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Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer speaks with the media in the Foyer of the House of Commons in West Block, on Feb. 25, 2019, in Ottawa. If Mr. Scheer wants to become prime minister, he must offer a modern Conservative Party, writes John Ibbitson.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The chances of Andrew Scheer becoming our next prime minister are greater than they were a few weeks ago as a result of the SNC-Lavalin affair. The thought of this frightens some people.

An angry wave of nativism is sweeping the Western world. Politicians who target those whose skins aren’t white, who demand governments shut out immigrants, who stoke racism and fear, are gaining traction in many developed countries.

Mr. Scheer insists that the Conservative Party of Canada has no truck with such people. And then he speaks at a pro-pipeline rally where nativists are also present. At a town hall, he doesn’t condemn a question that includes a string of far-right falsehoods. His party rails against people crossing the Canada-U.S. border on foot seeking asylum.

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“Every time Conservatives monkey about with some of these social-conservative issues," it comes back to haunt them, says Jaime Watt, who has advised conservative politicians across Canada and today heads up the public affairs firm Navigator.

“They have to be careful they don’t get too cute on it, and give the Liberals an opening.”

Stephen Harper used to boast that he led the only Conservative Party in the world supported by immigrant voters, which was mostly true. Suburban immigrant voters in ridings surrounding downtown Toronto and Vancouver were the key to his 2011 majority-government win.

“The Conservatives believed, quite reasonably, that a lot of new Canadian voters were natural conservatives,” says Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. The party’s championing of low taxes, small government, individual initiative and strong families resonated with many new Canadians.

But the Conservatives lost many of those voters in 2015 by condemning “barbaric cultural practices,” restricting the wearing of the hijab, and talking about revoking citizenship for certain crimes, which “sent a tremor through the whole newcomer community,” Prof. Triadafilopoulos believes.

Mr. Scheer faces a similar challenge and opportunity. He must worry about losing voters on his right to Maxime Bernier’s new populist People’s Party of Canada, which seeks to restrict immigration and flirts with nativist tropes. But without the strong support of immigrant voters, he can never become prime minister.

If you are a Conservative leader, “you want to maintain your base and grow,” observes Laura Stephenson, a political scientist at Western University in London, Ont. But she wonders “how much more space there was to grow" for the Conservative Party.

This challenge bedevils every Conservative leader: convince immigrant voters that conservatives understand and welcome them, without alienating voters in the base, some of whom are wary of wide-open immigration.

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Leslie Noble, a conservative strategist and a partner at the consulting firm StrategyCorp, believes a successful Conservative Party is able to “anchor the narrative around the common values that we share.” Many native-born and immigrant voters both oppose carbon taxes because they drive cars, want to see government spending reined in, want parents to have the final say in how their children are raised and believe the justice system should place the rights of the victim above those of the criminal.

And both groups can support a healthy intake of immigrants while wanting the border closed to irregular crossers.

“Immigrants don’t like to see rule-breakers either,” Ms. Noble says, “because the vast majority of them waited a long time to come to this country.”

The furor over alleged attempted interference by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec engineering firm, has left the Liberals vulnerable.

But if Mr. Scheer wants to become prime minister, he must offer a modern Conservative Party, a party that is more urban – especially suburban – than rural; a party that welcomes immigrants enthusiastically, because immigrant values are conservative values; a party that has zero tolerance for those who seek to preserve the traditional past over the multicultural present and future.

This precedent has been mentioned before but bears repeating: In 1983, confronting a caucus bitterly divided on the issue of bilingualism, rookie Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney cracked heads, rallied faint hearts and declared his party fully in support of minority language rights. A year later he was prime minister.

Does Andrew Scheer have the courage on immigration that Brian Mulroney had on bilingualism? We’ll see.

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