A truckload of symbolism: Why Pierre Poilievre and other Conservatives are steering into the power of the pickup

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As a country-music-sounding guitar riff plays in the background, the salt-and-pepper-haired man in the faded plaid shirt opens the door to his vehicle, the camera moving just enough to show it’s a truck he’s getting into.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/04/2022 (230 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As a country-music-sounding guitar riff plays in the background, the salt-and-pepper-haired man in the faded plaid shirt opens the door to his vehicle, the camera moving just enough to show it’s a truck he’s getting into.

Throughout the 45-second video, other white men in reflective vests, hard hats and protective goggles, shake his hand and smile. The truck — a dark blue Dodge Ram — comes more fully into view. A lone woman appears once, blurred in the background of a boardroom scene.

The star of this clip is Scott Aitchison, MP for the riding of Parry Sound—Muskoka. He’s running to be leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and this is his campaign launch video.

Justin Tang Jonathan Mains, who relies on his pickup truck for his work as a carpenter, stands in front of his truck in Lanark, Ont, on Friday, April 22, 2022. He says talk of a tax on pickups got his attention, because such a levy would be an affront to his way of life. ‘Already there’s a bit of stigma about being a blue-collar worker that you kind of have to overcome.’

The co-star might just be Aitchison’s pickup truck.

The pickup has emerged as a symbol in Canadian politics — an emblem of sorts for a group of voters said to feel cast aside. Conservatives, observers say, are using it to drive home a message they hope will earn them political favour.

Mitch Heimpel, director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada and a former ministry chief of staff within Premier Doug Ford’s government, says Aitchison’s recent ad is intended to speak to a cohort Heimpel calls “Mark’s Work Warehouse voters.”

They’re farmers, carpenters, electricians and other blue-collar workers. They’re men who work with their hands. They shower at the end of the day instead of at the beginning, in the words of some. They generally resent the governing Liberals and feel they are out of touch.

Last week, Conservative politicians latched onto a Toronto Sun column warning that the Liberals were going to tax pickup trucks. (The levy in question was not a government policy, but a recommendation by an independent climate panel.)

After Kris Sims, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said in the pages of the Sun that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would charge people who own a Ford F-150 $1,000 and drivers of the more substantial Ram 3500 a whopping $4,000, politicians such as Alberta and Saskatchewan premiers Jason Kenney and Scott Moe, and federal Conservative leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre swung their support behind pickups and those who drive them.

“First Trudeau imposes a carbon tax. Then he hikes his carbon tax — after saying he wouldn’t — to make driving more expensive. Now he wants to slap thousands in new taxes on anyone who buys a truck,” Poilievre tweeted on April 13.

The fee the Conservatives are referring to is actually a Harper-era green levy on cars, SUVs and vans with higher-than-average fuel consumption. It was enacted in 2007, and it’s never applied to pickups — though last month a Net Zero Advisory Body, created by Liberal legislation in 2021, recommended it be extended to them.

The Liberals said they have no plans to act on this suggestion. Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault slammed talk of a truck tax as “fear mongering.”

But observers say these types of messages, true or not, mobilize a group of Canadians who feel their way of life is threatened by the current government.

Many of them traditionally vote Conservative. Some of them do not. But in this moment, with Canadians more concerned than ever about soaring living costs, Tories such as Poilievre may have a chance to win them over.

“(Poilievre) is telling a large group of voters: ‘Your chances of prosperity, your way of life is getting harder, is getting more expensive or is under attack,’” Heimpel says.

It’s a message that’s reaching even those who aren’t particularly active politically, because it’s one they “culturally feel.”

The pickup-driving demo is a big target. More and more Canadians are opting for bigger cars and, in the past decade, sales of trucks and SUVs have been more than double those of smaller vehicles, with monthly truck sales frequently surpassing 100,000 in the spring and summer months.

In fact, the Ford F-Series has been Canada’s best-selling automobile for more than 50 years. Last year, second place went to the Ram pickup.

But more than just a tool for hauling lumber or battling gravel roads, the pickup truck is a symbol: for rural life, for gritty, honest work, for rugged masculinity.

For some, it’s everything Trudeau isn’t. And some Tories see that as an opportunity.

It’s worth noting the pickup as a symbol of the working class is more about culture than it is about economics. Trucks aren’t cheap: This year’s F-150 fleet ranges from around $36,000 for the most basic car to more than $90,000 for the top-of-the-line F-150 “Raptor.”

Jonathan Mains has always been a “Conservative guy.” But in the past couple of years, the Carleton Place carpenter says he’s found himself checking out of politics because they stressed him out too much. Poilievre’s got him interested again, he says.

In contrast to Trudeau, who Mains says panders to people living in cities and riding public transit, Mains said he feels like Poilievre gets out there and engages with people like him.

Mains drives a black F-150: “I make a living out of my truck.”

It was on Poilievre’s Facebook page where Mains first heard the talk of a truck tax, which for him wouldn’t just be an added expense but an affront to his way of life.

“Already there’s a bit of stigma about being a blue-collar worker that you kind of have to overcome,” he said.

“People make some assumptions around blue collar-workers … if you swing a hammer or you’re a plumber or an electrician for a living, you struggled in high school, you didn’t do post-secondary, you’re not an academic. Maybe you got into rough things or have rough habits.”

Taxing trucks would be yet another “roadblock” for sectors already struggling to attract workers, he said. He hadn’t seen news reports debunking the notion that the Liberals planned to tax pickups.

A recent poll found “blue-collar workers” feel more respected and in demand than before the pandemic, with two-thirds saying they believe COVID-19 has changed how people view the people who “kept shelves stocked, continued making deliveries, produced essential products, and more.” However, recent Statistics Canada data shows job vacancies in industries such as construction, manufacturing and transportation and warehousing are rising.

The pickup-truck motif is one past Conservative candidates have leaned into. Kenney, who famously drives a blue Dodge Ram, began his career in Alberta politics driving around the province to build support for the merging of its two conservative parties.

Criticisms of pickups by urbanites who say they’re too big, too loud, too bad for the environment have further built resentment among rural Canadians, who argue those in cities don’t understand rural life.

Jennifer Magee has seen these feelings build in her own community. A former GTA resident who moved to Northbrook, Ont., to live with family after her landlord evicted her to renovate six months ago, she said she feels city folk underestimate the extent to which people in rural areas need trucks.

“It’s not a luxury up here,” she said. Driving around the unpaved back roads of her community, “You need something that’s going to be able to go a little bit off road, because that’s just how it is.”

Magee has watched as people in her community have faced the weight of rising living costs and housing prices, fostering a sense that someone else is profiting off their labour.

“They’re having a hard time paying gas and insurance, as it is … people are struggling up here,” she said. “There’s this attitude up here that the government isn’t totally helping them.”

Magee said online misinformation feeds resentment of people in power and immigrants — many in her town supported the so-called Freedom Convoy.

Pickup trucks are being used by Tories as a “partisan tool,” says Melanee Thomas, political scientist at the University of Calgary.

“It’s very much like, if you’re one of us, you’ll have a truck, and Justin Trudeau’s not one of us, which is why he’s taxing your truck.”

Trudeau, with his tailored suit, shiny hair and high-class upbringing, could seem the perfect foil to pickup drivers. Prime ministers are not allowed to drive and are chauffeured; Trudeau’s team would not say if he has ever owned a pickup, but in a 2010 interview with Wheels.ca he described buying his first car, for $5,000, at 27: a 1972 gold Mercedes-Benz 280 SE.

Casting Trudeau as an enemy of the pickup truck is grounded in broader criticisms of the prime minister as being too feminine, Thomas said, something federal Conservatives have long played into. (In 2015, they ran a series of ads criticizing Trudeau’s competence with the tag line “nice hair, though.”)

It is impossible to separate the truck from the man who drives it. Thomas says Aitchison’s clip feeds into traditional beliefs about gender and work. (Think back to the lack of women in it.)

You don’t need to own a truck to be pulled in by this type of political communication, Thomas says — and owning one doesn’t mean you will be.

“In order for this kind of truck ad to work, people have to find aspects of the truck salient to their identity, and that’s those ideas of masculinity and gendered attitudes and things like that.”

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