Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Party’s folksy unifier

The aw-shucks demeanour of the new leader of the opposition and the federal Tories belies his complexity, and maybe his electability, too
Andrew Scheer. (Chris Roussakis)
Andrew Scheer. (Chris Roussakis)
Andrew Scheer. (Chris Roussakis)

On Boxing Day in 1989, 10-year-old Andrew Scheer woke up in his family’s townhouse and trudged out into the snowy Ottawa morning, as usual, to deliver papers. Growing up in a household where he often discussed the news with his parents and two sisters, Scheer naturally looked to see what was on the front page. The big headline, “Secret firing squad executes Ceausescus,” wouldn’t have held much interest for many kids.

But for Scheer, who was elected leader of the federal Conservatives in May, the story was gripping. Reading that report from Romania, he recalled in a recent interview, fired his interest in politics in a new way. It said the ousted dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena had been tried and convicted by a military tribunal on Christmas Day. The account included the florid declaration “the anti-Christ is dead,” used by the new regime in Bucharest to announce the notorious couple’s execution by firing squad.

Scheer knew that a branch of his family originated in Romania. He had played NATO vs. Warsaw Pact video games. His family had watched TV reports on the fall of the Berlin Wall less than two months before. More importantly, his father, James Scheer, was the Ottawa Citizen’s newsroom librarian, and encouraged serious talk about current affairs. “What fascinated me,” Scheer says, “is the fact that [Ceausescu’s] own people assassinated him, or executed him.”

RELATED: ‘Romanian Nuremberg’: Exacting payback for Communist crimes

So he went to his bookish dad with a lot of questions. “Could that happen here? Why not?” The answers that stuck with him, he says, added up to Canadian democracy being different. “We don’t have to worry about a strongman taking over and having to live in that situation for decades, and finally taking him out by violence.”

Fixating on foreign upheaval isn’t the sort of coming-of-age moment a politician typically chooses to highlight. For Scheer, with his signature slight smile and average-guy air, there’s something unexpected, almost jarring, in the notion that he displayed a precocious curiosity about violence and political legitimacy.

But then his aw-shucks demeanour belies his complexity.

Praised by political allies for his knack for clicking with ordinary folks, Scheer is also a creature of Parliament Hill and a denizen of party backrooms. Born and raised in Ottawa, and bilingual, he’s based in Regina, his wife’s hometown, where he cultivated deep support among Prairie-bred, Reform-rooted Conservatives. A Catholic whose personal views win him credibility with his party’s social-conservative wing, he’s also firmly against letting abortion or same-sex marriage turn into active policy files again.

How Canadian voters interpret Scheer’s dissonances before the next federal election in 2019 has become a pressing question in federal politics.

Scheer’s conservatism starts with his parents. His mother, Mary, who died last spring at 73 during the Conservative leadership race, was a nurse. When Andrew was growing up, she worked at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. She was active in the anti-abortion movement as a member of a pro-life nurses’ group, and in Conservative politics at the riding level both provincially and federally.

His father only signed up as a Conservative after Andrew launched his career in the party. However, Jim Scheer’s ideological bent and studious habits strongly influenced his son. Although trained as a teacher, he worked at the Citizen’s library for many years.

His own book collection filled the basement. Scheer says his father often called home from work after being asked a tricky research question by a reporter. “He’d say, ‘Okay, Andrew, go down to the library, and on the second bookshelf by the window, open up such-and-such a book, first chapter, what does the line say?’ ”

Scheer says his father’s job at the paper, combined with Ottawa’s politics-saturated atmosphere, prompted many family discussions. His father’s way of tackling current affairs wasn’t casual. “It was a lot of deep political theory and first principles,” Scheer says. “ ‘Is this a good policy or a bad policy?’ wasn’t always the question. It was, ‘Does the government even have a role to play in doing that?’ ”

Andrew didn’t rebel against his parents’ right-leaning convictions. In 1998, in a computer class at Immaculata High School, the Catholic school where he studied in a French-immersion program, Scheer discovered the website of Preston Manning’s Reform Party. He emailed the youth coordinator and before long was working part-time for Manning.

Canadian Alliance candidate Preston Manning (right) gives a high five to Andrew Scheer, then of the University of Ottawa Canadian Alliance Club during a stop in the Manning campaign headquarters in Ottawa, Monday, July 3, 2000. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)
Canadian Alliance candidate Preston Manning (right) gives a high five to Andrew Scheer, then of the University of Ottawa Canadian Alliance Club during a stop in the Manning campaign headquarters in Ottawa, Monday, July 3, 2000. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

He arrived on Parliament Hill at a watershed moment. Created by Manning in 1987, Reform rose as a Western populist movement and split the federal right-of-centre vote throughout the 1990s. After the 1997 election, Manning led the Official Opposition to Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government. But the Liberals’ dominance over a divided right prompted Manning to launch his so-called United Alternative bid to bring Reformers and Progressive Conservatives back together.

Scheer’s first job with Manning was to work on the UA project. After two conventions in 2000 in Ottawa, Reform was recast as the Canadian Alliance, and Scheer shifted to work on Manning’s campaign to lead the rebranded party. When the Albertan patriarch of populism was upset by B.C. MP Stockwell Day for the Alliance leadership, Scheer stayed on to work in Day’s operation on the Hill in correspondence and communications.

During this period of upheaval, Scheer combined studying history and political science at the University of Ottawa with his party work on the Hill, while still living at home. He made key friends among young Alliance operatives, notably Hamish Marshall, who went on to manage Scheer’s successful 2017 leadership campaign.

The early partisan experiences of Scheer, Marshall and their peers were dominated by the struggle to reconstitute an alternative to the Liberals that actually stood a chance of forming a government. “It was obvious after the ’97 election that as long as there were two small-c conservative parties trying to destroy each other, the Liberals would win every election,” Scheer says.

An elder statesman in the party, former B.C. MP Chuck Strahl, now 60, watched Scheer and his cohort internalize the lesson that unity was imperative. “He lived through that as a backroom guy. He went through the angst we all went through,” Strahl says. “It was unproductive, it was cranky, it was bitter.”

RELATED: Chuck Strahl: Why a divided Conservative Party cannot stand

The way those formative experiences inscribed the danger of schism on Scheer’s political DNA defined his leadership run. He scrupulously avoided stoking divisions. When he was trailing Kevin O’Leary (who eventually dropped out) and Maxime Bernier (the odds-on favourite after O’Leary’s exit), some of Scheer’s campaign strategists urged him to get tough. “You’d hear chatter around a conference call,” says Strahl, who chaired Scheer’s campaign, “and then after a few minutes, Andrew would come on and say, ‘This is why this will not work: the party will not accept us attacking a front-runner for personal aggrandizement.’ ”

Scheer’s bet that casting himself as a unifier would work better than exploiting divisions paid off. His wife, Jill Scheer, has an explanation for it that goes beyond strategy: he wasn’t all that afraid of losing. “He always said, ‘If I don’t win the leadership, being a member of Parliament is my dream,’ ” she says. “He said, ‘I walk up to the Parliament buildings every day, and I look up and I just think, I can’t believe I get to work here.’ ”

Jill met Scheer when she was studying education at the University of Regina and he was at the University of Ottawa. Her best friend had met his best friend on an internet chat site—a novelty in those days—and, thinking Jill and Andrew would hit it off, arranged for them to talk. Jill says she placed the first phone call, which Andrew answered on his cell at Texas Steak Co., a restaurant where he had a part-time job. He was cleaning the light fixtures. “The very first time we talked, when you do that, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said I wanted to be a mom and he said he wanted to be the prime minister,” she says. “And so I knew exactly what I was getting into.”

Jill transferred to the University of Ottawa for two years, then back to Regina to finish her degree. In 2003, Andrew followed, and he quickly signed up to work on the unsuccessful provincial campaign of a candidate for the right-leaning Saskatchewan Party. Within a year, audaciously for a 25-year-old interloper from Ottawa, he won the nomination for the 2004 federal election as a candidate for Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party of Canada in the riding of Regina-Qu’Appelle, then beat the long-time incumbent, NDP MP Lorne Nystrom. Scheer has held the riding in every election since.

If Regina suited him, though, it wasn’t because his new wife’s family was an obvious political fit: Scheer describes the Ryans as “very left-wing.” In fact, Jill’s brother Steve Ryan twice ran unsuccessfully for the provincial NDP. The brothers-in-law enjoy arguing about politics, but the rest of the family doesn’t. “We’ve asked them not to talk at the Sunday supper table, because what they perceive as a good old political conversation some of us think of as fighting,” Jill says.

It’s her other brother, though, who attracts more outside attention. Jon Ryan is the star punter for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. “Where [Andrew] grew up in a political family, I grew up in a football family,” Jill says. Indeed, on Scheer’s first visit with the Ryans, her father took him to the basement to watch videotape of his two sons playing for the Regina city-championship-winning Sheldon-Williams Collegiate Spartans.

If Scheer adapted to the Ryans’ passions, Jill quickly got a full immersion in Scheer’s. On what amounted to their second date, Scheer says, he invited her to meet him in Calgary for a Canadian Alliance convention. “So she drove to Calgary,” he says. “Completely apolitical, no background in politics, and she found herself holding a Preston sign, chanting ‘Pres-ton, Pres-ton.’ ”

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, second from left, has lunch with his wife Jill and there children, from left to right, Thomas, Mary, Madeline, Henry, and Grace in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Canada Day, Saturday, July 1, 2017. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)
Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, second from left, has lunch with his wife Jill and their children, from left to right, Thomas, Mary, Madeline, Henry, and Grace in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Canada Day, Saturday, July 1, 2017. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Since those early initiations, Scheer has sunk deep roots in Regina. He and Jill have five children. She says he took naturally to the city’s small-town feel, which extends to “mowing neighbours’ lawns and shovelling their snow.” Local friends like Warren Steinley, an MLA in Premier Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government, talks of backyard barbecues and family baseball games with the Scheers. “When he stops and talks to people on the street,” Steinley says, “he wants to know how they’re doing, and he’s not just saying it.”

Scheer says his manner was changed by reading—not long after he moved to Regina—Dale Carnegie’s Depression-era self-help perennial How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book influenced him more, he says, than any other. “I was probably that obnoxious kid in first-year university who would try to win a political debate by just, you know, being belligerent,” he says with a laugh. Reading Carnegie taught him that “people don’t want to be insulted, people don’t want to feel like you’re talking down to them, people want to feel included and have a role in the decision-making process.”

With his likeability, his bilingualism and his deep party experience, Scheer’s potential as a leader looks solid on paper. But he followed a path in politics that did not showcase him as an obvious partisan champion. As an MP, he gravitated toward the internal functioning of the House, eventually serving as its youngest-ever Speaker from 2011 to 2015. As the black-robed referee in the Commons, he had to stay out of the fray.

After the Conservatives suffered their 2015 election defeat, prompting Harper’s immediate resignation, Scheer’s profile began to change. Interim Tory Leader Rona Ambrose named him her House leader, a role that drew on his experience with parliamentary procedure as Speaker, but also put him near the heart of partisan action, including the daily paroxysm of Question Period. “As soon as he took on that House leader’s role,” Strahl says, “I thought, well, I wonder what his plans are.”

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Others were wondering the same thing. Early entries in the Conservative leadership race included MPs Michael Chong, Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier. But bigger names, including Jason Kenney and Peter MacKay, counted themselves out. Some MPs and Saskatchewan supporters encouraged Scheer to join the beatable field. Scheer says he called Marshall, his close friend from those early days on the Hill, now a sought-after communications consultant, to ask if he’d manage the campaign. Marshall was in, and soon so was Scheer.

Their campaign was disciplined, almost stealthy. Scheer says he went into it insisting he would not attack his rivals. Targets of opportunity were plentiful. Leitch proposed a controversial “values tests” for newcomers to Canada. Bernier promised massive tax reductions without quite explaining where he’d cut spending to pay for them. Chong drew fire for proposing a carbon tax to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

By comparison, Scheer’s policy package was restrained. He promised to repeal the national carbon price Justin Trudeau had negotiated with most provinces, calling it “nothing more than a cash grab,” an essential stance to win over Conservatives in oil-producing Alberta and Saskatchewan. He proposed a tax deduction for parents who send their kids to private schools or home-school them, a popular idea among religious Conservatives. He vowed to deny federal grants to universities that don’t defend “a culture of free speech and inquiry,” a hot-button issue among Conservatives who detest what they regard as campus “political correctness.”

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But Scheer’s main appeal was less about platform than persona. He sold himself as acceptable to all sorts of Conservatives. His unrelenting emphasis on unity led to Scheer being dubbed “Stephen Harper with a smile.” Harper was the driving force behind the uniting of the right under the Conservative banner in 2004. His success in holding the coalition together, leading it to form a minority government in 2006 and a majority in 2011, left no doubt about his ability to keep factions in check.

The internal fault lines Scheer straddles now look less volatile than those Harper somehow managed. Still, there are the free-market libertarians who rallied to Bernier, the pro-carbon-tax centrists who favoured Chong and the so-cons who backed Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux. “Caucus unity always needs to be foremost in the mind of the leader,” Scheer says. “During a leadership campaign, it’s kind of natural that groupings develop, and now I have to make sure that all melts away.”

Those who know him well say Scheer takes satisfaction in the inner workings of politics. “He really likes the political intrigue,” Strahl says, then catches himself. “Intrigue is not the right word. Political machinations.” In a wide-ranging interview, however, Scheer puts the emphasis not on mechanics but on messaging. He says the problem Tories ran up against during the 2015 campaign wasn’t that their policies were unpopular, it was that even voters open to them were unsure about the Conservatives’ motivations. “Liberals send signals about what they care about,” he says, whereas Conservatives too often “go straight to dollars and cents.”

For insights into the challenge, Scheer cites Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European Parliament from England, and a prominent voice on the winning Yes side in the 2016 Brexit referendum to pull Britain out of the European Union. Hannan has written that right-of-centre politicians must always fight the perception that “conservatism is all about the defence of privilege and oligarchy.”

Scheer takes pains to highlight the conspicuous lack of privilege in his upbringing. He stresses that after-school jobs were a necessity in his childhood and teenage years. Money was tight, and his father made it clear that if Andrew wanted to go to university, he’d have to pay his own tuition. “I know what it’s like for families to pay off the credit card bill with the line of credit, and the stresses around employment,” he says. “And so my message is I can relate to a lot of the concerns that people have.”

RELATED: Andrew Scheer’s anti-elitist role model

After that paper route, he found jobs in the concession booths at Ottawa sports venues, making popcorn and flipping burgers. The family didn’t own a car, so he took the bus to the arenas. The long ride out to the Senators’ suburban rink, now the Canadian Tire Centre, gave Andrew plenty of time to read. Somewhere along the road, he graduated from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. There can be little doubt that Scheer sees a close thematic link between his background and the Conservative party’s anti-elitist ethos. “We are and always will be the party of prosperity, not envy,” he said in his first speech as leader to Tory MPs. “The party that represents taxpayers, not connected Ottawa insiders.”

The irony, of course, is that Scheer has been an Ottawa insider for pretty much his whole adult life. The tight personal friendships he made working on the Hill were key to his leadership campaign. But when Scheer alludes to insiders and elites, he doesn’t mean a sharp young operative who went on to be an MP and Speaker during his party’s decade-long run in power, and then won its leadership. He means Justin Trudeau and his coterie.

For such an upbeat guy, Scheer’s tone darkens a shade when he talks about Trudeau. “One of the things that has motivated me so much in this campaign is the very strong belief that I cannot allow Justin Trudeau to do the same thing to my five children that his father did to my generation,” he said in his leadership victory speech on May 27 at a Toronto airport strip convention hall.

When Pierre Elliott Trudeau left office for the last time in 1984, Scheer was five. When the elder Trudeau died in 2000, Scheer was just 21. He had grown up as Brian Mulroney dominated the 1980s, and then Jean Chrétien the 1990s. What exactly did Pierre Trudeau, a figure fading into history, do to his generation that he now fears Justin Trudeau might do to his children?

Whatever it is, Scheer contends it’s happening already. “I’m here to tell you,” he said in that same speech, “that the pain and hardship that the Trudeau Liberals are causing Canadians is just temporary.” In fact, the Canadian economy expanded by a buoyant annualized rate of 3.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2017, good enough to have bank economists talking of it “humming along” and projecting further strong growth ahead. If this is “pain and hardship,” Canadians might be willing to endure just a little more.

Scheer can’t really count on life under Trudeau turning unbearable between now and 2019. Nor can he reasonably hope the Prime Minister’s pop-star qualities will fail him. On the challenge Trudeau represents, he adopts a realist’s tone. “He’s very well-known and he’s great with presenting that image to Canadians,” Scheer says. “So I have to introduce myself to many Canadians who may not know me or know about me.”

He has already shown signs of skills that surprise even political observers. At the annual Press Gallery Dinner this spring, where party leaders are expected to make journalists and MPs laugh, Scheer clearly outshone Trudeau, who was the hit of last year’s dinner.

RELATED: Andrew Scheer and Justin Trudeau square off, finally

“That was the first opportunity for the media and other folks to see his quick wit, his ability to communicate,” says Chris Warkentin, an Albertan MP. “That’s the Andrew I know, and I was relieved that he was able to convey that through that speech.”

On the need to connect, Scheer now has multiple audiences in mind. He talks of reaching Millennials worried about the environment, suburbanites around Toronto and Vancouver who want to hear about the practical problems they face, and immigrants who might have a conservative streak running beneath their loyalty to the Liberals. “I think on a personal level I have the opportunity to make those connections,” he says.

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, left, takes a selfie with a supporter during Canada Day festivities in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Saturday, July 1, 2017. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)
Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, left, takes a selfie with a supporter during Canada Day festivities in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Saturday, July 1, 2017. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Millennials, suburbanites, immigrants—those are all voting groups Trudeau dominated in 2015. Few would expect Scheer to decisively reverse the results in those key demographics in 2019. “The expectation,” Strahl says, “is to be in the running, be competitive, show us that you’ve got the royal jelly.”

After all, Scheer is, despite all that Hill experience, only 38. Conservative realists have to view him as more than a one-election bet. For his part, Trudeau is just 45, and few would seriously question his potential for sustaining a long political career. If Scheer can establish that he offers his party a chance, this is a rivalry that could last.