Canadian Conservatives are at a crossroads

Liam McCurry

Candidates Patrick Brown, left, Leslyn Lewis, Scott Aitchison, Pierre Poilievre, Jean Charest, and Roman Baber pose for photos after the French-language Conservative Leadership debate Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in Laval, Que. Brown was removed from the race in July. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Canadian conservatism is a constantly developing ideology. Right now, the party is in the midst of one of the most dramatic changes in its history, if not at least since the Conservative Party of Canada was founded in 2003. 

The transition may be seen as rapid, but the foundation for this shift has been percolating for quite some time. 

The finality of where Canadian conservatism is will be clear on Sept. 10, when the party holds its convention to pick a new leader.  

The reality of Canadian federal politics is that two ideologies dominate the landscape and form government, liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism, liberalism, and democratic socialism exist in the three major parties. The parties have factions within that battle to become the overarching ideological foundation Canadians use to elect a government. 

These foundations shift from time to time, but these foundations for the Conservative Party of Canada could now be shifting significantly. 

Matt James, a political science professor from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said this conservative leadership race is “by far the most outwardly divisive leadership contest and the most starkly ideological one.” 

Political pundit Penny Collenette — who worked under Jean Chrétien in numerous positions, is a law professor at the University of Ottawa and is a recipient of the Order of Ontario — said in March that this Conservative leadership race is a “battle for the soul of the party.” 

The differing ideologies within the party have been somewhat subdued when the leaders have gotten together on stage for debates. Most are calling for unity and decorum so that when the general election comes around, any damage done during the leadership race has not disqualified the Conservative leader in the election. 

But at times, debate and discourse have boiled over into direct attacks on other candidates.   

Whether it is Jean Charest attacking Pierre Poilievre for supporting the “Freedom Convoy,” Leslyn Lewis attacking Poilievre for not supporting it quick enough, or Poilievre attacking Charest for working with Huawei or challenging his record as Premier of Quebec. 

It led Preston Manning, a Canadian conservative icon, to send a letter to leadership candidates stating fears that attacking each other during the race would deepen divisions within the federal conservatives and be detrimental to the party in a general election.   

The history of Canadian conservative thought is as vast and complex as the country itself and draws influences from outside the borders.  

The party’s recent history is a more robust brand of blue conservatism than the old way of red or blue Tories that thrived by occupying the centre of the political spectrum with some left-leaning policies.  

From Joe Clark to Preston Manning to Jean Charest to Stephen Harper to Pierre Poilievre, there has been an array of ideologies defining conservatism in Canada.

Populism isn’t new in Canadian politics what is different is the feel and intensity, Collenette said. 

Timeline of Conservatism in Canada

Chris Cochrane, a professor of political science at the Munk School of global affairs and public policy at the University of Toronto, said the current brand of conservatism in Canada has an American tinge to it. 

“There is a current of conservatism emanating from the United States,” he said earlier this year. “I don’t think he (Poilievre) is a Donald Trump, but that element of conservatism is a force to be reckoned with.” 

That was seen at the grassroots level when the “Freedom Convoy” occupied the streets of Ottawa for more than three weeks earlier this year. Poilievre is the candidate best able to bridge the gap between true blue conservative and populist type Trump conservative, Cochrane said.  

Poilievre brands himself as unapologetically a straightforward conservative, something other conservatives shied away from over the last 20 years, he said. 

In the past, conservative leaders in North America didn’t want to portray themselves as hardline true-blue leaders. George W. Bush called his brand compassionate conservatism, and Stephen Harper called his incremental conservatism, Cochrane said.  

Canadian Conservatives have moved away from the party that traditionally worked to preserve what has worked in the past and shied away from being expansionary or visionary.  

This leadership race could change the fabric of the party, remaking in ideational terms if Poilievre wins the leadership, Cochrane said. The candidate has a broader vision than simply reacting to Liberal policy proposals.

Traditional values such as less spending and limited government have stayed the cornerstones of conservatism in Canada and will continue to after this leadership race, he said.

There is a bit of a paradox, maybe it’s the unapologetic nature or toughness being displayed by some candidates, but conservatism still leans on those values of limited government and less spending. Still, Poilievre and candidate Roman Baber make true blue Tories like Preston Manning and Brian Mulroney look more like their red Tory counterparts. 

During the May 5 debate in Ottawa, Baber said, “we can’t run to the right during leadership, and the left during the general election.”

Charest and Scott Aitchison say they want to unite the country, while Baber, Lewis, and Poilievre have set out to make Canada “the freest nation on earth.”  

Moving on the fly in the general election could cost a leader their job. Just ask Erin O’Toole. 

O’Toole campaigned as a true-blue conservative but became more progressive after he was picked as the leader in 2020, Cochrane said. 

Hugh Segal, the former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney and author of The Right Balance, said in his book that the loss of “perspective on any issue is the most unpardonable sin for any conservative.” 

Victoria University’s James agrees.

“Changes in ideology influence the party could influence ideology,” he said. “It is difficult to disentangle the ideology and the party. 

Andrew McDougall, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said the party has some historical divides geographically and division between fiscal and social conservatives. Western Canadian conservatives are “more individualistic and less communitarian and more socially conservative in many ways.”  

The new split in the party appears to be those who are sympathetic to the trucker message and everyone else, he said. This has created an environment where social conservatism seems to have taken hold in the party. 

Harper was sympathetic to the views of social conservatism but was able to keep those voices somewhat subdued when he was leader, McDougall said.   

But the re-emergence of social conservatism is not all that surprising. Maxime Bernier was one per cent off winning the leadership of the Conservative Party before he splintered off and founded the People’s Party of Canada, taking a few percentage points of the popular vote with him in the 2019 general election.

This makes Poilievre “perfectly positioned” to take some of these Conservative votes, Cochrane said.

On paper, the ideology of a conservative like Poilievre does not seem to command significant support from Canadians at large, James said.   

But elections are hardly ever won on ideology alone, he said. 

The factors that go into a general election are immense, including favourable media coverage, public perception of the leader, possibly a general feeling of fatigue, and overall campaign strategy are almost always more critical factors to win an election in Canada, James said. 

“If Conservatives win or lose the next election, it will not be because of ideology,” he said. The ground for this battle between progressive and social conservatism had been laid down well before this leadership race, James said. 

The previous leadership races, especially the one that picked O’Toole, foreshadowed this coming age of this version of Canadian conservatism, he said. 

Poilievre, “running as someone who is almost sympathetic to conspiracy theories does not seem to be holding him back,” McDougall said. 

When the leadership race concludes on Sept. 10, all Canadians will have a clearer understanding of conservatism in Canada.  

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