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Conservative leadership hopeful Pierre Poilievre takes part in a debate at the Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference in Ottawa on May 5.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Stephen Harper’s public endorsement of Pierre Poilievre as the next leader of the Conservative Party means very little, but also a lot.

Very little, because Mr. Poilievre probably had the leadership sewn up even without the former prime minister’s imprimatur.

A lot, because Mr. Harper is clearly hoping to preserve party unity and win over uncommitted voters in support of a candidate he believes has a clear shot at becoming prime minister.

But for that to happen, Mr. Poilievre must square a circle. He opposes mandatory vaccinations, a policy that during the pandemic saved many thousands of lives, perhaps including yours.

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Mr. Poilievre is going to have to offer a convincing explanation for that opposition, if he wants to become prime minister. Simply saying it’s all about “freedom” won’t cut it.

One reason Mr. Harper publicly endorsed Mr. Poilievre was to make absolutely certain that Jean Charest never leads the party. The former Quebec premier is ideologically too much of a wet, as the late Margaret Thatcher used to say, for Mr. Harper’s liking.

He may also want to reassure anyone who supported him, but who is wondering whether Mr. Poilievre is too ideologically extreme, that he believes the Carleton MP can be trusted to lead the country.

In truth, most of Mr. Poilievre’s policies aren’t that extreme. He would fire the Governor of the Bank of Canada. If your salary is flatlined, even as the price of everything skyrockets, you might want Tiff Macklem fired, too.

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As for his vow to defund the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, there will be too much opposition for that to happen. And who cares about his conspiratorial mutterings about the World Economic Forum?

His opposition to the carbon tax is, sadly, no longer politically damaging. That tax is a useful tool in reducing carbon emissions, but economic issues trump environmental issues, these days.

Only in his opposition to vaccine mandates is Mr. Poilievre dangerously extreme. It is an incredibly irresponsible stand to take.

When Mr. Poilievre declared his support for the protesters who occupied Ottawa last winter, he was expressing solidarity with people who opposed the policies of the federal, provincial and municipal governments, along with most employers, who said anyone who refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19 could lose their job.

That policy was essential to contain the pandemic. And it worked.

Canada has lost just over 45,500 people, or 1,120 people per million of population, to COVID, one of the lowest rates in the developed world. The United States, which had much less rigorous vaccine enforcement and a substantially lower level of vaccination, lost 3,050 people per million of population.

There are other factors in play as well, but it is reasonable to assert that mandatory vaccination saved tens of thousands of Canadian lives that would have been lost had we adopted the more laissez-faire American approach.

In June, Mr. Poilievre introduced Bill C-278, legislation that would prohibit the federal government from imposing vaccine mandates on its employees or on travellers.

And lest you think the legislation would apply only to the current situation, he explicitly declared on Twitter that he would “scrap all vaccine mandates & ban any and all future vaccine mandates.”

Mr. Charest missed the point when he said that Mr. Poilievre disqualified himself from becoming leader because he supported an illegal protest. Politicians on the left support illegal protests all the time.

But opposing vaccine mandates is, or should be, disqualifying.

If COVID-19 came roaring back, or a new pandemic arrived, when Mr. Poilievre was prime minister, would he keep vaccinations entirely voluntary? Would he be willing to sacrifice thousands of lives in defence of what he calls freedom but most of us would call reckless and dangerous behaviour?

And if his judgment is so unsound on this all-important issue, how can we trust him on other issues?

This may not matter at election time. The pandemic may be well and truly in the rear-view mirror by then, with economic issues front and centre.

But there is the ebb and flow of politics, and then there is right and wrong. Mr. Poilievre’s stand on vaccines is so wrong that it undermines the case for his becoming prime minister. Mr. Harper’s endorsement doesn’t change that in the least.

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