Will radical right-wing politics and an anti-fact agenda sink Canada’s conservative coalition?

Politics | Gregory Beatty | March 10, 2002

Before Vladimir Putin went insane in Ukraine, the year’s biggest news story — in Canada anyway — was the protests over Covid restrictions. Given its clear partisan politics (demonstrators were proudly anti-Trudeau and were supported by right-wing politicians) and overwhelming ridiculousness, I thought I’d ask my Magic Eightball if Canada’s conservative movement has jumped the shark and gone full-on Trump populist.

“Signs point to yes,” it replied. There you have it, straight from the Magic Eightball.

Not that anyone needs a fortune-telling novelty toy to figure out that Canada’s right wing has lost its way, if not it’s mind. Just look at what’s happened, federally and provincially, in the last couple of months.

On Wednesday, Feb. 2, federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole was dumped by a 73–45 caucus vote. Manitoba Member of Parliament Candice Bergen — who once famously posed in a camo MAGA hat — was appointed interim leader.

The O’Toole coup came in the early days of truck convoy protests that besieged Canada, wreaking havoc in Ottawa (and gumming up other Canadian cities), and blocking billions in trade at Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge (with smaller blockades at Coutts, Alberta and Emerson, Manitoba).

The night O’Toole was ousted, Saskatchewan MPs Andrew Scheer, Kevin Waugh and Fraser Tolmie gave a thumbs-up to the convoy in a photo with Senator Denise Batters and Sask. MP Rosemarie Falk under a Saskatchewan flag. Batters bookended that endorsement nicely on Feb. 23 when she described the protestors as “friendly” and “patriotic”, and claimed they’d been unfairly maligned by the “chattering classes.”

“Friendly”? “Patriotic”? Never mind that a stated goal of convoy organizers was to overthrow the country’s legally elected federal government. Or the three weeks of non-stop diesel fumes and truck exhaust smothering downtown Ottawa citizens and businesses, along with ear-splitting noise, harassment and abuse, and the less-than-comforting knowledge protestors were stockpiling fuel in their urban neighbourhood.

Early in Alberta’s two-week Coutts blockade, meanwhile, a United Conservative Party MLA showed up to voice support. That later proved awkward, after RCMP arrested 13 members of a far-right militia that had brought a cache of weapons to the standoff.

Oh yeah, and on Feb. 16 Jason Kenney and Scott Moe co-signed a letter with 16 U.S. Republican governors urging their respective federal governments to yield to the protestors’ Covid demands.

There’s more (such as Moe removing Covid restrictions while maintaining a state of emergency to suspend healthcare workers’ labour rights), but you get the point.

Conservatives chucked rational Canadians under the bus for a bunch of shouty, proudly misinformed jerks.

Jumped the shark? More like nuked the fridge.

Tripping On The Trump Stump

A Trump-style takeover is harder to pull off in a multi-party parliamentary system like Canada’s than it is the U.S.’s two-party system, says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith. Still, conservative Canada is definitely engaged in a tug-of-war for the movement’s soul.

“The far-right is far more mobilized coming out of this pandemic than I think any of us would’ve predicted two years ago,” Smith says. “And the mainstream right is terrified of them fracturing the movement, or even taking over.”

O’Toole fell out of favour when he courted that faction to win the leadership in August 2020, then softened some core Conservative policies to try to broaden the party’s appeal to centre/left Canadian voters. The move was necessary, he argued, to avoid a repeat of the 2019 federal election. The Conservatives won more votes than any other party1. But thanks to the party’s support being heavily concentrated in western Canada, it failed to capture enough seats in urban and suburban Canada to form government.

Supporters felt betrayed by O’Toole’s move to moderate policies.

“It’s definitely true that to win the leadership you have to appease social and western conservatives,” says Simon Enoch, Saskatchewan head of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “But to do that, you have to promise to deliver on policies the vast majority of Canadians dislike.”

The party leadership convention has been set for September. Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poliviere appears to be the early front-runner, says Enoch.

“At this point, he seems to be the anointed one,” he says. “My question is, can he find common ground with the elements in the party that are more electorally appetizing for Canadians? So far, he’s not been very good at showing a moderate face. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool conservative attack dog and has the record to show for it.”

Twice now, with Scheer in 2019 and O’Toole last September, Conservatives’ have struck out with their “change the messenger, not the message” election strategy. With Poilievre in charge, would the third at-bat be the charm?

Smith is skeptical.

“The problem with moving hard-right is that for the Conservatives to win they have to outperform the Liberals in key battlegrounds where hard-right messages are much tougher to sell. There is a danger for the party if they move too far to the right,” Smith says.

“But at the same time, I think Conservatives are nervous about splitting the right-wing vote with the likes of Maxine Bernier and Peoples Party of Canada. They are trying to navigate that terrain,” he says.

The PPC are still seatless after two elections, but their vote share climbed from 1.62 per cent in 2019 to 4.94 per cent in 2021. That might not be surprising since, in the 2017 Conservative leadership race, Bernier finished a strong second to Scheer on the thirteenth ballot.

Feeling they’ve been burned by O’Toole, hard-right conservatives likely won’t be keen to compromise on policy with the new leader — not with Bernier there to woo them.

“There are obviously strong elements of libertarianism in the Conservative party, so internally they have this struggle going on,” says Smith. “And if that wing wins, it becomes a lot harder for them to form government [because] most Canadians are not there.”

Tough Trek To Victory

Like in 2019 the Conservatives once again got slightly more votes than the Liberals in last fall’s election2. But again, they failed to win enough urban seats to form government.

Still, they were in the hunt. So maybe third time could be a charm?

“Say the Conservatives stay with the same message,” says Enoch. “While it may not be appetizing for most Canadians, in our parliamentary system you only need between 35 and 40 per cent of the vote to win a majority. You need even less to get a minority.”

Base Conservative support is around 30 per cent, says Enoch. “If there’s enough disaffection with Trudeau [and] if the so-called progressive vote is adequately split between the Liberals, NDP and Greens, you could very well see a Poilievre, even without taming the message, win a high enough vote percentage to become prime minister.”

But Smith says the Conservatives’ convoy performance is likely to work against them next election.

“You can imagine the attack ads Liberal and New Democrat strategists are thinking about. If Poilievre does win the leadership, there’s a lot of fodder there to go after him or anyone else in the party who got chummy with the convoy folk.

“There were a lot of elements in that movement,” Smith says. “But polls show most Canadians were uncomfortable with the messaging, and other parties will remind voters of that come election time.”

Smith also wonders what the business and investment community thought of prominent federal and provincial conservatives egging on the occupation and blockades. This happened at a time when supply chains are already frayed by two years of Covid and multiple climate change disasters.

“I don’t think they are very comfortable with it,” Smith says. “There’s a reason why Doug Ford moved quickly when Ambassador Bridge was blocked. Protests may be fine and dandy, but once you start messing with business where cars, computers and other things aren’t being made, that’s when Ford moved aggressively.” [See sidebar.]

Echoes of Insurrection

The Ottawa occupation and border blockades came on the heels of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington, D.C. and it’s not hard to see a link — starting with the many millions in funding the convoy attracted from U.S. sources, and the fawning coverage Fox News, Russia Today and other right-wing media outlets gave the protestors.

“The Trump takeover of the Republican party and the rhetoric of the far right in the U.S. — along with the power and influence of the Christian right in the party — has spilled over into Canada,” says Smith. “That old adage ‘whatever happens there happens in Canada a decade later’ seems to be somewhat true in this case.”

The Christian right was prominent at the Ottawa occupation and border blockades. Same with flag-waving white nationalists, American-wannabe libertarians spouting confused constitutional nonsense, and pro-fossil fuel climate change deniers — all core parts of Trump’s base.

As we know from the convoy, there’s big money behind the movement. And that money backs an agenda, says Enoch.

“Thomas Frank had a great book in 2008 called The Wrecking Crew,” he says. “The thesis was that conservatives, at the end of the day, don’t want to govern — they want to wreck. If it can be shown that government is inept and incapable, people will naturally seek out the private sector as an alternative.”

Another hallmark of the far-right movement is tremendous distrust in government and other public institutions, says Enoch. “It includes media, the scientific community, [schools and universities]; and as an ironic consequence I think you’re seeing ordinary Canadians’ trust in police and government eroding too because there hasn’t been a good response to it.”

Covid was the supposed cause célèbre of the convoy, but even if we do finally put the pandemic behind us, further battles lie ahead — one biggie being over climate change, as steps to reduce GHG emissions (out of necessity) really begin to pinch.

“The erosion of our institutions is coming at the worst possible time,” says Enoch. “With climate change we’re going to be confronted with a whole host of disasters and adaptation crises that are absolutely going to need a robust state.”

“Unfortunately, we’ve dismantled that capacity over the last 30 years based on conservative ideas.  And this current movement is just trying to erode our institutions further,” he says.

1. In Canada’s 2019 federal election the Conservatives received 6.2 million votes (34.34% of the total), putting them a hair ahead of the Liberals (6.02 million votes, 33.12%).

2. 5.74 million votes (33.7%) to 5.6 million (32.6%).


The Far-Right Flank

Federal Conservatives aren’t the only ones looking over their (right) shoulder at a rival party eager to supplant them. Jason Kenney’s UCP in Alberta, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in Ontario and Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan Party here all have right-wing competition.

The danger for the governing parties isn’t so much that the rival will beat them, says Simon Enoch. It’s that the rival will split the right-wing vote and nudge them farther right.

“Of course, they want to see the centre-left vote continue to be fractured, but they all know what happens when their vote is fractured,” he says. “They can’t even win a minority unless they are united.

Of the three premiers, Moe is probably least vulnerable. Still, he reaches out regularly to his right flank, as he did in his election night victory speech in October 2020.

Kenney looked vulnerable a few months ago, but a recent surge in oil prices will likely quell some of the discontent — although there is real anger in Alberta, and he does face a leadership review in April.

And Ontario? It goes to the polls in June. And for Ford, right-wing vote splitting is a real worry, says Charles Smith.

“Ford’s style as a leader may be populist, with things like his obsession with ‘buck a beer’, but the party itself is battling for the same voters as the federal Liberals — highly urban, post-industrial, with a smaller blue-collar working class than in other areas,” he says.

“But there is a far-right presence in Ontario, with two parties,” Smith adds. “If support was to coalesce around one, it could be a concern for the PCs as it gives a golden opportunity to the NDP and Liberals.”

That dynamic is reflected in the different approaches the premiers took to the truck occupations and border blockades. Kenny and Moe trashed the federal government, while Ford took a more cooperative approach. 

“Moe and Kenney had the luxury of not having the biggest protests in their provinces,” says Enoch. “There was Coutts, but it wasn’t billions of dollars a day like at Ambassador Bridge, or having a major city occupied and citizens clamouring for a response.

“Ford had to be more pragmatic, while Moe and Kenney were free to approach things ideologically as they do with most issues,” he says.