The Conservative Party of Canada’s third leadership race in five years is underway. The high turnover in leadership is, in part, due to the party’s failure to topple Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the last several federal elections. These failures, however, do not mean that the Conservatives are seeking to crown a new leader for a ragtag outfit of also-rans. In both the 2019 and 2021 elections, the party received more votes than the Liberals.
In the election of 2015, with the country weary of the nine-year reign of his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, Trudeau won a majority government. A majority government is roughly the Canadian equivalent of a US president winning control of the House of Representatives. It was only because of the peculiarities of Canada’s British-style parliamentary system, however, that Trudeau was able to scrape by in the following two elections with a plurality of seats in Parliament.
Trudeau was able to win this plurality while placing second in the popular vote because the Conservative vote was overwhelmingly concentrated in Western Canada. The Tories were further hindered by a surge from the far-right People’s Party, whose leader, Maxime Bernier, narrowly lost the 2017 Conservative leadership race to Andrew Scheer. Although the People’s Party tripled its vote share to 5 percent, it didn’t win any seats in the House. Nevertheless, the party’s increased vote share came at a cost to the Conservatives.
Scheer, a member of the party’s social conservative wing, was turfed after the 2019 election, in which he won 238,589 votes more than Trudeau. Like Scheer, his successor, Erin O’Toole, who projected a more moderate image, also won the popular vote — this time by 185,800 votes — but failed to substantially change the seat count in Parliament.
The party caucus booted O’Toole by a vote of 73-45 for supporting and fast-tracking the Liberals’ ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ people. O’Toole’s maneuver was likely an effort to avoid an uncomfortable internecine conflict between the party’s social conservative and Red Tory wings. O’Toole also likely lost caucus support because his lukewarm support for the far-right Freedom Convoy put him at odds with many of his members of Parliament.
The current leadership election, which is scheduled for September 10, has roughly three main front-runners. These front-runners represent three different wings of the party: libertarian ideologue Pierre Poilievre, who has engaged Canada’s emergent populist bloc; former Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest, who represents the party’s more centrist wing; and evangelical zealot Leslyn Lewis, who is a spokesperson for the social and religious right.
Pierre Poilievre’s Populist Jeremiads
While O’Toole tepidly supported the convoy while denouncing its “extremist elements,” Pierre Poilievre was enthusiastic in his support. “Freedom, not fear. Truckers, not Trudeau,” he told a crowd of convoy supporters. According to the Canadian Trucking Alliance — which denounced the convoy — 85 percent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated.
Poilievre, who was first elected to Parliament in 2004 at twenty-five years of age, is highly adept at generating sound-bite-ready one-liners with which to thrill his massive social media following. But his popularity isn’t just an online phenomenon. Poilievre has been holding rallies with thousands of attendees across the country, building a movement that is reminiscent of Trudeau at the height of his popularity in 2015.
At a rally in his hometown of Calgary, Poilievre demonstrated his populist appeal and the danger it poses to the Left by invoking a faux empathy for the poor and downtrodden:
Think of the single mother who’s skipping meals so her kids don’t have to, because food inflation now means that four in five families have to cut the quantity or quality of their diet just so they can afford to pay for it; or the working guy who can’t afford to drive to work with a-buck-sixty-a-liter gas, or the thirty-two-year-old forced to live in his mom’s basement because he can’t afford the price of a house after home values have doubled in just seven years.
Poilievre referenced the example of a couple living in an Ottawa trailer park who make $100,000 working in a quarry that supplies housebuilding materials for homes they themselves cannot afford as an illustration of just how bad things are. “When the people who build our homes can no longer afford to live in them, our economic system is fundamentally unjust,” he declared to thunderous applause.
However, Poilievre’s criticism of the economic system is that it is insufficiently capitalist. He blames what he calls “Justinflation” for Canada’s economic woes, which he claims can only be solved by “common cents.” As a solution, Poilievre has a plan: “We’re going to print less money — build more houses.” This shortcut may be a great way to make developers rich, but absent additional measures like rent control and expanded public housing, it’s not clear how it will make housing affordable.
Poilievre also raged against the “bankers and politicians” responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. He then pivoted immediately to plugging cryptocurrency. “What we should do is have a free market where people can choose which money they use,” Poilievre said. The notion that crypto is any kind of panacea for economic problems is highly dubious. Thus far, early reports of similar experiments in other countries do not point to favorable outcomes.
There’s no denying Jean Charest is the most experienced candidate in the race. Like Poilievre, he was first elected to Parliament in his mid-twenties. However, Charest cut his teeth thirty-odd years ago during the supermajority government of Brian Mulroney’s now-defunct Progressive Conservative (PC) Party in 1984.
During his party’s tenure in government, Charest rose through the ranks of the party caucus to various cabinet portfolios, including deputy prime minister. He successfully ran for the party leadership after its devastating 1993 election, in which he was one of two PC members of Parliament reelected.
Charest then moved onto provincial politics, where he became Quebec’s Liberal Party leader in 1998 and premier in 2003. In Quebec politics, the left and right dividing lines between parties matter less than the line between sovereigntists and federalists. The Liberals are the federalist standard-bearer. The Poilievre campaign has nonetheless used Charest’s history with the Liberals, and his support for carbon pricing and enhanced gun control while premier, to attack him for being insufficiently Conservative.
Charest launched his 2022 leadership campaign in Calgary — the financial center of Canada’s oil and gas industry — where he waxed nostalgic about his time as Quebec’s leading champion of federalism. He leaned on this experience to cast himself as a candidate who can unite the party’s various wings. He told his audience — which was about one hundredth the size of Poilievre’s — that:
the party needs to look at itself and ask itself, who is it that we represent, what is it that we represent? Today, with the obsession around identity politics, everything becomes hyphenated, between red and blue, so-cons and others — when, in fact, we are Conservatives, and I am running as a Conservative.
He may want to unite the party’s various factions, but it remains to be seen whether they want to be united under his guidance.
The Wild Card: Leslyn Lewis
Lewis ran for the Conservative leadership in 2020 as an outsider without a seat in Parliament, placing third in the race that O’Toole won. Seizing on this relative success, she was elected to Parliament representing a rural Ontario district in last year’s election.
Lewis, a black evangelical Christian, has played up her race and gender while in the same breath lambasting the Conservative shibboleth of “identity politics.” “My presence alone sends a very strong message,” Lewis told the Canadian Press in 2020. “I don’t think I need to articulate the obvious.” Like Poilievre, she is unyielding in her support of the Freedom Convoy.
She received a “green light” from the Campaign Life Coalition, an antichoice lobby group who gave a “red light” to Poilievre for his libertarian leanings on abortion and same-sex marriage as well as his opposition to conversion therapy. The coalition’s support for her is due to her open desire to curtail abortion rights in Canada. Her advocacy relies on using the canards of “sex-selective” and “coercive” abortions as a means of whittling away at the right to choose.
For Lewis, Christian values are under attack across Canada. When it comes to education policy, she uses a series of dog whistles to the religious right that will be familiar to American readers:
We need to do something about [education], because our children are being indoctrinated. They’re not learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, like when we were in school. They are learning ideology and most likely the ideology of the dominant political group. What we need . . . is a parental rights legislation that will support parents raising their children in accordance with their values and not values imposed upon them by their government.
At an event in Calgary, I asked her to what extent faith should play a role in the public square. She responded with an evasion that is unobjectionable in isolation: “I think it’s important that people be able to practice their faith without government interference.” But her ringing endorsement from the Campaign Life Coalition suggests that protecting religious people from government persecution is not the sum total of her motivations.
While the religious right is not the dominant force in Canadian Conservative politics it is in the Republican Party, it still holds influence. With a ranked ballot, Lewis is poised to serve as a kingmaker if Poilievre doesn’t win outright on the first ballot.
That is a big “if.” The intense enthusiasm Poilievre is drumming up makes it look like this race is his to lose. Although his solutions will only make matters worse for the middle and working classes, Poilievre is articulating the real material concerns of many Canadians. A Poilievre-led Conservative Party should be of tremendous concern to Canada’s slumbering left.