February 20, 2024 - 1:00pm

As the two-year anniversary of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine approaches, public support for the Western-backed Ukrainian war effort is showing signs of fracturing. This is happening visibly in the US but also now, notably, in Canada as well, where Conservative Party voters are beginning to sound the same isolationist notes as their Republican counterparts south of the border. The Canadian Tories have historically shown robust support for the transatlantic alliance and have argued for the need to “respond with strength” against Vladimir Putin’s regime. At least, that is what party leader Pierre Poilievre sounded like at the onset of the invasion; today, he appears much less certain about the case for aiding Kyiv. 

This shift is likely a reflection of the still small but growing (and increasingly vocal) minority within his own ranks who feel that the war is none of Canada’s business. According to the Angus Reid Institute, the percentage of Conservative voters from the last election “who now say Canada is doing too much to assist Ukraine, has more than doubled — from 19% […] to 43%” since May 2022. The pollster describes this as “a massive jump” in favour of a new kind of “’Canada First’ mentality”.  

Indeed, the convergence between Canadian conservatism and MAGA-ism has been building for some time now. Last month, Tucker Carlson made a pit stop in the Conservative heartland province of Alberta, met with the premier (another conservative heavyweight), before jetting off later to Moscow to meet Putin. The spread of Trumpian isolationist foreign policy sentiment, however, is a newer story.

The signs came out late last year: Poilievre raised eyebrows when he led his party in voting against a Ukraine trade deal, drifting from the multi-party consensus. The Canadian Tories claimed that their vote was against a provision imposing a carbon tax, opposition to which is the key plank of their domestic policy. However, the clause he was referring to is a non-binding one, while Ukraine has had a carbon tax since 2011. In other words, Poilievre seemed to be stretching to justify his stance.    

As if intending to counter growing suspicions of isolationism, Poilievre recently announced that the Conservatives would work toward meeting the 2% defence spending target that has eluded Canadian governments for many years. Then, last week, after the death of Alexei Navalny, Poilievre took to social media to condemn Moscow. But for a politician who has never shied away from rhetorical invective, that statement was seen by some as strangely muted: “so dishwater grey…so thin and colourless…that it stood out” (his own MPs seemed to have more to say on the significance of the matter). Exactly what message Poilievre is trying to send out to his base and to the wider world is anything but clear — and that may just be the point. 

The polls indicate that Poilievre’s Tories will form a government after the next election. Much is at stake for Ukraine and the cohesion of the Western alliance, since Ottawa has hitherto been a keystone of support for Kyiv, owing to the special relationship between the two countries. 

Canada is home to the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside of Europe, and was the first Western nation to recognise Ukrainian independence in 1991. Justin Trudeau’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is a Ukrainian-Canadian who has been at the forefront of supporting Kyiv since 2014. Since 2022, Canada has given a total of $2.4 billion in military aid, along with $352 million in humanitarian support. All this may be thrown into question once a Poilievre government takes power.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.