The messages political leaders release on Canada Day are typically banal, uncontroversial, and seek to rally the country together. Last month, the federal Conservative Party’s two most prominent figures released videos celebrating Canada Day that were at complete odds with one another.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s video was meticulously crafted on the streets of urban Canada with the backdrop of a LGBTQ pride flag, featuring visible minority Canadians intermingling.
If the target audiences for O’Toole’s Canada Day video were not already apparent through symbolism, the leader’s message made them unmistakable: “Let’s build an even better, more inclusive Canada,” he said.
Candice Bergen, the party’s deputy leader, also released a Canada Day video that could not have been more unlike O’Toole’s in both symbolism and substance. Flanked by Canadian and Manitoba flags, Bergen used her video to unleash a divisive culture war.
“We can’t give in to cancel culture. We can’t give in to those who want to erase who we are as Canadians and what we stand for,” avowed Bergen in a video reinforced by images and footage of the military, rural landscapes, and white Canadians.
These two divergent pieces of political communication are illustrative of a Conservative Party that has increasingly become two different parties with opposing values pitted against one another. The first party is personified by O’Toole’s leadership. It is largely urban and suburban, socially progressive, and willing to champion issues not naturally associated with the conservative cause, like mental health awareness and LGBTQ rights. The second party, embodied by Bergen, is overwhelmingly rural, socially and culturally conservative, and anti-establishment.
The modern Conservative Party has long been the most ideologically diverse major Canadian political party since its predecessor Reform/Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties merged in 2003. Since then, the party has embraced a litany of disparate factions, including fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, Red Tories, western-based populists, libertarian-leaning conservatives, and foreign policy conservatives.
As the first leader of the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper was masterful at keeping these opposing factions united under a new party banner in pursuit of power after 13 years of Liberal rule. But since Harper’s departure in 2015, the party has not enjoyed the same fate. Former leader Andrew Scheer failed to inspire the party’s more progressive wing and lost libertarian-leaning support when his chief rival in the Conservative Party’s 2017 leadership contest, Maxime Bernier, quit to form the People’s Party of Canada in 2018.
Following Scheer’s electoral defeat in 2019, the Wexit Canada Party was founded by a group of disenchanted western-based populists committed to constitutional change for the West, if not outright independence. Rebranded as the Maverick Party last year, the regional party is now led by Harper-era cabinet minister Jay Hill and has already nominated 25 candidates to run in predominantly rural western ridings. While Bernier’s and Hill’s neophyte parties remain relatively weak, both will inevitably siphon off Conservative votes in the party’s heartland where O’Toole remains remarkably unpopular.
There are also stark policy cleavages that over the past year have bitterly divided O’Toole’s Conservatives into two broad camps. Three fundamental disagreements have emerged among the caucus and grassroots that touch upon core social, environmental, and economic policies.
Today’s Conservative Party is not viewed as a reliable alternative to the governing Liberals across large pockets of this country, and among several diverse demographics, writes @andrewaperez. #Cdnpoli #CPC
On social policy, over half of the Conservative caucus voted against the Trudeau government’s Bill C-6 to ban gay conversion therapy — a barbaric practice designed to forcibly change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. The government bill exposed a deep rift in O’Toole’s caucus when 62 MPs opposed the bill at third reading, while 57 MPs supported the legislation. Although O’Toole and his more progressive colleagues supported the bill, Bergen and several prominent members of O’Toole’s shadow cabinet opposed the legislation, arguing it would criminalize normal conversations between children and parents regarding sexual orientation.
The vote results sent a torpedo through O’Toole’s caucus, fuelling a public relations nightmare for the party on social media. The vote also split the caucus along urban-rural lines outside Quebec, with a majority of Tory MPs from urban and suburban English Canada supporting the bill, while their rural counterparts overwhelmingly opposed the legislation.
On environmental policy, the caucus and grassroots have become bitterly divided over O’Toole’s pledge to include a carbon price on consumer fuels in the party platform. Climate policy experts have praised the climate plan as credible, but many veteran party activists derided the plan’s carbon savings account as a bizarre, administratively complex mechanism concocted for purely political reasons.The policy, styled as a “carbon levy,” has become a difficult pill for Conservatives to swallow.
And why not? Over the past 15 years, Conservative opposition to carbon pricing has become one of the party’s core orthodoxies in the past four elections. Even O’Toole stridently opposed the carbon tax throughout his leadership bid, signing a pledge that he would never introduce such a tax.
To add insult to injury, the party membership publicly humiliated O’Toole at a virtual convention in March when 54 per cent of delegates defeated a motion that recognized the reality of climate change in Canada. Again, the vote results pointed to deepening ideological and regional fault lines in the party, with the climate change motion finding its fiercest opposition in Western Canada and its greatest support in Quebec and New Brunswick.
Finally, on economic policy, there are clear policy cleavages among Conservatives that have not yet withstood media scrutiny. Throughout the pandemic, O’Toole has insisted he supports the Trudeau government’s several financial support programs. Last fall, at the height of the pandemic’s second wave, the Tory leader went even further when he said Ottawa’s programs weren’t doing enough to help small businesses and workers survive the economic impacts of the pandemic.
O’Toole buttressed his claims with a motion in the Commons demanding the government provide “additional flexibility” in the commercial rent subsidy, wage subsidy, and other support programs. The motion also called for a pause to all government audits of small businesses that had received the emergency wage subsidy. O'Toole's motion represented an obvious policy reversal for his party, whose MPs had demanded the government crackdown on fraudulent CERB claims just months earlier.
Earlier this year, the Tory leader abruptly fired his high-profile finance critic, Pierre Poilievre, an immensely popular figure among the party’s conservative base. Chief among the reasons for Poilievre’s dismissal was a belief that O’Toole wanted to reduce the veteran MP’s profile due to his hardline stances on economic policy and organized labour. Poilievre’s positions on these critical issues represent a large swath of the party, yet are out of step with O’Toole’s economically populist positions. These stances have seen the Tory leader continually reach out to union members, while lambasting the “reckless pursuit of profits by some corporate leaders.”
If Erin O’Toole’s party suffers major losses in the next election, it won’t be a result of his leadership, but due to a party at odds with itself on central policy issues and divided along regional lines. Canada’s Conservatives need not morph into a pale imitation of Trudeau’s Liberal Party to assert their relevance and vie for power. They can, and must champion genuinely conservative positions on economic, trade, and foreign policy. But the future of a serious Conservative Party in this country is one that is pro-LGBTQ, ambitious on fighting climate change, and willing to oversee major government intervention in the economy during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
In spite of O’Toole’s valiant efforts on these three fronts, today’s Conservative Party is not viewed as a reliable alternative to the governing Liberals across large pockets of this country, and among several diverse demographics. For this to change, the Conservative Party might need to endure one more painful electoral defeat before the movement engages in some introspection and plots a credible path back to relevancy — even if this means cutting its losses from a significant portion of the party that refuses to adapt to the political realities of the 2020s. The strength of our democracy will depend on it.
Editor's note: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that deputy Conservative Party leader Candice Bergen appeared before a Royal Union flag in her Canada Day video message. The flag in question was a Manitoba flag.
Andrew Perez is a Toronto-based public affairs professional whose work includes government relations. Over the past decade, he has worked in a variety of public- and private-sector environments advising senior leaders on communication strategies in their interactions with governments and the media. Perez has volunteered on several political campaigns over the years for the federal and Ontario Liberal parties and remains politically active.
You can follow him on Twitter @andrewaperez.