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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on Dec. 10, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The strangest thing about the remarks Conservative leader Erin O’Toole made to a group of Conservative Ryerson University students over Zoom last month was not his erroneous suggestion that the residential school system was created with the intention of educating (and not separating and extinguishing the cultural ties of) Indigenous children. No, that misconception is fairly widespread – one that wouldn’t be out of place in your average Facebook thread or one particular Senator’s office.

Rather, what made Mr. O’Toole’s comments particularly weird was the way he framed them for his campus Conservative audience, teaching them how to score points against their “woke” contemporaries, as if Mr. O’Toole was playing the role of a catty, partisan Yoda.

“Here’s a nugget you can say that when I say it in Parliament, it silences the Liberals like you wouldn’t believe: ‘You know who opened more residential schools than Egerton Ryerson? Pierre Elliott Trudeau.’”

“That shocks the hell out of the woke crowd,” he continued.

The would-be prime minister also told his listeners that “Most of the lefty radicals are also the dumbest people at your university,” and asked why the “woke left” hasn’t been calling for the renaming of the Trudeau airport in Montreal. The implication was that campus Conservatives might want to use that point if and when they find themselves in a debate about which party has been worse for the treatment of Indigenous peoples (hot tip: never have this debate – it’s pointless and everyone loses), so that they may score a few coveted campus boasting points.

Mr. O’Toole’s lesson in “owning the libs” – or rattling or humiliating liberals – might be amusing to the likeminded and other partisan Conservatives, but it comes off as silly and amateurish to those who were hoping for more substance from this Conservative leader. Indeed, it’s illustrative of the trap that federal Conservatives were supposed to have learned to avoid after the last election, when they discovered that merely opposing the Liberals and taking shots at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wasn’t enough to convince Canadians that the Conservatives were ready to govern.

The party’s slogan during the last election was “It’s time for you to get ahead,” but Conservatives failed to articulate what that actually meant (they promised tax cuts and boutique tax credits, along with big spending initiatives), while then-leader Andrew Scheer clumsily skirted questions about social issues and insisted Mr. Trudeau was not to be trusted. A low point in the campaign was a cringeworthy encounter during National Acadian Day celebrations in New Brunswick, where Mr. Scheer awkwardly shook hands with Mr. Trudeau and sheepishly said, “You have to stop lying to Canadians” while people smiled and marched along in the background. The Conservative Party deemed this uncomfortable exchange worthy of blasting out and celebrating on their social media channels, though the party resisted actually coming out and saying what it was inferring: Look, we owned a lib!

In the U.S., conservatism has fully embraced an identity defined primarily by its opposition to the Democrats. Indeed, under U.S. President Donald Trump, “conservatism” has become an incoherent collection of ideas that now includes isolationism, nepotism, opposition to free trade and skepticism about democratic institutions, including elections. At present, its worldview is whatever looks good under the brim of a red cap.

While Canadian conservatism is not insane, it is similarly directionless. Mr. O’Toole has attempted to chart a new path by selling his party as a home for unionized workers, progressives in Quebec, oil and gas workers in the West, social conservatives who voted for him during the leadership campaign, rural gun owners, urban dwellers worried about climate change, China hawks, and fiscal conservatives, though his planning does not include austerity measures. His Conservative vision is thus a grab bag of populist appeals, which together don’t paint much of a portrait of what this “new” Conservative Party is all about – not in the way an off-the-cuff but memorable quip about owning the “woke crowd” from the party leader does, anyway.

A big mistake the Conservatives made last time around was assuming that Canadians disliked Mr. Trudeau and his government as much as everyone at the Albany Club did, and adopting that assumption as a campaign strategy. Thus, dunking on Liberals, calling Mr. Trudeau a liar and demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation (and when that didn’t work, demanding it again) was, for some reason, seen as a way the party might elicit support in regions crucial to winning the election. It didn’t work.

Mr. O’Toole should know better than to resort to the same jejune tactics, even (and especially) when speaking to his own members. Partisan groupthink is hardly the way to win over new supporters. And it’s definitely not the way to silence the “wokes” in an argument about residential schools.

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