Yesterday's Man vs. The Freedom Fighter
In the campaign to elect the next Conservative leader, Tories are split between their fringe right wing and the party's dying Red flank.
By Nora Loreto
It was a scene that could have been plucked right out of Canada’s political past. Maybe 2002 or 2008.
Jean Charest is glad-handing at an event, surrounded by smiling supporters (within inches of the 64-year-old political animal). No one is wearing masks. COVID-19 doesn’t exist. Just hopeful vibes and some words from a man who wants to again lead Canada’s national conservative movement.
Four days later, Charest announces that he has COVID-19.
His campaign is catapulted into the present. His Calgary launch spreads COVID-19 to some of the unmasked attendees, Charest among them. As he battles the virus, what awaits him is a race to lead a movement that barely resembles the federal conservative scene he left decades ago — one he has promised to turn back into an electoral machine.
Charest’s name began circulating in French media nearly the minute Erin O’Toole was officially out. But in English Canada, his name was met with some variation of “who?” or “really?” and his Calgary launch didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Freelance journalist Jeremy Appel was at the launch and left with two things: a case of COVID-19 and the sense that Charest’s entry into this race is confused, better suited for two decades ago than today. He calls Charest “yesterday's man.”
If that’s the view from Calgary, Charest has a lot of work to do to become a viable candidate.
Especially if he wants to beat Pierre Poilievre, a man who's been auditioning to be prime minister since he tried on his first suit, likely as a boy and at the same moment in time that Charest was already a federal cabinet minister under Brian Mulroney. Poilievre is laser focused on Trudeau as his enemy. In response to a question about whether or not he’s worried that his support for far-right movements is giving them oxygen, sounding as if he was quoting the Book of Revelations he replied, “…I have not said anything to provoke something like that. And by the way, the guy who has done more to provoke division and stoke anger across this country is Justin Trudeau, with his jabbing his fingers in people’s faces and baring his fangs and calling people ugly names even though he’s never met them.”
In the race to become the guy in charge of stopping the finger jabbing and fang bearing, Poilievre might be the early front-runner, but he, and all the leadership candidates, will be up against forces that they can’t control: Canada’s current political context, competing factions within the party and political history.
* * *
While Charest and Poilievre’s political orientations are quite different, their paths into politics are remarkably similar.
Despite his name, taken from his adoptive Fransaskois father, Pierre is solidly Anglophone, speaking the kind of French that one picks up when aspiring to someday be Prime Minister. He was first elected to his Ottawa-area riding in 2004 when he was 25 – after almost a decade of activism within the conservative movement.
Poilievre represents the right wing of the party and Charest represents, well not quite the left wing, but the wing that, until the era of Stephen Harper, dominated Conservative politics.
If Pierre is an unlikely name for someone from Saskatchewan, John is almost just as unlikely for someone from Sherbrooke and who grew up in the French system. Though, he’s always been called Jean, despite what his birth certificate says. Charest was also elected young – first in 1984 at the age of 27, when Poilievre was five years old. Charest was the youngest serving Cabinet minister in Canada’s history. He went on to lead the Progressive Conservative party from 1994 to 1998, until he was pulled into provincial politics, where he served as premier of Quebec. The Quebec student movement ousted him from office in 2012.
The similarities between the two men end there.
Poilievre represents the right wing of the party and Charest represents, well not quite the left wing, but the wing that, until the era of Stephen Harper, dominated Conservative politics. Poilievre sounds almost like a libertarian, centering his political ideology not so much on tradition, as a classic conservative would, but instead on an elusive and narrow notion of freedom.
Charest is a Red Tory, connected to the business world and someone whose political orientation allowed him to smoothly move from the federal Progressive Conservatives into the provincial Liberal and then back into law, his first career, where he was a partner at the law firm McCarthy Tétrault, working for, among other clients, Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
If Charest is relatively unknown outside of Quebec and to Canadians under the age of 60, he might not even be as formidable a candidate as the third front-runner: current Mayor of Brampton and high-profile Progressive Conservative Patrick Brown. Like the other two men, he was first elected at a young age: just 22 when he was elected to Barrie, Ontario’s city council. Brown, like Poilievre, spent time as a youth activist in various conservative party instances.
The son of a two-time NDP candidate, Brown is just as much of a political animal as are Poilievre and Charest. Brown and Charest are also friends: when Brown was a teenager, he would visit Charest while in North Hatley to see his aunt, Charest’s next-door-neighbour. As the party uses ranked ballots to elect its leaders, Brown and Charest are telling their supporters to rank the other as their number two choice in the election.
Regardless of which of these three men will win the election (sorry, hodge-podge of other candidates), the leader of the Conservatives will have a difficult course to navigate on a broken-apart ship that this election will have to try and put back together. It will be no small feat – one that if they can pull it off, will ensure a lock on federal politics for a few mandates à là Stephen Harper.
But if they don’t, it will be a third in a row of disastrous performances of mediocre white men, elected through a complex system of determining who would be least bad for their party.
* * *
At some point during the 2017 Conservative Party leadership election, the Red Tory flank of the party must have said to themselves, “this is very bad.”
There were 15 candidates and in the end, the party was left with a pair of capital-C Conservative stalwarts. While Andrew Scheer only got 7.34% in the first round of voting and Maxime Bernier got 9.73%, the two would come head to head on the seventh round of balloting.
Scheer, a Christian social conservative, came across as tolerable, especially up against the conspiratorial and firebrand Bernier. Neither represented the more moderate voices within the party, and based on the first round of balloting, neither really had raw support of the membership either.
But when it came to round seven, Scheer eked out a victory with just over half of the votes. Bernier took his ball and created a new political party. When Scheer failed to deliver an election victory against Trudeau in 2019, and after it was revealed that the party was paying for 4/5s of his children to attend private Catholic school, he resigned, and a shorter, less chaotic leadership race was declared.
This time Erin O’Toole won – only to be shivved less than two years after he was elected leader. Where Bernier represented the party’s libertarian streak and Scheer represented the evangelical, right-wing religious flank, O’Toole was the closest thing to being a Red Tory.
Was his fall a demonstration of force from the right-wing of the party? Or was he just not cut out for the job? The hopes for a return to Red Toryism were high, especially among non-Conservatives who had a hard time stomaching Stephen Harper’s xenophobic approach to public policy (the former PM’s “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line all but derailed his 2015 campaign against Trudeau’s Liberals).
Reporting for the National Observer, just as Erin O’Toole was surging in the polls during the 2021 election, Andrew Perez, a Liberal, writes, “O’Toole’s refreshing, sensible leadership may yet serve as an antidote to the Conservative Party’s travails over the better part of the past two decades in attracting support from a broad cross-section of Canadians. At their core, many Canadians are Red Tories who look to support parties and leaders that are fiscally prudent, pragmatic, and socially progressive.”
Until the Conservatives can put a lid on the fringes of the party, any leader is going to have a hell of a time steering this ship.
Fast forward 18 months and O’Toole is out and that hope is dashed, partly because of the intense opposition to this Red Toryism from the social conservatives and libertarian wings of the party. This is, on the surface, good news for Poilievre and bad news for Charest and Brown. But if you look closer, it likely spells disaster for Poilievre too: until the Conservatives can put a lid on the fringes of the party, any leader is going to have a hell of a time steering this ship.
The current party is an unhappy big tent of people with very different views on society, ranging from stone-age era ideals to modern conservatism that accepts that climate change and gay people exist. But the existential question that faces the party will continue to dog it until some level of success kicks party discipline into gear: which is stronger, the party’s fidelity (and capacity to deliver) to capital, or the party’s Christian conservative activist and mobilized grass roots?
This tug-of-war will be the defining struggle in this leadership race.
* * *
Among far-right candidates — from MAGA-inspired Trump admirers to individuals whose racism or anti-Semitism leaps to the surface the second a conversation about immigration or globalization is started — keeping the party’s far right in check is no easy task.
The social conservatives have access to average people that other Conservative movements, especially Red Toryism, do not. As such, they remain within the big tent of Conservatism, able to even anoint leadership if they play their cards right.
Tanya Granic Allen is probably best known for pulling this off: the anti-sex ed, homophobic activist managed to deliver enough of her votes to Doug Ford to allow him to become leader of the Progressive Conservatives. Journalists called her a kingmaker. She told journalists that she felt she had “shifted the debate” during the leadership race and she’s probably right. Ford certainly must have felt he owed a debt to her.
But these kinds of alliances tend to be political liabilities. After Granic Allen won the nomination in the riding of Mississauga-Centre, the Liberals posted a video of her criticizing sex education curriculum in Croatia where she made homophobic and hateful comments, creating a minor controversy for the party. Despite his debt to her, Ford was swift to block her candidacy. Ford has been similarly intolerable with other critics, notably ones who opposed COVID-19 measures. When MPP Roman Baber wrote an open letter claiming that lockdowns are deadlier than COVID-19, Ford booted him from caucus too.
(Poilievre) has set his eyes on Justin Trudeau hoping that hatred of the man can help smooth past the cracks in this party’s big tent. Or perhaps he’s more cynical than that: he knows that focusing on the anger that exists towards Trudeau might give him the votes that he needs, and he’ll figure everything else out after he wins.
Ford has more latitude to take this approach. With two opposition parties that are not organized enough to pose a threat to him, he has a firm grip on power. So even with a mobilized and activist far-right, there were no repercussions for Ford after blocking Granic Allen’s candidacy, or booting Baber from caucus, even if among the members there was opposition to both of these moves. But these same conditions don’t exist at the federal level: as a disorganized opposition party, there is much less party discipline.
This is especially true with the Liberals currently in war hawk mode.
* * *
One of the funny realities of federalism is that it might not matter at all who the leader of the Conservative Party will be, as long as Doug Ford is in office.
With a Progressive Conservative leader at the head of the province, it is unlikely that Ontarians will vote for a federal Conservative leader. After the election of Ontario Conservative premier George Drew in 1943, while the Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King was Canada’s prime minister, Ontario has only had the same political party governing it as Canada has four times: the six years of John Diefenbaker’s tenure, the nine months of Joe Clark’s leadership, three years of Paul Martin and two years of Justin Trudeau. That totals just under 12 years of 79 and some of those years were just coincidences of timing, undone by the next general election.
Now, this wouldn’t matter so much if Ontario were smaller. Jason Kenney’s woes are unlikely to spill into federal politics as people who are ready to oust Kenney are just as ready to vote Conservative in the next federal election regardless of who wins. But Ontario is represented by more than one-third of seats in the House of Commons. Ontario becomes even more important for the Conservatives when they’re weak in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, as they need the vote-rich 401 corridor to compensate for a lack of seats in eastern Canada.
Is Poilievre going to be able to convince people East of his riding to vote for him? Or is Jean Charest best positioned to pick off seats in Quebec and Atlantic Canada?
If a Doug Ford victory on June 2, 2022 means that a federal Conservative victory is not only unlikely, but would have to buck almost a century of political culture, the stakes for who leads this party drop.
* * *
Pierre Poilievre clearly understands the political moment.
By positioning himself as the “freedom” candidate, even though his policies would guarantee a lot more bondage in this country for many, he’s tapping into the COVID-19 fatigue that exists among conservative sympathizers and trying to turn that fatigue into support for him.
Charest and Brown are going to play a different game. They will suck up closer to capital and put a lot of anxious conservatives at ease. They’ll be aiming for the vaccinated conservatives; the ones who don't see a forked tongue when they look at Justin Trudeau.
He doesn’t come across as a serious politician, but he doesn’t need to: he has passion and talking points. He’s hoping that will be enough. Poilievre isn’t bogged down by worrying about the contradictions in his discourse, like his opposition to Quebec’s Bill 21 but his defense of the so-called Barbaric Cultural Practices hotline (as Brown handily reminded everyone). He has set his eyes on Justin Trudeau hoping that hatred of the man can help smooth past the cracks in this party’s big tent. Or perhaps he’s more cynical than that: he knows that focusing on the anger that exists towards Trudeau might give him the votes that he needs, and he’ll figure everything else out after he wins.
Charest and Brown are going to play a different game.
Their game will emphasize rationality. They will suck up closer to capital and put a lot of anxious conservatives at ease. They’ll be aiming for the vaccinated conservatives; the ones who don't see a forked tongue when they look at Justin Trudeau. And it might work, if there are any of those conservatives still kicking around.
But depending on Doug Ford, and the hawkish Liberals, it might not matter at all who wins. The party seems condemned to spend at least another mandate waiting in the wings.
The real question is: which wing?
About the author…
is an activist based in Quebec City. She is the author of Take Back the Fight, Organizing Feminism in the Digital Age (2020) and From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement (2013).
Her latest book,
: How the Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 pandemic, is in stores and available to purchase online. The Montreal Gazette calls it “a comprehensive, impassioned and highly readable work that itemizes how a confluence of factors created a perfect storm of denial and unpreparedness.”
Clear eyed political analysis. This reader is still waiting for the day Justin Trudeau gets the appreciation he deserves for resolutely keeping Canada on a path toward it's best possible future.