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Standing in a forest of ash and birch trees about a 45-minute drive southwest of downtown Calgary, the Azuridge Estate Hotel is a luxury resort replete with fountains, waterfalls, gray stone façades and exposed wooden beams. It’s a popular wedding destination.
In a conference room at this verdant retreat on April 11, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer and his campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, were huddling with a group of oil company CEOs along with Tim McMillan, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Big Oil’s most powerful lobby group. All of the CEOs present, in fact, are members of CAPP’s board of governors.
One purpose of this meeting? To strategize on how to defeat Justin Trudeau’s government in the federal election this month. The agenda also included discussions about how to silence environmental critics of pipeline projects and the tar sands, including suing them in court.
Scheer provided the keynote address, while Marshall spoke about “rallying the base” by using friendly interest groups.
To some, this meeting at the Azuridge “gave evidence that, guess what, things haven’t really changed a whole lot,” says Nathan Lemphers, an Ottawa-based campaigner with Oil Change International, an advocacy organization that fights the fossil fuel sector.
“(The Conservatives) are still very cozy with oil industry interests and oil money. We’ve seen what that’s done to Alberta politics and it was no different with federal politics under the Harper government.”
CAPP disputes that the event itself was related to the election. But the fact that Andrew Scheer and his inner circle were scheming with oil industry executives to oust Trudeau comes as no surprise. After all, Scheer is widely acknowledged to be a creature of the house that Stephen Harper built — a party designed to serve the energy sector’s interests at every turn.
Indeed, among the Tories’ key election planks is repealing the Liberals' consumer carbon tax, rustling up as many pipelines to the oil sands as possible, removing the ban on oil tankers off the coast of B.C., repealing Bill C-69 (which limits how energy projects are approved) and getting rid of the Liberals' new fuel standard.
Meanwhile, the federal lobbyist registry shows that since he became Tory leader in the summer of 2017, a battalion of oil industry lobbyists have trooped through Scheer’s Ottawa office, including from energy companies such as Imperial Oil, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Suncor, Irving Oil, BHP Billiton Canada, Husky Oil, TC Energy Corp, Enbridge, ConocoPhilips, Syncrude, Cenovus Energy, and lobby groups like CAPP, the Pipe Line Contractors Association and Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.
Does this suggest the 40-year-old Scheer is merely a more genial version of Harper? “He’s a bit of an open book,” muses Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Bratt, in fact, believes Scheer was a “placeholder” leader. “I don’t think (the Conservatives) thought they were going to defeat Trudeau when they had the leadership race (in 2017),” he remarks. “He was the sort of compromise candidate who would last through the election and then they would have another leadership race...Canadians do not know much about Andrew Scheer when he ran and I’m not so sure if they know much about him right now.”
But since last winter that political calculus has changed when the SNC-Lavalin and blackface scandals suddenly soured Trudeau’s electoral prospects. Now Scheer has a very good chance of becoming Canada’s next prime minister.
But what would that mean?
To some, not much — merely the continuation of the status quo. Alain Denault, a sociologist at the Université de Moncton, explains that Canada has a “two-party system” whose ultimate purpose is to allow foreign and domestic corporations to extract the country’s raw resources. “The problem is that Canada, as such, has been governed like a colony since 1867,” says Denault. “This is the problem…The idea is that the Conservatives propose a brutal relationship to power and the Liberals a smiley one, while our regime remains the same — a staple colony organizing the exploitation of raw materials by big corporations.”
Be that as it may, there’s much about Scheer’s agenda that should alarm Canadians.
Scheer's close ties to Rebel Media and the alt-right
On Sept. 1, conservative gadfly Ezra Levant, head of the far-right online TV network Rebel Media, tweeted a question about whether Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland were “actually inviting a convicted British child murderer to move to Canada to hide?”
Levant linked his tweet to an unsourced British tabloid story claiming that Jon Venables, who helped kill an infant when he was a boy in northern England in 1993, was about to move to Canada.
Two hours after Levant tweeted, Scheer issued a tweet of his own, picking up on Levant’s claim, saying it was “disturbing that this pedophile child killer might come to Canada….as Prime Minister I won’t let him come here. Where does Trudeau stand?”
The problem was that none of this was true: Venables was not moving to Canada and would be barred from entry if he tried.
That Scheer was spreading unfounded rumours promoted by Levant is no shocker. After all, the Conservative Party was once thick as thieves with Rebel Media — a relationship which blew up spectacularly in the summer of 2017 when Levant’s network became a favourite outlet for alt-right racists and anti-Semites — notably white nationalist Faith Goldy and Gavin McInnes, founder of the far-right Proud Boys (who once posted a video on Rebel entitled “10 Things I Hate About Jews”). Other Rebel highlights that year included Goldy’s sympathetic coverage of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., and spreading misinformation about who was responsible for the massacre of six Muslims at a Québec City mosque.
Scheer and most mainstream Conservatives quickly cut ties to the network.
Up until that fateful summer, Scheer had conducted three one-on-one interviews with Rebel, including one with Goldy in February 2017, who at that time hosted a show called “On the Hunt."
Yet Scheer could hardly claim ignorance in failing to recognize Rebel’s racist, white nationalist pedigree. Long before 2017, Levant had lost numerous libel lawsuits for defaming a wide range of people, especially for attacking visible minorities, Muslims and prominent members of the Jewish community (he once claimed that billionaire financier George Soros had collaborated with the Nazis as a child).
Moreover, the most important person stickhandling Scheer’s political career is Hamish Marshall, his campaign manager. A University of Toronto and Oxford-educated strategist who worked in Stephen Harper’s PMO, Marshall is considered the brains behind Scheer’s rise to prominence. “He’s a super smart guy,” says Warren Kinsella, a Toronto-based political consultant. “He’s a great numbers guy, a great data guy…He should not be underestimated.”
But Marshall also played a key role in establishing Rebel Media and keeping it financially afloat. Marshall worked with Levant back when Levant launched the “Ethical Oil” astroturf campaign to extol the virtues of the oil sands (Marshall’s wife, Kathryn, became Ethical Oil’s spokesperson).
Marshall ran a communications company called Torch Agency, who wrote the source code for Rebel’s website design. Marshall also helped develop Rebel’s business model, and his name appears as a director for Rebel News Network Ltd. going back to 2016. He listed his business address as that of Rebel headquarters in Toronto — from where he worked on Scheer’s leadership campaign. The website’s donation pages and fundraising operation were also designed by Marshall’s firm.
This sort of flirtation with alt-right and bigoted sensibilities has been long part of Scheer’s historical milieu.
Scheer wielded dirty politics to get elected as MP
Born and raised in Ottawa, Scheer is the son of a nurse and a Roman Catholic deacon. “What you have to remember about him is that he’s a genuine person of faith,” says Michael Coren, author, host and former conservative political commentator.
After graduating from Catholic high school, Scheer studied history at the University of Ottawa. By then he was dabbling in conservative politics, including a campaign to merge the PC and Reform parties. In 2000, he ran as a school trustee for the local Catholic school board.
After he got married, Scheer moved to his wife’s hometown of Regina where he finished his undergraduate degree. He worked briefly as an insurance clerk (which he later lied about, claiming he was an insurance broker), waiter and at the office of a local Canadian Alliance MP.
In 2004, at age 25, Scheer won a seat in the federal riding of Regina-Qu’Appelle, beating veteran New Democratic Party MP Lorne Nystrom by a tiny margin. Scheer won due to the splitting of the vote between the Liberals and NDP. Scheer was not above playing dirty politics either: three days before election day, Scheer's campaign sent out a letter to voters accusing Nystrom of being soft on child pornography. Nystrom had made some remarks during a House of Commons debate on legislation designed to regulate pornography about "artistic merit and freedom of expression" - citing Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel Lolita as a prime example but did not say anything about child pornography. "It tells you about the character of (Scheer)," says Nystrom in an interview. "Scheer has proven himself since as someone who lies constantly...He took something and distorted it and lied about it."
Once in Parliament, Scheer remained an obscure but loyal backbencher. Then, in 2008, he was named deputy speaker. Three years later, he was elevated to Speaker of the House of Commons, the youngest person to hold that post. “By all accounts he was a good Speaker but by all accounts the reason he was Speaker is because Harper didn’t think he was good enough to be in his cabinet,” remarks political scientist Duane Bratt.
Still, Kinsella points out that in order to become Speaker you must have support from every party in the House of Commons. “My experience is that someone does not become Speaker… by being a doctrinaire maniac,” he says. “Scheer was picked to be Speaker, and more than once, by all of the political parties. So what was it about him that persuaded not just the Tories but the Liberals and New Democrats to vote for him? And to me this is just part of his hidden strength.”
Indeed, Scheer evinces a genial, easy-going, even bland personality. “When Jason Kenny announced his big ‘fight back’ strategy at an energy conference in Calgary a year ago,” recalls Bratt, “Scheer was there and even Conservatives were going ‘Who is this guy?’ He showed up late, he left early, never worked the room and people didn’t pay attention when he spoke…I’ve made the comment that if you look at Conservative leaders across the country, Scheer is number three. It’s (Jason) Kenney, (Doug) Ford and Scheer – in that order.”
Still, Scheer’s time as Speaker was not without issues. He was linked to the Tories’ 2011 federal election voter suppression scandal whereby the party tried to direct non-Conservative voters to the wrong polling booths in ridings where the vote was close. Scheer was a client of Campaign Research, a firm linked to the scandal and which had issued robocalls claiming that prominent Liberal MPs were stepping down. He was criticized by opposition MPs over his interventions during debates that he was blocking questions raised about the scandal in Parliament.
By the time the Conservatives lost in 2015, most of Harper’s senior cabinet ministers were long gone. Moreover, with Trudeau’s win, it was assumed the Tories would be out of power for at least two terms.
In September 2016, Scheer announced his bid for the party’s leadership, saying he had the support of 32 members of the Conservative caucus. Hamish Marshall ran his campaign. “No one, including Andrew Scheer, thought he would be the leader of the party,” says Coren. “He won on the thirteenth ballot with less than one percent of the vote. It became ‘Anyone but Maxime Bernier’ and suddenly here is Scheer who is like a deer caught in the headlights. I mean, he really doesn’t know what to do.”
Indeed, Scheer’s introduction onto the national stage was tainted. At the 2017 Conservative convention in Toronto, the vote tally between him and Bernier was so small Bernier questioned the results. Fueling the fire was a mysterious discrepancy of 7,466 votes and the party’s chief returning officer ordering all of the ballots destroyed before a recount could happen. Bernier then accused Scheer of manipulating the vote by signing up "fake Conservatives," temporary members in Québec organized by the dairy lobby. Bernier soon bolted the party.
Since then, Scheer has revealed himself to be a clumsy and unpolished politician, even goofy at times, although he has made few missteps during this campaign. “Based on what happened with the SNC-Lavalin scandal, you would think (Scheer) would be up eight points on Trudeau,” remarks Bratt. “And the fact they are neck-and-neck has to be owned by Andrew Scheer. He has not been able to capitalize on the massive scandal.”
Tories under Harper became more hardline and bigoted
The party Scheer inherited is not the PC Party of Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Under Harper, the Conservatives emerged more unrepentantly reactionary, ideological and hardline. “Red Toryism is dead,” says Coren. “It simply doesn’t exist anymore.”
During Harper’s reign, the Conservatives employed four tactics: ally themselves closely with Big Oil, tax cuts (especially for corporations), go to war with environmental, Indigenous and social justice groups, and embrace Islamophobia/anti-Arab bigotry. This meant ignoring or denying climate change, building pipelines, auditing environmental groups, and portraying Arabs as terrorists or less than civilized.
This was seen in the treatment of Omar Khadr, who was accused of killing an American soldier during a firefight in Afghanistan at age 15. Khadr was detained at Guantánamo Bay by the Americans for 10 years where he was often brutally tortured. Yet the Harper government fought hard to keep him first in American custody, and then behind bars, despite the fact that a 2010 Supreme Court ruling found that his human rights were violated while in Guantánamo Bay.
During the 2015 election, the Tories took a hardline position on Muslim headwear and vowed to set up a police hotline to report what it called “barbaric cultural practices."
Has Scheer adopted Harper’s worldview?
The short answer seems to be yes.
A good example is climate change, which has been a central issue in this year’s election campaign. For months, Scheer simply refused to issue a plan on how to respond to the global heating crisis.
Finally realizing that ignoring the issue wasn’t working, Scheer unveiled a blueprint in June which he said would meet Canada’s emissions reduction targets but also allow for the elimination of the federal consumer carbon tax. “Conservatives fundamentally believe that you cannot tax your way to a cleaner environment,” said Scheer. “Instead, the answer lies in technology.”
Yet his plan was quickly condemned. Environmental economist David Sawyer, a fellow with Carleton University’s school of public policy, along with two colleagues, analyzed the Tory scheme and concluded in a report it would “increase emissions by 9.1 Mt (Megatons) in 2022, relative to the current and announced measures being planned by the federal and provincial governments.”
“(The Tory climate plan) costs more and raises emissions,” says Sawyer in an interview with the National Observer. He points out that Scheer wants to reintroduce a home retrofitting plan that the Harper government canceled after discovering it was both uneconomical and simply didn’t work. “You cannot subsidize enough retrofits to get to their emission numbers,” says Sawyer, before concluding: “The Conservatives are deferring to the CAPP view of the world – grow investments in the oil sands.”
Indeed, Scheer has done everything possible to show himself a true ally of Big Oil. Along with the premiers of New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario, he has taken up the cause of the canceled Energy East pipeline that was proposed to carry oil from the tar sands all the way to New Brunswick. He’s suggested Canada is not “energy independent” – despite the fact Canada has long been a net exporter of oil, only importing one barrel of crude oil for every 7.5 barrels it produces.
In February, Scheer appeared at a “United We Roll” protest on Parliament Hill, a convoy of oilsands workers and supporters who arrived in Ottawa from Alberta. Yet the convoy had been roiled by controversy after initially being described as a “Yellow Vest convoy,” after the French protesters who adopted yellow vests as a symbol of protest. The Canadian protesters changed the name after questions arose whether they’d also embraced anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Indeed, among the people who addressed the rally in Ottawa was Goldy. Yet Scheer was unrepentant about his participation.
Scheer also refused to show up at any of Climate Strike marches held across the country on Sept. 27, including in Montreal where the crowd was estimated at half a million people.
Scheer has been guilty of insensitivity towards Muslims and Arabs. This past winter, when an alt-right white-supremacist entered two mosques in New Zealand and slaughtered 51 people, Scheer’s initial statement of sympathy did not mention the attack was against Muslims or occurred at mosques.
Then, this past June, Scheer was forced to remove Tory MP Michael Cooper from his position on the justice committee after Cooper read an extract from the shooter's manifesto to Muslim witnesses testifying before the committee. Cooper was forced to apologize.
This past August, the National Council of Canadian Muslims asked that Toronto-area Conservative candidate Ghada Melek step down after she appeared to have once retweeted a post that blamed Detroit’s “economic hell” on Islamist extremism. She also had voiced displeasure at an ad seeking tolerance for hijabs. In a Vice article, Melek was also accused of backing an expert who supported conversion therapy for LBGQT people. Melek denied she supports conversion therapy and says she stands behind Muslim Canadians.
Still, Melek's views were considered so controversial that Ontario's Tory party had rejected her as a candidate in 2017. Scheer, on the other hand, has not removed her as a federal candidate.
Scheer is anti-abortion and against same sex marriage, but said a Conservative government would not reopen these issues. At a press conference in August, Scheer refused to tell reporters whether his own opinion on same-sex marriage has changed since he made strong remarks about it back in 2005, as caught on a video recording.
In the House of Commons that year debating a bill on same sex marriage, Scheer asked at one point: "How many legs would a dog have if you counted the tail as a leg? The answer is just four. Just because you call a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg. If this bill passes, governments and individual Canadians will be forced to call a tail a leg, nothing more." And once again, Scheer declined to participate in any Pride parade, unlike Trudeau, May and Singh (Bernier has walked in Pride parades in the past).
Scheer's chances of becoming prime minister are good
What are the chances of Scheer becoming prime minister?
According to Kinsella, pretty damn good. Under Harper, the Conservative Party built an enormously effective fundraising operation and grassroots organizing apparatus, which gets their voters to the polls.
More importantly, they developed the technology and messaging to reach key voters in key ridings who can sway elections. Kinsella says the 2016 U.S. election and Brexit vote revealed “there’s a good five to six per cent conservative vote that hides from pollsters. And that’s why I think that Scheer has got a real shot at winning and maybe even a majority, because this hidden conservative constituency tends to be male, high school-educated, maybe a college degree, and feels like societies have left them behind.”
“That constituency exists in Canada too and they hide from the polling industry,” continues Kinsella. “And you can see (the Tories) trying to devise ways to find them…There is this constituency who comes out on election day and changes the outcome.”
Indeed, Marshall is the sort of data wonk who understands how to reach those disaffected right-wing voters, people who may be key to putting his man in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Says Kinsella: “If you are the Conservative Party and you can identify and activate that five to six per cent, then watch out."