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Conservative Leadership candidate Roman Baber speaks to reporters after the third debate of the 2022 Conservative Party of Canada leadership race, in Ottawa on Aug. 3.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

About 30 people are gathered in a small, windowless conference room on the second floor of a hotel in an Ottawa suburb, awaiting the guest of honour, who is a few minutes late. There’s no podium. No microphone. No flashy branding, except for a smallish laminated poster board that features the tag line: “People Before Politics.”

When Roman Baber walks in wearing dark jeans and a black suit jacket, he greets each person, none of whom are wearing masks, with a handshake. One woman thanks him effusively as she clasps his hands. “I’ve followed you since the beginning of the pandemic,” she says.

Baber is one of five candidates for leadership of the federal Conservative party, a contest that will crown a winner on Sept. 10.

The placid 42-year-old is a folk hero to people who oppose COVID-19 lockdowns. His open letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford urging an end to lockdowns in January 2021 got him booted from the Progressive Conservative caucus fewer than three years after he was elected to represent York Centre in Toronto.

A year and a half after the Ontario government accused him of being “reckless and irresponsible” for his views, the former civil and commercial litigant dismisses the idea that he ever engaged in misinformation. “Never in the 12 years of my professional career has anyone ever accused me of not telling the truth,” he says in an interview.

Some have accused Baber of shamelessly appealing to the “Freedom Convoy” and anti-vaccine crowd to score political points. But while he came out early with his anti-lockdown arguments and amassed tens of thousands of followers, his opponents are now using the same playbook with more success.

“There’s no question that we had an impact on the other candidates, and on their campaigns, and therefore on our party, and therefore on our country,” he says. “It’s a gratifying thing for a public servant to accomplish something like that.”

Baber says he believes that if history judges this period fairly, he will be further vindicated. “I hope that it will give relief to my reputation. And to the very many adversities that I suffered, and my loved ones have suffered, in the last two years as a result of the positions that I took.”

His actions show an obvious quixotic streak. In Baber’s short five years in politics, he has often positioned himself against the prevailing narrative when his own beliefs or his constituents demanded it.

He made waves in 2019 when The Globe and Mail wrote about a policy report Baber authored, complete with a critical preamble, that outlined the changes he believed should be made to the Ontario Autism Program.

Earlier that year, Ford’s government had announced changes that prompted strong criticism from autism organizations in the province. When Baber raised concerns, Ford asked him to review the plan. Baber concluded that it “would essentially be giving crumbs to everyone instead of good treatment for the few,” he says.

He came up with a “very detailed and technical proposed reform,” but when his criticisms leaked out, the Ford government distanced itself from him even as it publicly apologized for the original plan. Baber’s alternative proposal was dead in the water.

During his two and a half years in caucus, Baber says he also raised concerns internally about other government policies, including an increase to classroom sizes and increases to clawback rates for Ontario disability payments. The Ford government ultimately backed down on both amid widespread criticism.

To not much effect, he spent time lobbying colleagues on his “dream” to connect Toronto’s Sheppard West subway station, which he sees outside his window at home, to more of the TTC. “I got the title of ‘subway guy,”’ he says, sounding nostalgic. “I used to carry a subway map with me to show it to people.”

He was one of only a handful of Progressive Conservatives elected in 2018 who were never offered additional roles in the government. He is the first to admit that his criticisms often made little impact, though he says he bears no ill will towards his other former colleagues.

If he was an island then, he seems to be an island now.

Baber’s campaign is a bare-bones operation. Though he brought in half a million dollars in donations in this year’s first quarter alone, there’s little evidence of that on display at the Kanata hotel.

Baber drove himself here and has brought copies of a platform document that contains a few noticeable typos. He explains to attendees that the woman they saw propping up the poster at the front and setting up a printer in the hallway (for photocopying IDs, if they wanted to prepare their ballots on the spot) is his significant other, Nancy. He jokes that his campaign costs are low.

He lists off some of his policy ideas and tries to play to the crowd, criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, warning about the erosion of democracy and getting chuckles for folksy lines making fun of environmentalists – “I’m not going to eat crickets!”

Even here, with 30 people he’s hoping will like him and vote for him, he’s still willing to push back on whatever narrative he’s being presented with.

To a young woman who inquires about the World Economic Forum, he says the organization itself is not really an issue, though “left-wing ideology” is. To a middle-aged woman who claims her son-in-law died after getting vaccinated and subsequently blames the ills of society on a collapse of Christianity, he states: “Just like we’re not telling people what to do with their bodies, I don’t think we should be telling people how to exercise their spiritual beliefs.” To a man who wonders about replacing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he says it’s actually a “fine document.”

A young man with glasses and his hair tied in a bun tells Baber he marked him first on his leadership election ballot because “you speak from the heart.” It rings true.

The effusive woman who thanked Baber as he entered is named Ruxandra. She prefers not to provide her last name. She immigrated from Romania and has vivid memories of the revolution that ended communist rule in the country in 1989. She says pandemic restrictions reminded her of everything they fought against then, and Baber has given voice to those feelings.

For some, like Ruxandra, the idea that Baber is sincere about his “People Before Politics” slogan may be more meaningful than whether he makes any concrete change.

“I watched Roman since the ‘Plandemic’ started and it resonated very much with how I feel,” she says, using a term popularized by a 2020 viral conspiracy video. “Every time I would look at his videos and his challenges and battles against what happened made me realize that I’m not alone.”

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