Of all the ways the organizers of the Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference hoped to make news, surely a threat to kill the prime minister wasn’t at the top of the list. But on Wednesday, an American political strategist named Steven Sutton joked — and I use that term under duress — about the prime minister passing a few feet in front of him during his visit to the House of Commons the previous day. “I had my chance,” he said. “I went to the Naval Academy, so I could have killed him 20 different ways.”
Sutton, who boasted in the moment that he “wasn’t afraid of getting cancelled in Canada,” apologized within minutes for the remark. Still, it was a fitting start to an event that will be heavily marbled with those sorts of anti-Trudeau sentiments, and where hatred of the prime minister will be worn as a badge of honour. For conservatives, it will be an opportunity to gather with their peers, marinate in their mutual disdain for the media and trade notes on how they might finally win a federal election for the first time in a decade.
And make no mistake: this is no small gathering of conservative operatives. Instead, it’s a Canadian version of CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference), an annual gathering of the biggest names in American conservative politics and one that sets the tone for the Republican Party across the country. Like CPAC, the Canada Strong and Free conference includes a mix of leading politicians like Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and most of the Conservative Party of Canada’s shadow cabinet, along with conservative cultural influencers like Conrad Black, who will — I kid you not — be delivering a keynote on “working for the middle class.”
That alone is probably worth the price of admission, if only for the absurdity of it all. But for everyone who can’t afford a ticket, it’s an opportunity to reflect on what the Conservative Party of Canada stands for right now — and where it might want to take the country. After all, with the Liberal government continuing to trip on its own shoelaces on a bunch of different files, the Tories’ odds of forming government keep getting better. If they do, this version of the Conservative Party of Canada’s first term in government won’t look much like the last one’s.
It’s easy to forget, given the hard turn to the right that Stephen Harper’s government took at the end of its tenure. But in its earliest days in office, Harper was, well, conservative. He didn’t make big aggressive policy declarations, and he didn’t pick fights with provinces or people he didn’t like. Instead, he slowly and very strategically built his coalition of potential voters until he was able to secure his majority in 2011.
A big part of that strategy involved Progressive Conservatives like the late Jim Prentice (who voted in favour of same-sex marriage while in opposition), Michael Chong, James Moore, Lisa Raitt and Jim Flaherty. They occupied key roles in his cabinets and helped moderate the more inflammatory impulses of the party’s Prairie Reform wing. It’s no coincidence Harper’s big breakthrough in 2011 happened in suburban parts of the Greater Toronto Area and Greater Vancouver, places where conservatism can’t really thrive without at least a hint of its progressive element.
Current Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s party, by contrast, has no such moderating forces. There is no fight it won’t pick, no norm it won’t break and no institution it won’t attack. It thrives on conflict, trades in misinformation (witness CPC communications director Sarah Fischer’s tweet this week that the federal government was going to “triple” the carbon tax on April 1) and turns everything into an opportunity for partisan sniping.
It’s becoming a thinly diluted version of the current Republican Party, one that’s similarly defined by its growing obsession with “woke” culture and other fronts in the culture war. But it’s also a natural extension of the populist mindset that Preston Manning, the founder of the Canada Strong and Free Network, introduced to the conservative universe more than 30 years ago. The skepticism of institutions, disdain for “Laurentian elites” and deep antipathy towards climate policy and anything that might threaten the oil and gas industry have become defining conservative values.
Manning’s takeover of the conservative movement in Canada, in other words, is now complete. And while neither he nor his party was ever able to win an election, his values and beliefs may yet win the day. The question now is whether voters will endorse them in a general election — and what this version of the Conservative Party of Canada might do once in power.