Kellie Leitch, Conservative leadership candidate and demagogue, has been grabbing headlines left and right (mostly right) these days. From her desire to implement a “Canadian values test” for anyone visiting the country to her war against so-called media elites, her campaign recalls the tactics of Donald Trump — whose election win Leitch called an “exciting message that needs to be delivered in Canada as well.”
In the U.S., a handful of Republicans disturbed by the Donald’s rhetoric created a “Never Trump” movement within the party. In Canada, although some on the right have taken issue with Leitch — fellow leadership candidate Maxime Bernier called her the “karaoke version” of Trump — a similar movement has yet to coalesce. Why?
“I don’t know if it’s advanced to that stage yet where people are worried enough about it,” explains Andrew MacDougall, former communications director for Stephen Harper. “It’s not to say that maybe they shouldn’t be worried about it.” He says Leitch and campaign manager Nick Kouvalis have aped Trump’s tactics so far, stoking outrage in order to attract media coverage.
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Conservative strategist Chad Rogers of Crestview Strategies, a Toronto PR firm, says that at this point in the race, with 14 declared candidates, the field is still winnowing itself out. “In a leadership race, a movement to stop a candidate is usually called support for another candidate,” he says. “Would people who care about electing the next leader organize a movement over and above, or segregating resources in a way that just stops a candidate? Culturally that just wouldn’t emerge.”
But others in the party are concerned. One long-time Conservative, who asked that his name be withheld, said that if there isn’t a “Never Leitch” movement in the works already, there should be. He says Leitch isn’t just borrowing from Trump’s playbook, but also from Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown’s. In the provincial leadership race, Brown enlisted more grassroots members than his main rival, Christine Elliott, who had all the big names backing her. The fear is that, like both Trump and Brown, Leitch is running a stronger campaign than people give her credit for.
Some Conservatives worry that Leitch is stirring up populist forces in order to differentiate herself from the rest of the pack — but that those same forces will be harder to contain once the leadership contest is over.
Of particular concern is the message Leitch’s campaign sends to minority communities, groups that Harper and former cabinet minister Jason Kenney spent years cultivating for the party. (That effort was derailed in the 2015 election, when the Conservatives proposed a “barbaric cultural practices tip line” and wondered aloud whether women should be permitted to wear the niqab while reciting the citizenship oath.)
Conservative senator Salma Ataullahjan, a Pakistani-Canadian representing Toronto, said she hasn’t paid much attention to the race, as it’s still early and so many candidates remain — but she’s skeptical of Leitch’s “Canadian values” rhetoric. “When she talks about Canadian values, who is she talking about?” Ataullahjan asks. We’re all Canadians. We need to stop pitting each other up against each other.”
MacDougall says Harper managed to quell the populist base effectively, but with the low-hanging fruit such as the long-gun registry now plucked, the various Conservative leadership campaigns are looking toward other targets: the CBC, carbon taxes, religious extremism.
For Leitch’s detractors, the hope is that her long-time status as a “red Tory” will undermine what populist authenticity she’s evinced so far. There is also belief that enough people on the right will see Leitch is not primarily preaching conservative ideals — lower taxes, smaller government — but rather plain old xenophobia.
“That’s where the wildfire is, if you start banging on about values,” MacDougall says. “A lot of those communities will go, ‘Wait a second: Is this about values, or is this about Others and different people, and am I an Other or different?’ That’s not so much for the politicians to shape but for people to make up in their own minds. You can’t just reassure these people one by one, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, I’m not talking about you.”
Dale Smith is a freelance journalist covering Canadian politics.