In order to get to Stornoway, the home of the leader of Canada’s Official Opposition, you have to drive past the traditional residence of the Prime Minister. Twenty-four Sussex Dr. is, as you might expect, sprawling and regal. It’s girded by high fences, thick shrubbery and cameras facing the street. It’s the place you would imagine a head of government living.
Stornoway is not like that.
When I asked Andrew Scheer’s principal secretary how I should approach it – should I park on the street? Will someone come out and put me in a headlock if I’m early and loiter too long? – she texted, “No gate. No security. Canada strong.”
Any Canadian can walk up to the front door of Stornoway and ring the bell. That laxity is a nice encapsulation of two things: the country (calm and unobtrusive) and the house’s primary tenant (same).
When I arrive at Stornoway on a recent Tuesday just after quitting time, Mr. Scheer is upstairs. The house is one of those pokey, mid-20th-century mansions – tight rooms and corners giving on to large central spaces. It has no flow. I’m ushered in the side door by an aide. Then, up and in through the kitchen, a left, a right and into an area at the bottom of a winding staircase.
The Scheers’ five children are the only occupants about, in what feels like a choreographed introduction. They range in age from 3 to 14. All of them are sprawled out in the enormous living room. It’s the first day of school. I’m sure they have bigger fish to fry than Dad’s latest interrogator. But each stops what they’re doing and greets me like an old friend returned from a long trip.
When the youngest, Mary, has her name called, she is in the midst of standing on her head on the couch. She rolls off and marches up with her arm outstretched for a handshake. On the scale of wholesomeness, this band makes the Brady Bunch look like the Sex Pistols.
Mother and father descend together after a few beats. Jill Scheer bounces off the stairs to greet me. Another firm handshake.
Her husband hangs back uncomfortably.
Upon meeting him, two things strike you about Mr. Scheer: He is taller than you expected – 6-foot-4 – but recedes upon introduction. He is one of those big people who take pains through their comportment not to loom over you.
This was meant to be an interview over dinner. He’s wearing a Saskatchewan Roughriders T-shirt tucked into jeans. I’m wearing a suit and tie.
“You’re wearing a suit,” he says.
Yes, I’m sorry. It’s work.
Ms. Scheer is still shaking my hand.
“He’s wearing a suit,” Mr. Scheer says, looking at his aide and tugging at his shirt like it was forced on him. “Is this too casual?”
Nobody’s listening. Freed of their greeting duties, the kids scatter noisily. Ms. Scheer is chatting. Everybody’s moving somewhere. But Mr. Scheer is still standing in the landing worrying about his shirt.
After 2½ years on the job as leader of the Conservative Party, Mr. Scheer’s public persona has become clear: He does not have one.
“The most frustrating thing is when people say, ‘You need to get out there more,’” he says. “I’m in Vancouver and someone will say, ‘You need to get out there,’ and I tell them I am literally out there. Right now. In Vancouver.”
Whenever he is frustrated or exasperated, his expression becomes one of extreme happiness. His smile widens. His dimples pop. If you turned off the soundtrack, you’d think he was telling you he’d just won a car in a raffle.
I meet him for the first time in spring at his office, a low, tight space in the West Block of Parliament Hill. Most of its adornments are sporting. There’s a signed Wayne Gretzky jersey hanging in a corner.
When I arranged this meeting with Mr. Scheer’s people, I characterized it as two guys talking over a beer. Now, weeks later, I have forgotten that part.
As I enter, Mr. Scheer’s principal secretary and right hand, Kenzie Potter, offers me a beer.
Um, no thanks.
“We have a two-drink minimum,” Mr. Scheer says.
I’m still lost.
“The beer. The joke.”
Oh, right. Sorry. Still, no thank you.
Mr. Scheer gets a bit of a look, like, “This guy.”
“Are you a Simpsons fan?” he says.
“I do make a lot of Simpsons references.”
“You know what’s unsettling? When you drop a rock-solid Simpsons or Seinfeld reference and a 24-year-old says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.'"
Then, presumably because I am a sportswriter, we move directly into sports talk. Mr. Scheer is doing his best to set me at ease. We talk about the memorabilia and where he got it.
I saw him a couple of weeks before from a distance at a Toronto Raptors game. He took some un-VIP seats – at the tippy top of the courtside bowl, directly behind one of the baskets. We agree that is not a good angle from which to watch hoops.
“I’ve been to some NFL games behind the goalposts and that’s not that terrible because that’s how you play Madden,” Mr. Scheer says.
I’m beginning to get a real Everyman feel off the guy who wants to be prime minister.
His background is one of many things held against him. He is a middle-class, political lifer. He moved from Ottawa to Ms. Scheer’s hometown of Regina after university. He first ran for member of Parliament at 25. He won. In doing so, he narrowly took out a long-time NDP incumbent.
Now 40, his rise from obscurity to semi-obscurity was quick. At 29, he was deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. At 32, he was Speaker. In 2017, a few days after he’d turned 38, he was chosen leader of the Tories over Maxime Bernier.
Mr. Scheer has spoken in the past about what events stitch together his political impulse and formative worldview. He’s mentioned being a paperboy in Ottawa and taking an interest in front-page stories of Nicolae Ceausescu’s ugly fall from power in Romania. He’s part Romanian from way back. He would’ve been 10 years old at the time.
“So that led to all kinds of questions – could that happen here? Why? Why not?”
At this point, at the end of a long disquisition, Ms. Potter breaks in: “And then I thought, ‘I want to be prime minister.'"
The two have known each other a long time. Like certain old friends, one has the habit of finishing or amplifying the other’s statements. After saying something, Mr. Scheer will often glance over at Ms. Potter to see if she has something to add.
Of course, the non sequitur is a joke – Mr. Scheer laughs hard – but there does seem to be something to it.
Mr. Scheer’s father, Jim, defines his son’s vision of learnedness and wisdom. Jim Scheer worked at the Ottawa Citizen as a librarian. Librarians don’t get much play in popular culture, but they are the most remarkable people in any newsroom. If you want a strong opinion, ask a journalist; if you want to know something, ask a librarian. Before the internet, they were the internet. And they’re still better than the internet.
Here’s how Mr. Scheer describes his father’s approach to making a change in the world: “He was really involved in the labour movement – I shouldn’t say labour movement, but in his union at the Citizen. He’d always remind me, ‘Half the battle is showing up.’
“He’d go to these union meetings and he’d hear from people in the middle of the week about wanting this or wanting that. And then the meeting on the Saturday to actually decide had 12 people there. So he taught me that if you buy a membership in a local party and you show up on a Saturday to the meeting to decide who the delegate is, you maximize your franchise.”
As political calls to action go, “Half the battle is showing up” isn’t exactly “Ich bin ein Berliner.” But it has proved effective in Mr. Scheer’s case. A great deal of his success has been taking a leap when others might’ve stayed put.
The last leap put him in direct competition with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, a man who was, in a sense, born to his job. They are contemporaries in some ways – roughly the same age, grew up in the same town. But that’s it.
When Mr. Scheer speaks of Mr. Trudeau, he straightens up in his chair. His expression flattens. He has nothing bad to say about his nemesis – and nothing nice either. The best that might be said is that he grudgingly understands he could use a little of what the Prime Minister has.
“The current …” – and here he decides either not to give him his title or thinks it too catty to skip over his name – “Justin Trudeau is very good at projecting emotions. He’s got that training in drama,” Mr. Scheer says. “Sometimes, I’ve had people tell me the way TV translates things, sometimes composed might not display the passion I’m feeling. People are looking for passion on certain issues.”
When giving speeches or in debate, you can see Mr. Scheer stretching himself toward some sort of Clintonian connection with his audience. He never quite gets there. He’s also never flustered.
“Maybe that’s a blessing and a curse,” he says. “Part of it is that I have a facial feature where I will watch video of myself and think, ‘I was angry. I was worked up and furious’ – and I’ve got, like, this smile on my face. I don’t know if it’s the dimples or what. And I’m, like, ‘Why am I smiling?’”
He describes his post-appearance video breakdowns with staff as “90 seconds of telling me what I did well and half an hour of telling what I did wrong.”
He’s just done a series of television ads. That apparently involved a great deal of constructive criticism. Mr. Scheer runs down the list of tips and ends with “… by the way, if you could lose 15 pounds.”
Ms. Potter breaks in, consolingly: “There’s just a lot of you to love right now.”
A few months later, in Stornoway, nothing appears to have changed.
We’re sitting in the living room, which vaguely resembles a soap-opera set. All plush carpeting, soft light and a lot of muddy landscapes courtesy of the Government of Canada’s collection.
“I’m not much of an art guy,” Mr. Scheer says. “But it’s very special to have some of this.”
We are a few days from an election call, and Mr. Scheer is still thinking about how he might best connect with voters. He uses phrases such as “stepping outside the bubble.”
The person who does most of his outside-the-bubble recon is Ms. Scheer.
There’s an oft-told story that he told his future wife he wanted to be prime minister on one of their first dates, which sounds a little too perfect. Is that true?
Apparently, it is.
“I asked what you want to be when you grow up,” Ms. Scheer says, confirming that happened. “I guess I thought all people [studying] political science say that.”
“Most kids who put on a pair of skates dream of playing in the NHL. I certainly would’ve thought that was something I’d like to do,” Mr. Scheer says. “I really did not have thoughts of running for the leader until well after the 2015 election.”
He doesn’t notice the contradiction – but Ms. Scheer does and takes over.
“From ’04 to ’15 it was never your aspiration to become prime minister,” she says. “You loved being a backbencher.”
Mr. Scheer picks up the ball she’s passed him and begins describing at length the privilege it is to represent the riding of Regina-Qu’Appelle in the federal legislature.
The two steadily riff off each other like this in conversation. He gives the cautious, often roundabout, political answer. Ms. Scheer supplements with the answer he might have given if he weren’t running for office – the more on-point response. He will often look at his wife and nod along as she speaks, as if to say, “Yes, that’s what I meant.” She does him the same favour.
It’s hard not to be charmed by this routine between wife and husband. He seems most tangible when in her company.
In the background, one or another child is shrieking in delight. No one flinches.
Though the campaign rumble hasn’t yet officially started, Mr. Scheer has already caught a few bricks from the other side. The one getting attention at this moment is a speech he gave in the House as a rookie MP in which he opposed the legalization of gay marriage. Pressed by the media on how his thinking may have changed in the intervening 14 years, he awkwardly fell back on procedure: "There is no question that there will not be attempts to revisit that issue. I can be very clear on that.”
Pressed further: “This issue is settled.”
I ask him if he feels the Liberals releasing that video was fair criticism, considering that several of their own MPs also opposed the new law at the time.
Mr. Scheer makes a great effort to be very careful about what he says next.
“The most frustrating thing is that they portrayed it as if they had discovered [the video]. I said it in the House of Commons,” he says. “Society has changed. We’ve accepted that. I’ve moved on. Our party’s moved on.”
Ms. Scheer chimes in: “I share the frustration. Everything he said, I agree with.”
Would as much be made of this if you weren’t famously a devout Catholic?
He lets out a laugh that’s more like a bark. That smile he talks about has appeared. He bends forward in his chair and clasps his hands – a pose of deep consideration.
“I have certainly … how can I put this … I do feel on … I do feel that some of the questions that have been put to me would not be put to other politicians. Put it like that." And then, for the first time, he looks up and stares through me. It’s not exactly an unfriendly look, but it doesn’t lack for passion.
What does Ms. Scheer – a person her husband refers to as a “real Canadian,” as in one of average temperament and opinions – think people make of the No. 1 contender for the belt?
“The more people see of him and hear from him, the more people will like him,” she says. Then she drops to an exaggerated, teenage whisper: “He’s really nice.”
Mr. Scheer rolls his head and blushes.
It seems like a lot of people are giving him advice on presentation. Are you one of them, I ask her?
“I’ll give him some advice,” Ms. Scheer says. “Your tie is crooked. I’ll sometimes text him and say, ‘Stop playing with your wedding ring.'"
“It’s a habit I can’t break,” he says. “I haven’t lost it, but I’ve dropped it.”
“Cracks of decks,” Ms. Scheer says. “Beside the speaker’s chair. That one time they had to take the speaker’s chair off.”
“They didn’t have to take it out. They just opened a panel …”
“You dropped it in the taxi a couple of days ago …”
“And between …”
This banter is light, like a routine they run through for fun.
“She’ll help me with language. You tend to use technical terms. She helps me with that.”
“I’ll just say, ‘People don’t use that word,'” Ms. Scheer says. “You sound like you’re born in 1860.”
He nods. He does sometimes sound like that.
“Like, sometimes I think I’m being courteous, but when you watch video of it, it looks like you’re not engaged,” he says. “Walking up to someone and having a more open posture and a heartier handshake is not rude, it’s more warm. If it doesn’t come naturally, you might think it’s being respectful. But it actually looks …”
“Meek,” Ms. Scheer says.
“Just not engaging,” he says.
It goes on like this for an hour – casual chat in a deeply formal environment that occasionally manages to feel casual.
One of the kids wanders in to say that dinner’s ready, which I take as my cue to leave. But it becomes clear that I’m to sit down en famille and kick back over roast beef and baked potato.
Passing through the threshold from the living room to the adjoining dining room has a magical effect. Whatever awkwardness is inherent in the process of interviewing someone – and there is a great deal of it – fades. The interview is over, although the interviewer has yet to leave. Most subjects would think of this as a dangerous moment.
But the Scheers don’t seem bothered. The only acknowledgement of the unusualness of all this is when there is a mad, chair-scraping rush to the dessert plate (watermelon and assorted fruit). Mr. Scheer sighs softly and says, “Remember, guys, we talked about this. The protocols for Operation Guest?”
I’m seated beside one of the middle children, Henry. Throughout the meal, Henry repeatedly tries to pass me the butter – passing the butter presumably being in his mind the high-water mark of table manners. Eventually, I zone out and say, “No, thank you, I’m okay,” but this time Henry says, “No. I need the butter. Could you pass it to me, please?”
These kids are better put together at 8 or 10 than I was at 30.
It occurs to me that if the Tory campaign could put a camera in the Scheer dining room on any random night and broadcast that instead of scripted ads, they’d have less to worry about on the candidate-selling front.
When first we spoke and sports was being used as a pleasant diversion, Mr. Scheer talked about his hope to watch a game at all 32 NFL stadiums. He does these pilgrimages with a group of high-school friends.
He was hoping to attend a Saints game in New Orleans in November (yes, right after the election), but now he tells me that owing to scheduling conflicts – not his but his friends’ – the trip has been moved to Tampa in December. Which means that, theoretically, his first trip abroad as prime minister could be to see a Buccaneers game.
“Cross that bridge when I come to it,” he says. “It’ll be a weekend anyway. It won’t interfere with the first 100 days.”
Behind him, Ms. Scheer gives a small fist pump and says, “The football trip is on.”