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.

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

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.

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.

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Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of folks!

Thing is, it's easy to SAY purge the loonies, but then it's goodbye to all the rural ridings. There are a lot of rural ridings.
And even after the loonies are purged, that's no guarantee the Conservatives would instantly start winning urban/suburban ridings they weren't before. I don't think that much of the younger generation is actually into economic conservatism.
So the Cons are kind of stuck with the loonies. To be an old fashioned, greedy-but-relatively-sane, Conservative politician is to be trying to simultaneously drive the bus and keep half the occupants from grabbing the wheel.

O’Toole has taken on an unenviable job which I think he was confident he could manage but at which his party is balking. The GOP certainly is and, as far as that goes, so are many nominal conservative parties throughout the Western World: Traditional conservative parties, traditionally behind the times which is especially apparent during fast changing times—were usurped by globalizing neo-liberals after the Soviet collapse and Fukuyama’s “End of History”. Thus began its rise, and now its decline is nearing an end.

Let’s call them neo-rightists because they aren’t really conservatives, or even neo-cons. During their four-decade run which peaked about 20 years ago, they’ve managed to hang on to a diminishing number of conservative-minded voters while many have abandoned increasingly extreme policies and many in these generally geriatric parties have simply attritted. Now that Reagan’s “trickle-down” has been thoroughly discredited by yawning income inequities and more frequent ecological disasters that can no longer be denied, neo-right parties are resorting to desperate measures to stave off extinction—like electoral cheating and extremely divisive post-truth and identity politics, devolutions which render rebranding unlikely, and reforming under a supposed conservative brand very distasteful to parties defaulted to extremists recruited to fill growing deficiencies in number.

O’Toole, recall, has bided his time more than any other HarperCon (except, perhaps, Jason Kenney), seemingly waiting for the party to get to this moribund stage when, he hoped, denial and anger were ebbing toward acceptance of the fact that, in order the conservative movement survives, it must both return to conservative basics while focusing them on new realities.

He had reason to believe that stage had come when none of the leadership contestants were from the formerly dominant Western Reform faction, only a quarter, instead of three quarters, were extremists nut-cases, and the 2019 election had about split caucus evenly into East and West for the first time since the party’s Frankenstein creation in 2003. In other words, he went into the job by waiting for and taking advantage of this first, neat bifurcation, one presumes, to convince the party of its existential predicament—but also of its chances, if last chances, to reform itself—like a doctor advising a patient that, if he quits smoking now, before it’s too late, he might survive the rigours of treatment of diseases typically resulting from bad habits.

But that’s the trouble with parties defaulted to extremists fed on a steady diet of red-meat post-truth conspiracy theories (like Kenney’s assertion that everybody from the Rockefellers to Sasquatch are conspiring to beggar Albetar): the PseudoCons’ extremist faction simply doesn’t believe the diagnosis of moribundity— even, like an anti-vaxxer dying of Covid while intubated in an ICU ward who stubbornly refuses a vaccination for some reason even crazier than ignoring a preventable cause of death, when a remedy is readily to hand. What’s a leader to do?

The illusion of prosperity the original neo-rightists purchased at the less-apparent costs to social welfare, wealth fairness, and global ecosystems duped Canadian voters into supporting economic charlatans like the BC Liberals, Ontario’s “Common Sense Revolution” and the unloved HarperCons for a single majority—the zenith of its tepid popularity never since repeated. O’Toole has seen, after back-to-back diminishments in popular vote, even further erosion since becoming leader—now plumbing depths not seen since Mulroney’s ProgCons, winners of two, back-to-back, record-setting majorities, were torn in two by Bouchard’s Bloc and Manning’s Reform and thrashed to two seats without even official party status.

If it’s O’Toole’s strategy to warn his party to reform or die, he might be on the right track. The big problem is, if the CPC gets thrashed as badly as it looks it will, it would, if consistent with traditional Toryism, dump him like a hot potato—just like Dief the Chief, or Andrew Sheer—or even Joe Who. That reaction might be the only thing that keeps this Frankenstein party together.

But, if the CPC fragments completely after the next election, and O’Toole manages to remain leader of, presumably, the more moderate half—which (I’m suggesting) might be a contingency he’s well thought out—then he can begin to rebuild, as I would expect, successfully a moderate Tory party interested in conserving the environment instead of the privileges and subsidies of a dying behemoth (petroleum industry), and contributing constructively to modern polices we need.

It would be the longer road to power than the one he swore was his highest priority (to win power in the next election), perhaps the more difficult medicine many CPCCons don’t want to taste, but a surer path, IMHO, to reforming and rebuilding a constructively contributive Conservative party.

For that is the only way to amputate the extremist factions which powerful interests have cultivated within todays pseudoCon monsters. To ignore this gangrene is to end up like the tRumpublican mess we see writhing in the USA today.

Good luck, Erin: I hope your party gets thrashed and falls apart soon. All the best. Honest!

The Wexit Party (am I alone in thinking that is a childish copycat handle?) is not concerned about the West. It is a set of small-minded ideals emanating from a rump faction of social conservatives and libertarians that reside in Alberta near the Saskatchewan border, which as we all know is the centre of the known universe, right?

Claiming they represent the four western provinces is just plain stupid. If they don't think so, then they need to be challenged to hold a genuine referendum on Alberta separation and see how angry the other three provinces get when lumped in with rural Alberta, and how many hundreds of thousands of people would leave Alberta cities, likely the majority to BC ... which just happens to be located in the West.