Perhaps lost in the Conservative Party of Canada’s dramatic leadership convention, the jubilation over Andrew Scheer’s victory, and the calls for unity that followed, was the fact that Kellie Leitch—one of the race’s early frontrunners, according to polling—came in a distant seventh on the first ballot.
Few wept for her. Conservatives made the right decision by not electing Kellie Leitch: Her middling results in the leadership’s 13-candidate showdown demonstrates members’ unwillingness to choose a leader who panders to Canada’s nativist factions.
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But the Conservative Party’s poor performance in urban areas in the 2015 federal election has left a caucus that overwhelmingly represents rural areas with little racial and religious diversity. And Leitch’s campaign has only made it more urgently clear that, to win the next election, Andrew Scheer must re-engage voters in the more diverse urban ridings—ridings that helped deliver a Conservative majority government in 2011.
In many ways, Scheer finds himself in an enviable position. He enjoys wide-ranging support from caucus colleagues and takes the helm of a party that has raised over $5 million this year, and—at almost 260,000 members—has the largest membership in its history. Also, as former Speaker of the House of Commons, he’s not tied to much of the controversial legislation introduced by the previous Conservative government. After all, in the final year of its mandate, the former Conservative government was increasingly accused of introducing policies that espoused racism and xenophobia. The package of laws, including Bill C-24 (The Strengthening Citizenship Act), Bill C-51 (The Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015), Bill C-75 (The Oath of Citizenship Act), and Bill S-7 (The Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act)—combined with often hostile rhetoric towards targets of the legislation—gave the impression the Conservative government was targeting immigrants, particularly Muslims and South Asians. This caused a rift between the Conservative Party and many ethnic communities that led many voters to abandon the party in favour of the Liberals or NDP during the 2015 election.
To be successful, Andrew Scheer must be at the forefront of rebuilding trust between the Conservative Party and racial and religious minorities.
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There are a few actions he can take that will help repair this distrust. He can watch his language when advocating in favour of or against policies and be specific about who the subject is; for example, instead of condemning radical Islam, he should instead condemn the Islamic State as a militant group. He can debunk myths put forth by those who fan the flames of prejudice. As interim leader Rona Ambrose did with M-103—MP Iqra Khalid’s motion condemning racism, Islamophobia, and religious discrimination—when she asserted the motion was neither introducing Sharia law nor banning freedom of speech.
Scheer must also reiterate the party’s staunch belief in religious freedom and the need to fight against systemic racism. He could direct the party to stand up for religious groups as strongly as it supports Jews, and to oppose other forms of racism—like anti-Black racism and Islamophobia—as vehemently as it opposes anti-Semitism. He can also remove caucus members and block prospective candidates who use language or display views that are racist or xenophobic; during the 1990s, Preston Manning did this with prospective Reform candidates Doug Collins and John Beck because he understood that statements by one caucus member can taint the image of the entire party.
These are all in keeping with the Conservative Party’s constitution that outlines the party’s commitment to progressive social policy and building a coalition of Canadians who represent the country’s cultural diversity.
In his victory speech, Andrew Scheer touted the party’s commitment to being this big tent as well as the need to communicate conservative values to a greater number of Canadians. However, there were two statements in his speech—statements that garnered the loudest applause in the convention—that could prove troubling for the party when it comes to minorities: echoing the dangerous threat of radical Islam and a staunch belief in withholding federal funding from universities that attempt to stifle free speech.
Across North America and Europe, political responses to Islamic terrorism have created a political arena where politicians and their supporters have justified both blatant and consequential discrimination towards Muslims. There is significant support amongst Canadians to commit ground troops to the fight against ISIS, but by framing this as a fight against radical Islam, Scheer gives ammunition to people who harbour prejudicial views towards Muslims. Although many argue that the term “radical Islam” highlights this form of terrorism is a warped strain of normal Islam, it nonetheless reminds listeners the culprits are Muslim, thus offering an excuse for people with biases against Muslims to suggest policies that target Muslims as a remedy. And for Muslims, it may give the impression that the party is using them to advance its policies on global security.
“Free speech,” meanwhile, has been used as a cloak by racists and bigots to spout rhetoric that’s harmful, hateful, and disrespectful towards racial and religious minorities. Scheer must take care to clarify his opposition to firing or silencing university professors with controversial views while maintaining an opposition to hate speech.
More than advocacy for justice and equality, this issue also has the potential to cause discord in the party between those who are advocates of unrestricted free speech and those who want the party to be more welcoming to everyone with small-c conservative values, regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion.
That’s why Scheer should rescind his position to withhold federal funding from universities. It’s imperative to be cognizant of how these issues can be used to target minorities as well as the detrimental impact this has on the party’s image—and its chances at electoral victory.
As a young politician with over a decade of political experience, an Ottawa native living in the Prairies, and a Conservative not tied to previous controversial legislation, Scheer is best-suited to lead the rejuvenation of the Conservative Party into one that will not bring forth policies and communicate them in a manner that forces racial and religious minorities to choose between their values and racism, their values and xenophobia, or their values and self-respect.
The party’s history-making membership numbers and massive voter turnout in the leadership race show an eagerness amongst Canadians to join the conservative movement and a dissatisfaction with other political choices. The Conservative Party has the money and the membership to win in 2019; all it needs is greater support amongst Canadians.
But it can’t be done without support from racial and religious minorities.
Angela Wright is a historian and writer based in Toronto. She is currently a member of the Conservative Party of Canada and formerly worked as a Conservative political staffer in the House of Commons. She holds a Master’s in History from the University of Iowa.