The existential crisis in the Conservative Party

ABOVE: (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) Conservative leadership candidates Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber, Patrick Brown, Pierre Poilievre, Leslyn Lewis, and Jean Charest.

There is an adage that perfectly fits the Conservative Party of Canada today, “‘Do You Want to Be Right . . . or do you want to win.” The answer to that question by Conservative party members from coast to coast to coast will be answered on September 10,2022 and the future of the party and Canada may well be at stake.

After almost seven years of a Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada has never been more divided. Mr. Trudeau clings to power with the support of barely 30 per cent of the electorate and has no support in Western Canada except a few seats in B.C. Yet he continues to rule as though he has a majority government because Jagmeet Singh and the NDP have pawned their core principles in a crass exchange for a power sharing deal. (Under Singh, the NDP has the support of 17 per cent of the population nationally, a substantial drop from the support they had under Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair).  

Political Turd Pill “Confidence-and-Supply Agreement”

To secure the deal, the Liberals convinced Singh and the NDP to commit to signing on to a ‘confidence-and-supply agreement’ in March 2022, just days after Prime Minister Trudeau had dictatorially imposed the Emergency Measures Act in Canada. It was a draconian, heavy handed, cavalier, and shocking abuse of power by the Trudeau government with the full support of Jagmeet Singh and the NDP who simply decided to suspend citizens’ civil rights in response to the Liberals mishandling of a trucker’s protest in Ottawa and at two major border crossings. 

The Emergencies Act (EMA) was passed in 1988 to replace the War Measures Act, which had been used to suspend civil liberties during both world wars and the 1970 October Crisis. The new act has more checks and balances than the previous one, including parliamentary oversight and a requirement to respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. By invoking the EMA, cabinet gave itself the power to enact wide-reaching orders without going through the ordinary democratic process. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said that “Using this Act, the federal government gave police increased authority to shut down peaceful protests, on any issue, right across Canada” and added, “there was an insufficient legal basis for resorting to the EMA and therefore the orders the government passed under this legislation were unconstitutional.” It has since been learned that neither the RCMP, Ottawa Police, OPP or any police asked for the EMA to be implemented.   

Deploying the EMA was an especially bitter pill for many to swallow when Trudeau himself had refused to speak or meet with the protesters, instead choosing to falsely label them all as white nationalists, racists, and misogynists. There were certainly some bad apples in the trucker protest, but many were just hardworking Canadians from blue collar industries frustrated with and tired of Covid regulations (who wasn’t). Yet the petulant, derisive and hypocritical  remarks were hard to swallow coming from Trudeau, a PM who has worn blackface himself on at least three occasions as an adult, who had groped a women when he was 28 and had to apologize for his misogynistic behaviour (after first denying it) and who had broken Covid rules on multiple occasions that he expected other Canadians to follow and has been sanctioned for ethics violations on three separate occasions in while in office.

Singh’s decision to fully support the ‘confidence-and-supply agreement’ after supporting the suspension of civil rights under the EMA came as no surprise to many pundits in the capital.  After all, Singh and the NDP had supported Trudeau’s minority government in 2019 despite the fallout from the SNC scandal, even after it was learned that former Indigenous cabinet minister Jody Wilson Raybould and Treasury Board President Jane Philpott had quit over Trudeau’s failed attempts to pressure then Justice Minister Wilson Raybould absolve SNC Lavalin of multiple corruption charges. 

The NDP continued to support Trudeau even after he was sanctioned on three separate occasions for serious ethics violations while in office. And just prior to the 2021 election Singh and the NDP had propped up the government when the WE Charity scandal blew up.  In that debacle, the Trudeau Liberals were caught trying to sole source a taxpayer funded $900-million contract to an organization that had paid members of Trudeau’s family including his mother, spouse, and brother over $600k in fees and expenses. Trudeau brushed it all off claiming he was not aware of the payments to his family.
Yet those trite matters were set aside by Jagmeet Singh in exchange for a deal to share power. In return, the  NDP and Singh received vague promises from  the Trudeau Liberals that the government would support legislation for a 10-day sick leave for workers, fund a national dental care plan, (although no details were provided), extend pharmacare support for Canadians (with no details provided), commit to more carbon taxes (no details provided) and do something about affordability and housing costs including a ‘Homebuyers Bill of Rights’ and an ‘Early Learning and Child Care Act,’ invest more in Indigenous reconciliation including supporting residential school survivors, and improve fairness in the tax system by addressing profits made by big banks during the pandemic. 

Jagmeet Singh justified it all by saying that his party is “using our power to get help to people.” Singh noted the NDP pressure on the Liberals had increased public spending on social files like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and other Covid support programs. Singh told reporters questions about the pact that “At this time, everyone I talk to, people are telling me that they need help now. And they expect politicians to deliver that help. And that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.

The problem for Singh and the NDP is that their very relevance as a party is now at stake as they have been completely co-opted by the Liberals. If the Trudeau government is involved in more scandals, controversy, or political turmoil, the NDP has committed to propping them up regardless, and that may make them a target for angry voters in the next election. 

A bigger challenge for Canada is that the Trudeau-Singh ‘confidence-and-supply agreement’ is entirely focused on even more spending combined with shutting down more of Canada’s energy sector rather than growing the Canadian economy. Invariably this means more taxes for Canadians. This has caused deep concern for “blue Liberals” (or “business Liberals”) and others in the party who feel betrayed by Trudeau. Many lifelong liberals are unhappy and feel they didn’t leave the Liberal Party, rather the Liberal party left them. They say that today there is not a real liberal party, only the “cult of Justin” where all his foibles and scandals and misbehaviors are excused as “thinking liberals” are expected to check their brains at the door or hold their noses if they don’t like the smell of these deals and shenanigans. They believe the Trudeau-Freeland approach to government has abandoned the principle espoused for decades in the Liberal party that proper fiscal governance and centrist approach to fiscal policy is key to a healthy economy and growth. 

Consider this: When Trudeau Liberals came to power in 2015, Canada had the strongest balance sheet in the G7. Today it has one of the worst. Trudeau’s Liberal government has run up the highest debt since Confederation at close to $1 trillion. To put that in perspective, the Liberals have spent more money in the past six and half years than all the governments combined since Confederation. The federal net debt rose by $253.4 billion in 2020 to reach $942.5 billion or 42.7 per cent of GDP, compared with 29.8 per cent in 2019. Financial assets for the federal government grew 13.2 per cent to $523.5 billion, while liabilities increased by 27.3 per cent to $1,466.0 billion. Canada’s relative indebtedness is among the worst in the industrialized world. In 2019, it was 86.8 per cent of GDP, which ranked 24th among 31 industrialized countries. The increase in debt in 2020 was driven primarily by massive deficits ($325 billion) generated to finance numerous relief measures, notably in the form of transfers to households and subsidies to businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the mismanagement of those programs, (including over $4 billion in CERB overpayments to non-qualified people) is said to have cost taxpayers’ tens of billions of dollars that will not be recovered. 

Robert Asselin, a vice-president at the Business Council of Canada and a former Liberal advisor has said that “We will have spent $1 trillion since 2019 and it’s not clear that we’ll be in a better position on the economic front.” Over the five years from 2019 through 2024, it is projected that Ottawa will add $1 trillion to the federal debt, well higher than the $685 billion that had been accumulated through its entire history until 2019. Another concern raised by many prominent economists and think tanks including the C.D. Howe Institute is that the Trudeau Liberal government is obsessed with redistribution of wealth instead of a plan for longer-term economic growth to get Canada going again. The Trudeau’s government plans to “build back better” coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic are largely based on increased spending on a social, environmental, and industry programs that will be funded by increased taxes including a carbon tax that is directed to general revenues and will do nothing to decrease concerns about climate change.
In the meantime, housing prices have never been higher in Canada and the dream of owning a home is now far out of reach for most young people. Gas prices in Canada are the highest they have ever been. This due to a convergence of factors including the war in Ukraine which has put pressure on international oil supply, the carbon tax, high inflation which is partially due to the Covid recovery, interest rates, and the suppression of Canada’s energy sector by the Trudeau government which has shut down pipelines and access to vast amounts of Canadian energy. Despite having huge reserves, more than half the oil used in Quebec and Atlantic Canada is imported from foreign sources including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Azerbaijan, Nigeria and Ivory Coast-and until recently Russia. In 2020, Canada spent close to $20 billion to import foreign oil. It has also spent billions of taxpayer dollars to either buy or shut down pipeline projects completely. Then there is Canada’s massive debt problem at almost $1 trillion. Oh . . . and inflation in Canada is now at a 40-year high.

The C.D. Howe Institute, Parliamentary Budget office, and Professor Ian Lee of the Sprott School of Business at Carleton have warned that business investment levels have been weak since 2015, productivity has sagged, and that the aging Canadian population continues to put more strain on the public purse. As a result of proliferated government spending, many Canadian firms have become dependent on small bursts of government subsidies, while red tape and outdated regulatory rules are impeding private investments. This combined with lax rules and oversight has made it easy for foreign companies to effortlessly acquire Canadian innovations and move jobs and tax revenues overseas. 

In an op-ed published in March, Frank Stronach, founder of Magna International Inc., one of Canada’s largest global companies, said Canada is “fairly close” to a public debt crisis and Canadians need to force politicians to rein in spending. Stronach, who once ran as federal Liberal candidate for Aurora (1988) responded to BNN Bloomberg about his op-ed. Bloomberg asked how close Canada was to a debt crisis like the one that threatened the country in the 1990s. Stronach replied: “I think close, you know, our debt rises about $400 million every day, right? So that should be a great concern.” Stronach wrote that Canada is not immune to the slide toward bankruptcy seen by other countries such as Argentina and Greece. “On the contrary, at the rate we’re going, we’re moving closer and closer toward that scenario. Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio in 2021 was approximately 109 per cent — the same percentage as Greece just a few short years before it was bailed out. In other words, the amount of money Canada owes is more than the amount we produce in goods and services. 

So, with that as a backdrop, what is the alternative? Why can’t the Official Opposition Conservative Party of Canada oust the Trudeau Liberals? It’s quite simple really. It appears candidates for the leadership of the party and party members themselves dislike each other more than they dislike the Liberals, and it is that one fact that will continue to deny them government.  

Before they have something to offer for Canadians, Conservatives will need to resolve their existential crisis and decide who they are and whether they are truly in lockstep with the Canada of today. After all, if they could not beat a political dilettante PM who has shut down much of Canada’s energy economy, implemented a carbon tax that will go into general revenues rather than to mitigate climate change, has danced around in blackface, apologized for misogyny and has suspended everyone’s civil rights on a whim and has the temerity to lecture people on Indigenous issues but then sees nothing wrong with going  to a surfing resort in Tofino on the first National Truth and Reconciliation Day to honour dead children killed in residential schools, then maybe it’s time to take a hard look at themselves and what they are offering as an alternative. If they can’t beat a government with that record, then maybe it’s time to pack it in. 

The Conservative Leadership Race

The Conservative leadership race will decide where on the party’s political spectrum conservatives will lean. “Do they go to the right? Do they stay in the centre right? Do they move more to the centre?” Conservative party members must decide if they are going to present an idea based, thoughtful, respectful, and civil alternative to the governing Liberals or will they double down on foghorn populist politics that are fueled by anger, outrage, and the belittling of opponents. 

The larger question for them is to deal with the extreme elements in their party who seem to have too much of the oxygen in the room. After all, you can’t fix stupid. But you need to deal with it. And make no mistake about it there is a lot of stupid on display in the Conservative party that is drowning out the good stuff. The real test for the Tories in this race will be whether they have adequate strategies to suppress and contain the dog-whistle politics on the fringes of the party that give oxygen to racist, bigoted, and extremist voices that they don’t need or want.

It is strangely ironic that so many tried and true Conservatives who pride themselves on being proud Canadians and on knowing much of Canada’s history, that have forgotten or suppressed their own recent history. Stephen Harper had a good run, but his prickly public persona eventually waned on people and as a result Canadians pivoted and went with the ‘Sunny Ways’ narrative of Justin Trudeau in 2015. 

The deathblow for the Conservatives in that election was their cold response to horrific photos of a dead boy on a Turkish beach — the images of Alan Kurdi were splashed on news platforms around the world — focusing attention on the Syrian refugee crisis and on a single family whose hopes for emigration to be with relatives in Canada ended in sorrow. The family had bought passage on a boat that overturned. Two of the children drowned: Ghalib Kurdi, five, and Alan Kurdi, three, whose body was photographed on the beach by a journalist. Their mother, Rehanna, also drowned but her distraught husband, Abdullah, survived. The Conservatives had said they had committed to allowing 10,000 Syrian refugees into Canada but had let in only a few hundred. 

Obtuse comments from then Immigration Minister Chris Alexander only made things worse. By the time Stephen Harper acknowledged in an emotional voice that as a father he found the photo of a dead boy on the Turkish beach to be “heartbreaking,” and tried to defend his actions as prime minister, it was too late. There was a view that the Tories were heartless. In response, Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair promised to dramatically increase Syrian refugee numbers. A subsequent Liberal majority government seemed to be proof of support for the policy. Harper was out.

In the lead up to the 2019 election then Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer spent months legitimately haranguing Trudeau and the Liberals about transparency and accountability over multiple issues. However, Scheer would not give a clear answer on his views on the LGBTQ community. Suspicions about Scheer’s transparency and real agenda became more evident when it was learned that Scheer was a dual American citizen. Many were surprised by the revelation, yet when asked why he had never disclosed it, Scheer responded that no one had asked him.

In the 2021 election Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole became evasive and would not answer questions about Covid or how he felt about Jason Kenny’s disastrous response in the summer of 2021 to Covid in Alberta. Instead, he avoided the questions and the media asking them. His trustworthiness took a big hit. He lost the election and soon after, he was toast.

It was only 29 years ago that the Tories shot themselves in the head in the 1993 election when they ran an ad campaign making fun of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s facial palsy. It was a deplorable, nasty, and mean-spirited move, only made worse by the fact that the Conservative brain trust running the campaign did not think anything was wrong with it. In fact, many thought it was funny. That thoughtless act led to the complete annihilation of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada who had successfully governed under Brian Mulroney for almost a decade. In one swoop, they went from 169 to two seats. The lone survivor was the amiable and intelligent Jean Charest who had distanced himself as much as he could from the gong show and came out with his dignity intact. There is a lesson there. 

Populist conservative reformer Preston Manning made gains in the 1993 election at the expense of the Progressive Conservative Party and won 57 seats for the Reform Party. But he would never win the government. There is a lesson there too.

In 1993 the Conservatives were told in blunt terms by millions of Canadians what was acceptable and what was not. Nastiness and mean-spiritedness were rejected outright. It was a harsh lesson, and it would take over a decade for Stephen Harper, Peter McKay, Preston Manning, and others to rebuild the Conservative brand in Canada and bring it back to governance. But the Tories would lose it all again in 2015 because they came off as pricks at the wrong moment. 

The message back then is the same as it is today. Be civil. So, it should come as no surprise that several polls in recent months have shown a strong and consistent dissatisfaction with Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government. These same polls also show that most Canadians want a more socially progressive and economically centrist, Conservative Party. However, the problem for Conservatives may be that many of them are not where most Canadians are, and that could be their undoing. 

Some candidates in the Conservative leadership race are not focused on civility, believing they have righteousness on their side. Their beliefs are motivated by a ‘moral imperative,’ and a conviction that they are right. Their opponents, whether it the Liberals or even a fellow leadership candidate are not seen as adversaries to be respected, they are enemies. This may play well within some circles, but history has shown it is not a winning formula.

ABOVE: The Spring/Summer 2022 cover of Ottawa Life Magazine's print issue features the illustration "Food Fight" by John Fraser Art & Illustration.

Carpet Bombs and Grenades — You can teach people everything except how to get along 

It was a chilling start to a leadership race. On May 11, Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber, Jean Charest, Leslyn Lewis, and Pierre Poilievre all took to the stage at Ottawa’s Shaw Centre. (Patrick Brown would join in future debates). Within minutes Pierre Poilievre had eviscerated Jean Charest and accused Patrick Brown of lying even though Brown was not at the debate. Poilievre said Brown and Charest were not “True Conservatives” and insinuated that they had in some way betrayed Conservatives and by extension party principles. He suggested that Charest is keen to impose taxes, referencing the fact that as Premier of Quebec, Charest had raised the sales tax and brought in a carbon tax. 
Poilievre attacked Charest for his work in the private sector, including providing advice to Chinese telecom company Huawei on the Meng Wanzhou case, while Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were in jail. He would not even consider acknowledging that Charest’s work behind the scenes as a lawyer helped secure the release of the two Michaels and end the saga. 

Pierre Poilievre was first elected to Parliament in Ottawa's Nepean-Carleton, in 2004, at the age of 24. Since then, he has been re-elected in seven consecutive elections in the Ottawa area. He served as a Parliamentary Secretary to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and was minister for democratic reform from 2013 to 2015 and minister of employment and social development in 2015. Over the past 19 years he has honed his skills to become one of the most capable MPs in the House of Commons and is an exceptional debater and critic. An effective Opposition MP, Poilievre has been a constant thorn in the side of the Trudeau Liberal government and has exposed more government corruption and scandal than any other MP. He is smart, quick on his feet and has a self-deprecating sense of humour that is especially effective in small gatherings. 

Poilievre says he is running to be ‘Prime Minister of Canada’. He describes himself as a low-tax, low-inflation candidate. His pitch is that Canadians are worried about their freedom, and he claims the invasive restrictions put on them by the Trudeau government in response to Covid have invaded their privacy and rights and adversely affected their lives. He says job security, high taxation, affordable housing, and affordability in general, community safety and managing inflation are all areas where an increasingly autocratic Justin Trudeau is failing Canadians. He believes that these issues combined with the trillion-dollar debt rung up by the free spending Liberals under Trudeau’s big government agenda are leading Canada down a path that is undermining the very future of the country. 

Poilievre’s campaign has targeted disaffected conservatives and blue-collar workers like those who supported Doug Ford in the recent Ontario election. Generally, people who distrust public servants and politicians and who are unhappy with what they claim is too much government in their lives. Poilievre refers to them as ‘gatekeepers’ and his solution is to have a smaller government, fewer rules and regulations and give people more ‘freedom’. 

Poilievre says he will reduce taxes and regulations, develop Canada’s energy resources, abolish the carbon tax, balance the federal budget, combat inflation by containing wasteful spending, protect civil liberties including freedom of speech, oppose internet censorship, counter Trudeau’s wokism, defend Canada’s history, rebuild the military, and defund the CBC. In one of his more controversial statements at a leadership debate in Edmonton in May, Poilievre said he would fire the Governor of the Bank of Canada Tiff Macklem, accusing him of being an ATM for Trudeau’s deficit spending and of fueling inflation. He added that those who caused the soaring post-pandemic inflation rate must be held accountable. “I would replace him with a new governor who would reinstate our low-inflation mandate, protect the purchasing power of our dollar, and honour the working people who earned those dollars.”  

David Dodge, the Bank of Canada’s governor from 2001 to 2008, publicly rebuked Poilievre for his comment in an email to BNN Bloomberg over his threat to fire Macklem if he takes office and noted that the Bank of Canada’s independence is enshrined insofar as being “charged with making the operational decisions.” It was the second time in two weeks that Dodge had admonished Poilievre. On May 8, Evan Solomon asked Dodge on CTV’s Question Period about Poilievre’s comments claiming that the central bank is “financially illiterate.” “That’s bull—-. I’m very insulted by that,” Dodge said. 
The harsh attack on both Macklem and Jean Charest coming from Poilievre seemed a bit rich. As smart as he is . . . and he is very capable and highly intelligent, his critics argue that he has lived in the bubble of being an MP his entire adult life. They note that he was elected at 24 and qualified for his full parliamentary pension at age 30. Now at 42 — after living off a parliamentary paycheck for almost two decades, he was literally dumping on a person with an impressive and dizzying resume both in and out of government, a person with an earned reputation for fairness, broad social, business and policy experience and a storied record after serving almost a decade as Premier of Quebec.  

Jean Charest has given his entire life to serving Canada. Elected at the young age of 28 as part of the Big Blue Win for the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, Charest would go on to serve in numerous cabinet posts including as Minister of the Environment. He later would become the Liberal Premier of Quebec. There is no Conservative Party in Quebec and conservatives running provincially do so under the provincial Liberal banner as members in both parties are Canadian federalists. When Charest was the Quebec Premier from 2003 to 2012, the other party was the separatist Parti Quebecois. Charest won back-to-back majority governments and remained popular in La Belle Province. He instituted conservative policies and prudent fiscal management and left office with the government in an $8 billion+ surplus position — one of the best records of all provinces at that time. Despite this proven record, Poilievre and his team were trying to paint Charest as a federal and philosophical Liberal, which is not true.

Many in Canada remember that it was Jean Charest who led the federal forces as a Conservative MP, in 1997, that defeated Lucien Bouchard and the separatists and literally saved Canada from a break-up. Those are things that should be honoured, respected, and acknowledged yet Poilievre’s full-frontal attack on Charest seemed mean-spirited and reckless. His carpet bomb, grenade, and take-no-prisoners approach shocked even the most experienced political operatives.

But Jean Charest has been around the block and his rebuttal was spot on. For Charest, civility is a strength, not a weakness and he can take a punch. But he can also throw one. As Poilievre leveled his accusations, Charest glared at him and then looked straight into what appeared to be a very pro-Poilievre audience and retorted, “This mess (with the convoy protests) is the fault of Mr. Trudeau. But Mr. Poilievre, during that time, you supported an illegal blockade,” Charest said. “You cannot make laws, and break laws, and then say, ‘I will make laws for other people.’ I’m sorry.”  As Poilievre tried to rebut the comments, Charest told Poilievre to stop lying. It was a clear signal to everyone that Jean Charest is no shrinking violet and will hold his own. It did not go unnoticed. However, the gloves were off and it signaled Charest and Poilievre were going to have a punch fest. Poilievre was going directly at what he called the gatekeepers-the  Bank of Canada and others who were in cahoots with  the Trudeau government for inflation-feeding policies that were hurting everyday folks. Poilievre would fight crime and put gun crime criminals in jail rather than punish legal gun owners; create real economic opportunity and jobs for Indigenous people, instead of the empty gestures of Trudeau. Most importantly, Poilievre would give Canadians back their ‘freedom’ from what he sees as the suffocating and intrusive policies of the Trudeau government. Charest was offering balanced budgets, a carbon tax on industry that works and unity as a message for Canadians—rather than freedom. Unity or Freedom. What to choose?

Leslyn Lewis is a Canadian lawyer and politician who has served as the Member of Parliament for Haldimand-Norfolk since 2021. A member of the Conservative Party, Lewis contested the party leadership in the 2020 leadership election, placing third and winning many accolades for her run. This time things have not gone well for her. She has positioned herself as the anti-abortion candidate of the party. 

Then, in a rather whacky half-hour-long live event broadcast on May 18, 2022 on Facebook and Twitter Lewis suggested that if Canada signs an international pandemic treaty, Canadians’ travel and medication choices could be restricted, the Constitution could be suspended, and this could pave the way for a global government. Multiple legal experts say her claims are complete poppycock and untrue. “This is all just nonsense,” said Prof. Steven Hoffman, a professor in global health, law, and political science at York University. “This is not at all what is being discussed. It’s just trying to get people to be mad at a non-issue. 

In the video, Lewis claims the World Health Organization (WHO) could impose lockdowns and restrictions in Canada as it sees fit and could restrict the types of medications doctors would prescribe. “It could give power for. . . the WHO to determine whether [in] a country like Canada, whether you’d be able to travel within or outside the country depending on the severity of the pandemic,” said Lewis. She also claimed the treaty would allow the WHO to suspend the constitutions of signatory nations. “Think about it, you would not be able to hold your elected officials accountable for the action of the WHO,” she said. “It is essentially eroding our democracy. 

“This is nothing more than fear-mongering. There is nothing to support these strong assertions,” said Prof. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law, and Policy at the University of Alberta in a comment to the CBC. “There is no treaty the WHO could negotiate that would suspend our Constitution. They just don’t have the power to do that.” Professor Kelley Lee, Canada Research Chair in Global Health Governance at Simon Fraser University said that “The bottom line is that her claims are so far from the truth that it’s actually hard to know where to begin.”

Lewis’ tripe fit perfectly with the conspiracy theories pushed by some of the trucker protesters, which may explain why she attacked Poilievre during the debates over his trucker support credentials, accusing him of being a halfhearted supporter. “You did not even go to the trucker protests,” she said. “You went, and you took a picture in your neighbourhood, at a local stop. You did not speak up for the truckers.” However, that was untrue. 

Poilievre was visible and had spoken up for the truckers during the protests despite most residents in the capital not supporting them. On February 10, 2022 Poilievre also supported the motion by interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen when she asked those taking part in the protests to take down the barricades, stop the disruptive action, and leave. However, unlike Trudeau, and despite the vast majority of residents opposing the truckers protest, Poilievre met with them. That is what leaders are supposed to do. Supporting them was an entirely different matter and remains a sore point with many, including Charest.

In the second debate on May 11, 2022, in Edmonton, Patrick Brown joined the fray. Brown’s career has been marked by ups and downs. A former MP, in 2015 he was elected leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, at just 36. In 2018 he resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct from two women — allegations that he denied. (After a court and legal process initiated by Brown, CTV News had to publicly apologize for making and reporting the allegations against him). 

Brown was elected mayor of Brampton in 2018 and remains popular in the role. He is viewed to be on the more moderate side of the Conservative Party of Canada and is seen by party insiders as a natural ally to Jean Charest. Brown used his opening statement to take a run at Poilievre’s strident approach to politics saying it’s not what the party needs to grow in suburbs and areas like the Greater Toronto Area. “The choice before the party is clear,” Brown said. “Do we want an unelectable party leader who drives voters away, walks straight into Liberal traps, gives unclear answers on divisible issues like abortion and wedges Conservatives against each other?” 

As Poilievre, Charest, Brown, and Lewis went at each other, Scott Aitchison watched. When it was his turn, he looked at everyone and said, “We’ve got to do better. Fear, division, and anger will not lead us to victory. We need to lead with respect, unite our party, and put forward a Conservative plan to make life better for Canadians. That’s how we win. That’s the right approach.” It was by far, the high point of the campaign to date. 

The two-time MP and former mayor of Huntsville has a calmness and likeability factor that stands out. Aitchison says he wants to renew the promise that the next generation of Canadians will be better than the one before and remove divisive rhetoric from politics. Aitchison’s obvious experience as a mayor shines through. He has spoken of his disappointment with the lack of leadership in the House of Commons and how he believes it is hurting the country. He believes it is important to be civil and work across the aisle when necessary to get things done for the country. His weakness is his French language ability. But there is no doubt that he is a substantive and compelling candidate and the surprise candidate in the race so far. 

Roman Baber is a former Ontario PC MPP who was ousted from Premier Doug Ford’s government over his opposition to pandemic public health measures. He is framing his campaign around what he called an “erosion” of Canadian democracy. He is concerned that Covid mandates have interrupted fundamental freedoms and that the harm done by lockdowns has not been considered by those implementing them. He wants to return democracy to Canada and end what he called “21st-century segregation,” referring to vaccine mandates.

He believes he is a voice for millions of unvaccinated Canadians unable to board a plane or train due to the federal government’s vaccine mandate. “Many Canadians are forced to choose between their health and their ability to put food on the table,” Baber said in an interview, referring to Canadians who refuse to get the jab. Baber disagrees with the narrative of Canadian health regulators and others in health authorities around the world who maintain that COVID-19 vaccines are a safe and effective way to protect populations against the deadly pandemic. Nearly 85 per cent of all Canadians have had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines. Baber said his supporters are “a truly grassroots movement” of Canadians across the country “concerned about the erosion of Canada’s democracy and Canada’s opportunity.” Baber is fighting the perception that he is a one-trick pony candidate. He has policies on how to make better use of Canada’s natural resources and like Poilievre is concerned with the Bank of Canada of “printing money” saying Canada’s national debt is “unsustainable.”

Aitchison, Baber, Lewis Poilievre, and Brown have all referenced COVID-19 vaccine mandates in some way as one of the key reasons for what they see as division in the country. Charest had been more tempered and says Covid is not the main issue dividing Canadians, rather it is disagreements over energy policies related to oil and gas between the eastern and western parts of the country that are the cause of the conflict. “I see a country that is deeply divided, and I am running because I believe that national unity is the number one challenge of any prime minister,” he said.

Candidates have been asked to deliver clear answers on policy items from Covid mandates to implementing the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, to supporting a no-fly zone over Ukraine, supply management, the budget, defence, deficits, and housing. If the Conservatives want to govern, they must have something to offer Canadians other than anger and vitriol. They need to be able to agree to disagree, agreeably. To an outsider looking in, the common values of all candidates in the race are many: a belief in smaller government; responsible fiscal stewardship; in the rights of the individual; in freedom; in law and order; in respecting civil norms and institutions; in respecting others regardless of religion, race, or sexuality.

To succeed, Conservatives must choose a leader who communicates an ambitious and optimistic vision for their party and for Canada. That leader must be able to unify conservatives from coast to coast to coast. On the surface, that candidate seems to be Jean Charest. He is pitching civility, unity, and working together. He is also in favour of an industry-focused carbon tax and balanced budgets. He is tested and has an enviable record in both public and private life. 

Patrick Brown and Scott Aitchison appear to be running in the same aisle as Charest. By any measure, Leslyn Lewis and Roam Baber are outliers with zero to little chance of winning the race. That leaves Pierre Poilievre. His critics claim his campaign resonates with Canadians who are angry, anxious, and tired. They say he stokes resentment and promises quick, easy fixes to complex problems. They cite Poilievre recently coming out against any future vaccine mandates or shutdowns. They note that his Freedom Convoy approach to public health is a dangerous path. The pandemic has shown us that a Trumpian “no problem here, life as usual” approach has consequences. 

The public health driven posture of masks, vaccination, and temporary lockdown by Premiers Legault, Ford and Horgan worked. Over 1 million people have died of Covid in the USA, some 400,000 under the Trump administration. In Canada, 41,362 died. Then again Covid has changed the world, and maybe it has changed politics too. Poilievre seems to be banking on it. His calls for ‘freedom’ from government intrusion in all aspects of people’s lives, after six years of a paternalistic Trudeau government, have resonated with Canadians across the country. Don’t listen to overt bias of the CBC, Poilievre’s grassroots campaign is far more Ford Nation than Donald Trump, while Jean Charest’s campaign is more like a modern-day Canadian version of Ronald Reagan’s a big tent approach to conservatism where there is room for all views and some flexibility on key issues.

The Conservative Party of Canada has signed up 600,000 members who will select the next Conservative Leader on September 10, 2022. By any standard that is an incredible feat of democracy in action.

Whether they select Pierre Poilievre, Jean Charest or another candidate as their next leader, Conservatives will have to find a way to get along and work together, if they want to govern again. Time will tell if that is a bridge too far. 

See where Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber, Patrick Brown, Jean Charest, Leslyn Lewis, and Pierre Poilievre stand on some of the key federal issues today by reading Can the Tories bring competency back to government?