Kellie Leitch shoots to thrill

A small part of me hopes she does win the Conservative Party leadership since that would finish the job of relegating the CPC to its rightful place as a former Reform rump



I’ve been thinking a lot about Kellie Leitch, the “Canadian values” MP running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). Mostly I’ve been thinking about who fits into her version of Canada. 

Leitch, in case you haven’t heard, has been playing the Trump (and race) card like a two-bit blackjack dealer on crack since she entered the contest to succeed Stephen Harper, wrapping herself in the Canadian flag while she’s at it.

Some of the usual right-wing pundits have found in her their champion of the people, our Trump to “make Canada great again” – never mind that she’s the embodiment of the “elites” she rails against: surgeon by trade, Dalhousie-educated, white house on 20 hectares in the country.

Under the headline The Peasants In Canada Are Revolting, No Question About It the Toronto Sun last week compared the so-called “movement” building around Leitch (mostly in Alberta’s oil patch) to Trump supporters. 

I didn’t know we had peasants here, apart from the foreign workers hired every year from Mexico and other countries to work on our farms for meagre sums – the same folks, by the way, on whom Leitch wants to impose stricter visa requirements.

My parents could have been described as peasants. They came from a poor part of rural Italy they had little education they called their countrymen and women paesans. They immigrated to Canada in the late 60s, part of the wave that started under Pierre Trudeau’s multiculturalism program. (I guess that makes me a Liberal). My father worked as a general labourer before parlaying that experience into a career as a carpenter. My mother was a factory worker until she retired. Her first job paid $28 a week. 

Theirs is not an atypical immigrant story. They made sacrifices to save enough money to buy the house they still live in, raised a family and taught us kids the value of hard work, an education and, when times are tough, not to blame our problems on others. 

To Leitch and her supporters, however, I’m just another member of the media “elite,” mostly because a) I presumably don’t understand the struggles of average folks b) I work for a news magazine whose political views lean left and/or c) I live in a bubble in Toronto and have never been north of Bloor Street long enough to see how the other two-thirds of Canada lives. I see hardworking people from every walk of life on the TTC every day. Welcome to the “post-truth” era.

Politics has never been something I take personally. I’ve always seen it as a battleground of ideas. But Leitch has changed all that. 

And not just because she might win the CPC leadership. I don’t think she will, but the vile brand of politics her candidacy has unleashed won’t go away any time soon. It’s bringing the lunatic fringe (the mainstream media euphemistically calls her methods “populist”) out of the woodwork. There’ll be more Leitches in our future if we don’t stand up to this one.

Only, a small part of me hopes she does win, since that would certainly draw a clear line for moderates and hardliners in the CPC – and finish the job of relegating the party to its rightful place as a former Reform rump. The slow descent into that abyss has been happening ever since Harper took over after the merger of the Reform offshoot Canadian Alliance and PCs in 2003. Leitch would finish the job. In fact, we’re seeing a similar schism between Wildrose and PCs in Alberta.

If you’ve had a chance to tune in to the CPC leadership debates, you’ll understand what I mean.

***

The Conservative Party lost the last election using the same anti-Muslim scare tactics Leitch has embraced. And rather than helping the Conservative cause, the Trumpism that has been giving Leitch’s leadership aspirations a personal boost is only further splintering the party. A few of Leitch’s monied early supporters have already jumped ship.

Witness the national poll released a few weeks back (averaging numerous public opinion polls conducted between September 1 and November 30) showing the governing Liberals enjoying more support than they did just after the last election that handed them a majority – eight points higher nationally, to be exact. The silent majority in Canada, it seems, consists of moderates. And that Trump wave meant to inspire a backlash here among the supposed disenfranchised seems to be driving voters in the other direction.

The CPC’s support has slipped by an average 4 per cent nationally, including in the party’s Alberta heartland (where provincially the governing NDP would be returned to power if an election were held today, carbon tax and all). 

Some may blame the slip on the fact that the party lacks a leader, but the leadership race isn’t exactly capturing voters’ imaginations. Most Canadians have tuned out. A recent Forum poll that puts name recognition of the top contenders in the single digits (around 9 per cent).

The CPC is looking to the past for its ideas. Of the 14 candidates, only Michael Chong, Maxime Bernier (and perhaps Lisa Raitt), are offering what could be loosely described as an alternative to what we saw during the lost decade under Harper. Half a dozen or so of the other contenders tack decidedly further right – see Leitch’s hate-mongering – which is why you’re beginning to hear calls from Conservative pundits out west for folks like Brad Wall, Saskatchewan’s premier, to save the party from itself and throw his hat in the race. It may be too late for that.

In another time and place, Leitch wouldn’t be considered a serious contender for one of the top jobs in the land. She’s run a stiff and scripted campaign that verges on the manic. The fact that she’s been able to raise more money than anyone else doesn’t necessarily give her front-runner status. But she has been making most of the headlines over her plan to screen immigrants for “Canadian values.” Are the mainstream media looking for a Trump stand-in? Why? What forces in Canada stand to gain from another Harper? 

At best, she’s a work-in-progress, an MP of four years’ standing parachuted into her riding of Simcoe-Grey to replace a Harper problem named Helena Guergis, with little of the experience required to lead a party. She’s a political opportunist, her short career marked by bad judgment (see the well-publicized controversy over the Cons’ Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and anti-Muslim snitch line) and contradictions. She describes herself as “pro-life” but says she won’t reopen the abortion debate. She says she supports gay rights, but it wasn’t until she decided to run for the CPC leadership that she campaigned against the party’s official stand on marriage as a union between a man and a woman. 

Leitch is smelling more like a media creation than a legit lightning rod for the disaffected. Maybe it’s because she’s not really her own person, but just another notch in Nick Kouvalis’s belt.

That would be Leitch’s campaign manager, of Rob Ford fame, who after helping John Tory win the mayoralty in 2014 seems to believe the adoring headlines describing him as the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to political operatives these days. 

It’s hard to argue with his track record. But truth be told, he’s been behaving a little erratically lately.

***

Kouvalis spent a lot of time early in his career as an agitator in Conservative Party ranks. He participated in several efforts to bring down PC leaders, including the “dump John Tory” campaign when the former provincial Conservative Party leader was thought to be veering too close to the political centre. He was part of the attack on Tory’s successor, Tim Hudak, who spent the last few years of his leadership trying to keep at bay the social conservatives now pissing on PC leader Patrick Brown’s attempts to take the party closer to the middle.

Kouvalis was the consummate outsider who didn’t ingratiate himself with higher-ups in the provincial or federal wings of the party. Harper, in particular, reportedly had no time for him. 

But that all changed when Ford became mayor and Harp needed Kouvalis to deliver votes in the GTA during the 2011 federal election. 

Then, in the heat of the robocalls scandal (remember?), Kouvalis’s polling firm, Campaign Research, was implicated in dirty tricks in former Montreal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler’s riding, allegedly concocting stories about Cotler retiring. When Campaign Research was cited by the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, Kouvalis denied any wrongdoing, famously intoning,  “We’re in the business of getting Conservatives elected and ending Liberal careers. We’re good at it.” In other words, “By any means necessary.”

Kouvalis has taken off some of the rough edges, at least publicly, and endeared himself to the public, if not the party establishment, since helping Tory slay the ogre Ford. But with Leitch he seems to be up to his old tricks.

During the U.S. election, Kouvalis was busy dispensing advice on Twitter like he was angling for a job with the Trump organization. He was itching to map out a campaign here fashioned on Trump’s, and in Leitch he thinks he’s found the perfect vessel.

From “Canadian values” to allowing women to carry pepper spray and mace to protect themselves from assault, locking up “agitators and activists” who stand in the way of pipelines or disbanding the CBC, “scattershot” might be the kindest word for the platform he designed for Leitch. “Angry,” too. It’s one wedge issue after another. If it smells like Reform, that’s because it is. (The co-principal of Campaign Research, Richard Ciano, is a former executive director of the Manning Centre’s School of Practical Politics, the right-wing think tank founded by former Reform leader Preston Manning.)

Clearly, the plan is to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Kouvalis is buying up ads for Leitch on Breitbart, the far-right (mostly) fake news outlet headed by Trump chief of staff Stephen Bannon. And actively pursuing the support of the Rebel Media crowd of former Reform MP and former Sun  News Network loudmouth Ezra Levant to take his candidate to the promised land. 

Kouvalis was blowing smoke up Levant’s ass on Twitter the other day, describing him not once, but twice, as a “true Canadian patriot.” Many words have been used to describe Levant, who’s often been cited for his racist rants by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. “Patriot” is not one of them.

Interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose called Levant and his crew “idiots” after a group showed up on the steps of the Alberta legislature a couple of weeks back to protest Premier Rachel Notley’s plan to put a price on carbon and started shouting “Lock her up.” 

There’s been a healthy helping of fake news from the Leitch camp for the Rebel Media crowd. When Kouvalis re-tweeted a Hill Times story about the feds donating $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation, it was easy to think the worst: the Trudeau government was up to no good wasting taxpayers’ money. But the story was from 2015 and the donation was made in 2014 during the Harper government, presumably to influence Keystone XL pipeline approval. That fact escaped the trolls in Leitch’s orbit, who were quick to pounce.

After the Trudeau cabinet announced its approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline late last month, Leitch couldn’t stand the good news for the oil patch and one-upped him by proclaiming her support for Energy East. She pledged to jail anyone who stands in the way of pipeline development and to create “a new force comprised of specialized components of RCMP, CSIS, CRA and DFAIT to coordinate investigations [and] freeze bank accounts.”

During her announcement, she quoted former Ontario premier George Drew, who once said something about humanity’s God-given duty to rape the planet of all its wealth. Drew hailed from the same Simcoe area riding Leitch represents as MP and was Ontario’s version of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. He ran a campaign with the help of the OPP against the social democratic CCF’s Ontario wing during the 1945 election.

It’s very old hat for Leitch to be planting her flag on the oil patch, when it was her party’s former leader who put all Canada’s eggs in that basket instead of investing in renewables 10 years ago. And he’s the one who failed to get pipelines built. 

The Conservative rank and file will have to decide for themselves whether they want to take the party further right. But Leitch may have another problem: her affiliation with Kouvalis is  hurting her chances in the eyes of some political observers.

On Monday, December 19, Kouvalis got into a Twitter fight with long-time pollster John Wright, who’s considered one of the smartest in the biz, after tweeting that he was “happy” about the death of the gunman responsible for the assassination in Turkey of Russian envoy Andrey Karlov. 

Kellie Leitch cupcakes.jpg

How do you like them cupcakes?


enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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