In 2015, Justin Trudeau rode his promise of “sunny ways” to 24 Sussex Drive and the prime minister’s office. But as the recent spate of ugly protests at Liberal campaign events shows, Canadian politics have become increasingly defined in the six years since by the ability to hate Trudeau as openly and enthusiastically as possible. And nowhere is that more obvious — or dangerous — than within the ranks of the Conservative Party of Canada.
While Erin O’Toole has tried to present a positive and policy-oriented face to Canadians during this election campaign, he is stewarding a party that still boils with hatred for his opponent. At last Friday’s campaign event, where anti-vaccine protesters hurled obscenities and threats at Trudeau, there were members of Conservative candidate Kyle Seeback’s campaign in the crowd — wearing blue Conservative shirts, no less. Seeback told the media they were “no longer welcome on my campaign,” but the real question is why they thought they were welcome among those protesters in the first place.
Even a cursory glance at some conservative-leaning Facebook groups reveals a level of vitriol and nastiness towards the Liberal leader that could, in the wrong hands, lead to a tragic outcome. As we saw with the rise of the “Yellow Vest” movement in 2019, that’s what some people in these groups seem to be openly rooting for. It almost happened last year, when Corey Hurren showed up at Rideau Hall with a bunch of weapons and a head full of conspiracy theories. “Corey Hurren committed a politically motivated, armed assault intended to intimidate Canada's elected government,” Justice Robert Wadden said in his sentencing decision.
Neither O’Toole nor the Conservative Party of Canada is responsible for Hurren’s crimes. But they are responsible for the conspiracy theories that keep finding a home within their own ranks, and their refusal to root them out more aggressively. In a recent video that’s since been taken down, longtime Ontario Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant suggests the Trudeau Liberals will start calling for a “climate lockdown.” “Trudeau is counting on Liberal-minded Canadians not looking too closely at his agenda. If they did, they might realize Trudeau’s a con man and climate change may be his biggest grift.”
When asked if he agreed with Gallant’s recent comments or the conspiracy-tinged thinking behind them, O’Toole refused to answer the question. “We’re not running on things that were said five months ago, five years ago,” he told reporters. And no wonder — in Gallant’s case, they would include her suggestion to a group of young Conservatives at Queen’s that Liberals “want all illicit drugs to be legal” and “to normalize sexual activity with children.” Back then, O’Toole lamely offered: “Canadians have other priorities and so do I.”
But as the poison of conspiracy theories about vaccines and climate change continues to spread into his base, he needs to make it a priority. The real question at this point is whether he even can. The CPC has spent so long winking at, and flirting with, this fringe element on the right that it may not be able to contain or control it. Indeed, O’Toole’s victory in the leadership race was at least in part a result of his successful flirtation with Derek Sloan and his supporters. And while Sloan was booted out of caucus, his base — the same one that nearly handed Maxime Bernier the leadership of the party in 2017 — abides.
On Twitter, in response to the anti-Trudeau protests, the Conservative Party’s official account said: “The threatening images and behaviour are disgusting. This needs to stop immediately.” And O’Toole, for his part, has said he condemns the harassment his opponent has been receiving: “We have no time for people who bring in negativity to campaigning.” This is an odd statement for someone who won the leadership of his party with the help of Jeff Ballingall, a digital strategist whose capacity for negative campaigning is practically legendary in Canada.
But if O’Toole really wants to nip this stuff in the bud, he needs to channel the late John McCain. At an October 2008 campaign event, the Republican presidential nominee pushed back forcefully against a slur directed at Barack Obama by one of his own supporters. “No, ma’am,” he told the woman. “He’s a decent family man (and) citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.” McCain had the courage to stand up to his own base and call out a lie when he heard it.
So far, O’Toole has shown little of the sort.
If he wants to prove to Canadians that he’s serious here, he can start by giving Gallant the boot. He can make it clear to his own supporters that the prime minister is a good and decent man with different ideas about the country’s future, not a bogeyman who wants to take away their livelihoods or steal the equity in their home, as Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has suggested.
And he can treat conspiracy theories, whether they’re about COVID-19 or climate change, like the poison that they are. If he doesn’t, the consequences could be much bigger than just the outcome of an election.