Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer portrayed himself on Tuesday as Canada's anti-fascist option in the next general election, prepared to challenge a prime minister who he described as weak in the face of anti-democratic regimes.
In a wide-ranging speech delivered on Tuesday at a Montreal hotel, Scheer laid out his foreign-policy platform, while portraying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as someone who wasn't tough with authoritarian and communist regimes such as China.
Scheer repeatedly made references to communist, fascist and authoritarian regimes, while steering clear of mentioning extremist movements with fascist ideologies that are starting to become more visible in Canada, including at a recent rally he attended in Ottawa. The emerging extremists are known to be collaborating and exchanging information with counterparts around the world on a global network of the far-right.
Scheer didn't mention this global network as part of his foreign policy speech, and only commented about Canada's domestic extremists after being asked by media on his way out of the building.
The 35-minute prepared remarks were the first in a series of speeches planned in different cities over the coming weeks. As part of the series, Scheer said he would eventually introduce his long-anticipated climate change plan, which was promised more than a year ago.
In the speech, Scheer suggested that he could do a better job than Trudeau at fighting for democracy abroad.
Andrew Scheer didn’t agree to speak to media after the speech, writes @seleross - instead answering a few questions while striding away through the halls of the hotel.
“In the twentieth century…some Canadian leaders harboured secret admiration for authoritarian figures like Fidel Castro or Mao Zedong,” Scheer said.
Today, similarly, “some would prefer to see Canada take a non-alignment posture, treating democracies and dictatorships in equal and similar fashion.”
Canada can't tackle climate change alone, Scheer said
He also drifted momentarily away from the prepared text of his speech, adding in some extra remarks about climate change.
"Issues such as climate change cannot be tackled by one country acting alone," he said. "Canada must continue to work with international allies... that are willing to take up the heavy responsibility to make sure we pass on the planet cleaner and greener..."
Scheer also spoke of opposing Iran’s human rights abuses and about Russia’s return to a “Cold War posture,” promising to strengthen Arctic defenses.
He confirmed that if elected, he would move Canada's Israel embassy to Jerusalem, in line with U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to do so. Conservatives voted in favour of the idea at their party convention last summer.
Scheer didn’t agree to granting an extended scrum to speak to media after the speech, instead answering a few questions while striding away through the halls of the hotel.
As white supremacist and fascist movements grow in Canada and the United States, Scheer has been criticized for failing to distance himself enough from them.
This winter, Liberal politicians slammed Scheer for speaking at an Ottawa protest in February linked to Canada’s “Yellow Vest” movement, which mixes concerns about pipelines and unemployment with anti-immigrant, white-supremacist rhetoric.
At the time, Scheer said he wanted to speak to the group’s concerns about jobs.
On Tuesday, after he repeatedly mentioned fascism in his speech, National Observer asked Scheer if he sees any current movements in Canada as modern incarnations of fascist ideologies, especially the Yellow Vest movement.
He didn’t give a clear yes or no, but said he condemned any instance of intolerance in Canada.
“I will always continue to speak out against anyone who promotes any sentiments of racism, intolerance, white supremacy—[will] continue to promote Canada as a place of tolerance and peace,” he said.
“I think that any group that espouses those types of things need to be called out for that.”
His speech fell on the same day as public hearings over Quebec’s proposed Bill 21, which limits some public servants from wearing religious symbols like hijabs and Sikh turbans.
When asked by media if he believes Quebec has a problem with Islamophobia, Scheer said, “Look, we always have to make sure that Muslims and people of different faiths are safe in Canada to practice their religion.”
In the speech, he portrayed Trudeau personally as a China sympathizer, reminding listeners that before he became prime minister, Trudeau was quoted saying he had “admiration” for China’s “basic dictatorship.” Trudeau made the remarks in 2013, later explaining he meant the comment as praise for China’s swift economic rise.
Scheer suggested Trudeau has taken a conciliatory approach to China for economic reasons, and that he would bring a “total reset” of that relationship, with any free trade deal “a long, long way off.”
“For many years we looked the other way as the allure of China’s market was too powerful to ignore,” he said.
“If this government isn’t willing to stand up to China when two Canadians are unlawfully imprisoned and billions of dollars in trade is under attack, it never will.”
The unlawful imprisonment Scheer referred to was China’s jailing of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor last December, shortly after Canada and China began their dispute over the Huawei telecommunications giant.
The situation between Canada and China has escalated in recent months, with the economic giant recently imposing punitive measures on Canadian canola exporters. Canada has responded by pressing the U.S. to intervene.
Scheer said Canada's alternative is to strengthen ties with other democracies in the Indo-Pacific region, he said, “some of which desperately need more secure access to energy.” He specifically mentioned relationships with India and Japan at other times in the speech.
Both India and Japan are potential markets for Canadian oil from the oilsands sector if pipeline projects such as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project get built.
India and Europe were also seen as potential export markets for the oilsands, natural deposits of heavy oil in Alberta that make up the world's third largest reserves of crude after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, if the Energy East pipeline project had gone ahead. This project was cancelled by Calgary-based TC Energy, the company formerly known as TransCanada, as it chose instead to focus on developing its Keystone XL pipeline linking the Alberta oilsands to export markets and refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
While industry and some governments have argued such pipeline projects could feed existing and anticipated demand, some environmentalists, First Nations and politicians have argued that new pipelines could push Canada's climate change goals out of reach and only succeed in a world that fails to stabilize heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The Trudeau government wasn't the only target in Scheer's speech. The Opposition leader also ventured some criticism of the Donald Trump administration, as well.
“The United States is increasingly reevaluating its traditional alliances and disengaging, to a certain degree, from the world,” he said in a French portion of the speech.
“We must encourage all our allies to stay determined and to keep working together—division and disengagement makes us all more vulnerable.”