum exhibit, as “common people” who delight in primitive “festivals.” And they absolutely view dirty boots as something to preen about, like an especially successful Halloween costume.

But the bigger problem with Mr. Poilievre’s class tourism is this: He has grasped a real thing that is simmering just below a boil. Too many people feel like they can’t afford any sort of reasonable life or even pin the hopes of such a thing to their children. And many people – some included in the group above, some not – feel ignored, maligned and scolded by the current federal government.

But in seizing on those feelings without an evident shred of real empathy, perspective or authenticity, Mr. Poilievre seems to see them as smouldering embers of resentment to be fanned for his own purposes, rather than a set of real problems in need of solving.

My dad – Northern Ontario working-class smarts through and through – once told me: “Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink or swear.” That advice isn’t really about alcohol and cursing. What it means is that you should be careful around someone who refuses to let down their guard, who keeps their true self bottled up in the packaging they want you to see.

What it also means is that so-called common people are not idiots. They know very well when they’re being patronized – or when someone is pretending.

And they deserve something better than being patted on the head and treated like cardboard cut-outs by someone who claims to understand the very real stresses in their life.

With a report from Rick Cash

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