Welcome to Toronto, Conservatives. While you’re here, please mingle with the locals. Observe the Canadians you have to win back, in their natural habitat.
On Saturday, the Conservative Party holds its leadership convention in the heart of urban Canada – a place that has recently started to look like a kind of foreign country to them. In the 2015 election, the Conservatives won zero seats in Canada’s largest city, and picked up only a handful of ridings on the exburban fringe. From coast to coast, it was a similar story: The Conservatives won but three seats on the edges of Metro Vancouver and none in Greater Montreal. Even in true blue Alberta, they lost in two Calgary ridings. Calgary!
A political party that cannot win in urban and suburban Canada cannot win government. One of the fault lines in Canadian politics is the urban-rural divide, and the Conservatives run the risk of becoming the party of that division’s smaller, shrinking side.
Canada is now an overwhelmingly urban place. There are more people in Greater Vancouver than in the rest of British Columbia. Half of Quebec’s population lives in Greater Montreal; more than half of Albertans live in Edmonton or Calgary. The Greater Toronto Area has as many people as the three Prairies provinces combined.
Urban Canada is also where Canada is most ethnically, religiously and racially diverse, and every day it’s becoming more so. It’s where immigrants go, where the jobs are, where the cost of living is highest, but where economic opportunities are greatest. Urban Canada is Canada’s future. So welcome back to urban Canada, Conservatives. To form government, you’re going to have to make millions of new friends here.
The Stephen Harper Conservatives understood this. The party’s Reform roots were from rural Alberta, but its platform wasn’t hostile to the diversity of urban and suburban Canada.
The Harper Conservatives didn’t have to change their conservative economic message. They stuck to it, while telling Canada’s urban and suburban voters – people of all races – that the platform was about them, and that all Canadians, without discrimination, could be equal protagonists in the Conservative story.
In 2011, the Conservatives swept nearly all ridings in the 905 belt around Toronto. They even won eight seats in Toronto’s inner suburbs. It was a high-water mark.
The Conservative Party that won those victories, and claimed government as a result, sold itself as the party of peace, order, good government and economic opportunity, open to all Canadians. That was the brand.
You may quibble with many of the Harper government’s policies on the economy, crime or social issues. We often did. But the party that ran Canada for nearly a decade wasn’t pitching nativism or xenophobia. It wanted to win over minority voters, not use them as chum while fishing for intolerance.
That all seems like a very long time ago. The last few months of the Conservative leadership race, like the final days of the 2015 election, were marked by a very different tone. Facing electoral defeat, the Harper Conservatives reached for barbaric cultural practices snitch lines and bans on niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. They polled voters on their fears and resentments, and tried to eke out a victory on that, consequences be damned.
It rebranded the party with a mark that will take years to erase. And the leadership contest, instead of erasing it, only reinforced it.
Kellie Leitch was the most aggressive in singling out certain groups of Canadians and aspiring Canadians as antagonists, but pretty much the entire roster of leadership aspirants – with the sterling exception of Michael Chong – went a few steps down the Leitch road. If the 2011 victory was the Conservative high-water mark, last year’s debate over screening for “Canadian values” was the low point.
Parallel low point: Kevin O’Leary’s Trumpian candidacy. He didn’t run on racial intolerance, but his economic policies were based on an ignorance of the facts, in a caricature of conservatism.
Can the Conservatives move beyond this? Please?
This weekend’s leadership contest is not an old-style convention. Most party members have already voted, by mail. Their ballots merely need to be opened and counted. By Saturday afternoon, we’ll know who the new Conservative leader is.
Regardless of who wins, the party has to shed the resentful, identity politics nonsense that consumed the campaign. Instead of expanding the search for fears to inflame, Conservatives have to offer solutions to real economic problems. Instead of looking for outsiders to identify, and wounds to poke, Conservatives have to aim higher, offering all Canadians a better and more equal future to aspire to.
To do otherwise will be bad for the Conservative Party, and worse for Canada.Report Typo/Error
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