Tasha Kheiriddin: Rebuilding the Tories’ ‘big tent’ starts with new Canadians

, Tasha Kheiriddin: Rebuilding the Tories’ ‘big tent’ starts with new Canadians, Nzuchi Times National News

Why immigrants are key to the future of the Conservative Party of Canada

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In the aftermath of Canada’s 44th federal election, the Conservative party is at a crossroads. Under two successive leaders, Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole, it has attempted to rebuild its fabled “big tent,” and failed.

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That tent has taken different forms over the years. From 1984 to 1993, with party leader Brian Mulroney in the Prime Minister’s Office, it was composed of an amalgam of Quebec nationalists, Ontario Red Tories and Western fiscal hawks. From 2006 to 2015, with Stephen Harper at the helm and in power, it comprised a microtargeted mix of suburban and exurban Ontario families, “bleu Québécois,” and the Western remains of the Reform Party.

In both cases, however, the tent wasn’t the only factor for Conservative success. Other elements included fatigue with previous Liberal administrations, and weak Liberal leaders. In 1988, Canadians rallied to the grand cause of free trade; in 2011, a split in the progressive vote allowed the Conservatives to conquer the 905 area surrounding Toronto. And in both cases, the party was headed by two strong leaders, one who excelled at cultivating caucus loyalty, the other a master tactician and strategist.

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The tent wasn’t the only factor for Conservative success

It is fair to say that neither Scheer nor O’Toole is cast in either mould. But the failings of the Tories cannot be laid solely at the feet of the messenger; the message is also the problem. As in 1993, the party is divided and struggling to define itself. Is it in favour of carbon pricing, or does it not believe climate change is real? Is it going to ban assault-style weapons, or keep them around? Is it a party of fiscal prudence, or post-pandemic largesse?

A political party is not an all-you-can-eat buffet. The more choices on offer, the greater the likelihood they will be bland and unappetizing, since it is impossible to cook every dish equally well, or appeal to every type of palate. The party needs a signature dish, a recognizable menu, and most importantly, an authentic atmosphere. A French bistro that suddenly offers takeout sushi is not what patrons — or voters — want. They don’t trust the chef to make what he does not know.

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Thus, when O’Toole morphed from right-wing leadership candidate to centrist party leader, he was doomed to fail. Things looked bright for a while, but voters caught on. O’Toole flip-flopped on the gun issue, could not explain his carbon savings account policy in fewer than 1,000 words, and tried to out-nationalize Quebec nationalists. Voters were left wondering what the party really stood for, and who he really was. And now the party is left wondering what to try next, after its latest attempt at reinvention has failed.

The answer lies in the future of Canada itself. In the wake of this election, Canada is a nation divided, torn between new and old, East and West, urban and rural, rich and poor, right and left. If the Conservatives cannot offer a path forward to heal these divisions, they will be consumed by them. If they are successful, however, they can create not a “big tent” of convenience, but a grand coalition that will endure.

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, Tasha Kheiriddin: Rebuilding the Tories’ ‘big tent’ starts with new Canadians, Nzuchi Times National News
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole speaks to the media in Ottawa on Sept. 21, 2021, the day after his party came in second in the federal election. Photo by Patrick Doyle/Reuters

There are a number of areas where the party needs to do better. Since the election, commentators have addressed many of these: the need to appeal to younger voters and to women; the need to be unequivocal on such issues as abortion and same-sex rights; the need for fulsome policies on climate change and Indigenous reconciliation; the need to focus on prosperity and affordability; the need for bilingualism and an understanding of Quebec.

To date, few have addressed one critical issue: demography. Canadian women have one of the lowest replacement fertility rates in the Western world: 1.5 children as of 2018. (By comparison, U.S. women have 1.7; Mexico, 2.1). With labour shortages even worse than in pre-pandemic times, someone’s got to fill in the gap if the economy is to keep growing, and that someone is immigrants and their children. Canada is a country not only built on immigration, but beholden to it.

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For those of us who are first- or second-generation Canadian, the experience of Canada is different than for Canadians whose families have been here for generations. We are the “third solitude,” and increasingly, a visible one. By 2036, if current trends continue, Canada will be a nation “as brown as it is white”, with 30 per cent of its citizens born outside the country, in Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa. The division is not about racial difference, however; it is about lived experiences and political expectations. Many of these new Canadians’ political experiences will bear little resemblance to those of native-born, mostly white, Canadians of European origin. Many newcomers will not have lived under a liberal democracy; for some, right-of-centre parties are more likely to be associated with military juntas than the ideas of Edmund Burke.

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Add to this the fact that Conservative “heroes” of yore like John A. Macdonald are now vilified as Indigenous peoples seek an end to colonialist policies, and it becomes apparent that the Conservative party has more than an image problem: it has an identification problem. For a new Canadian, it is the Liberal party that has staked the claim as “the party of immigration” — ironic when you consider that the first leader of the federal Conservatives (yes, Macdonald) was an immigrant, and the first prime minister not of English or French descent was a Tory (John Diefenbaker, of German heritage).

There are a number of areas where the party needs to do better

The Liberals, in contrast, have been consistently led by native-born members of the Laurentian elite. However, thanks to their initiatives over the years, including the multiculturalism policies of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and the Charter of Rights, the Liberals benefit from an advantage denied to Conservatives: they cannot be tagged as intolerant. In contrast, the Conservatives routinely fall prey to this label, thus potentially deterring new Canadians from identifying with them and supporting their cause.

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It also does not help that right-of-centre parties are also identified, not only in Canada but around the world, with anti-immigration policies. Here at home, it is not the Conservatives, but the People’s Party of Canada that claims that dubious status — but the tag sticks to the Tories anyway. People do not know that Harper’s Tories admitted more immigrants annually to Canada than Jean Chrétien’s Liberals had; what they remember is the proposed “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line and Harper’s foot dragging on the admission of Syrian refugees.

But those were not the issues that directly affected immigrants. The big change the Conservatives made was to prioritize economics over compassion, notably by reducing family class immigration. That had a personal, immediate and negative impact on millions of new Canadians who could no longer have their extended families join them. Unsurprisingly, this policy was reversed by their Liberal successors.

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Ironically, at the same time the Tories curbed family reunification, they aggressively sought to capture the votes of so-called “cultural communities,” notably in the suburbs of Vancouver and Toronto. However, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney’s infamous “curry in a hurry” strategy produced little more than indigestion. The lesson here is that opportunism will not build connection. There has to be more on offer than the promise of a say in government, or the implicit benefits of siding with the “winning” party.

, Tasha Kheiriddin: Rebuilding the Tories’ ‘big tent’ starts with new Canadians, Nzuchi Times National News
People line up outside a polling station in Montreal to vote in the federal election on Sept. 20, 2021. Photo by Christinne Muschi/Reuters

That something is making conservatism — the worldview, the philosophy, the vision — relevant to new Canadians. It is allowing them to identify with and see themselves in its future. To do this, the party has to both talk the talk, and walk the walk.

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First, the walking. Today’s Conservative party is not diverse. Its elected membership is more akin to a 1950’s golf club: male, older, and white. Only seven of the 119 Conservatives elected in 119 ridings are Black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC) — six per cent. That is down from nine per cent in the past election. In contrast, the newly elected Liberal caucus is 30 per cent BIPOC. And despite the negative experiences of such former BIPOC Liberal MPs as Jody Wilson-Raybould and Celina Caesar-Chavannes, the Liberals can still legitimately claim to more accurately represent the diversity that is our country.

That must change. The golf clubs that have survived — and even thrived — have expanded their membership, attracting women and non-white players to their ranks. But why would an immigrant join the Conservative party? What would its appeal be? It’s a vicious circle: unless there is something that attracts new Canadians, the party will remain that of Harper’s “old stock” Canadians; unless new Canadians see themselves in the party, they will be less likely to join.

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That something is the talking. If it is done right, it will not only attract new Canadians, but will also reinvigorate the party’s base. It will create a common bond between new and old, as opposed to emphasizing — or even exploiting — division.

The party has to both talk the talk, and walk the walk

The key is to reconcile Conservative values with the solutions to people’s problems. For new Canadians, the problems to be solved are those of establishing themselves in a country often very different from the one they left. Finding work, building a home, raising their children and — as any child of immigrants will tell you, possibly the most important thing — enabling those children to do better than their parents. Education, opportunity and intergenerational advancement are the Holy Grail.

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How do the values of conservatism, and the Conservative party, relate to the immigrant experience? Freedom is a pre-eminent value for Conservatives, and the ability to pursue one’s dreams depends on it. For immigrants who come from countries that are manifestly unfree, such as China, or Iran, freedom can be immensely appealing. Conservatives need to realize, however, that the gulf between our government and those of such nations is so wide that even the Liberals will appear to offer sufficient freedom for their purposes. The Conservatives do thus not have a monopoly on the term.

, Tasha Kheiriddin: Rebuilding the Tories’ ‘big tent’ starts with new Canadians, Nzuchi Times National News

Furthermore, in the mouths of some organizations, such as the People’s Party of Canada, freedom has become synonymous with hate. Hatred of vaccine mandates and hatred of government masqueraded as calls for freedom in the recent election. The rise of the PPC is a problem for the Conservatives, not simply in terms of votes lost, but in terms of perverting one of the core tenets of conservative thought. It is similar to what Donald Trump did to the Republican brand in the United States.

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The discourse of freedom alone will thus not win the day. Enter the role of society — yes, Lady Thatcher, there is a society — which is also a cornerstone of conservative philosophy. For conservatives, society is built of “little platoons,” the often hyper-local organizations to which conservatives devote their energy, whether volunteering, donating, or meeting, and from which they draw strength, community and support. In the words of Burke, “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle … of public affections.”

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The platoon can be village, town, church, mosque, Rotary Club, boys’ or girls’ club, or an immigrant women’s organization. The first platoon, however, is the family. This is why family reunification, far from being a drain on resources, needs to be embraced by Conservatives. It is consistent with the view that the family is the basis for society and that organizations exist to strengthen its bonds. Individuals should be free to make choices but be supported by the community in their realization.

Key to keeping faith with both its base and new voters, is to emphasize that for conservatives, “community” does not equal “government.” Conservatives do not believe in big government, but in necessary government. The state’s sphere of action must be limited to the things individuals and the community cannot achieve on their own, or things that provide greatest economy of scale at the government level. Roads, bridges, borders, hospitals, schools, public security — all are legitimate domain for the state, to ensure that all citizens have access to adequate infrastructure and services.

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That does not mean, however, that the state should have a monopoly on them either. When O’Toole was accused of supporting “two-tier” health care early on in the election, it backfired, in part because Twitter called out the Liberal party for stripping his words of their context. But when pressed on the issue in subsequent debates, O’Toole did not defend the position he had taken, which is that he was in favour of more private health care while maintaining the public system. He watered down his discourse to supporting “more innovation” by the provinces and repeating his assertion that he would increase transfers to the public system. He passed up an opportunity to move Canada towards a system that strikes a better balance between individual choice and state support — one that exists in every OECD country save the United States.

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Conservatives do not believe in big government, but in necessary government

Ironically, balancing individualism, communitarianism and state engagement lies at the heart of conservatism. As the pandemic has shown us, we are not meant to be islands. Nor are curbs on freedoms during times of crisis a permanent state of affairs, or un-conservative. Winston Churchill did not impose wartime rations in Britain because he was a Bolshevik. He pursued a manifestly un-conservative policy because it was necessary to help win the war. Similarly, a compulsory vaccination policy for your candidates is a means of winning the war on COVID-19. Yet O’Toole could not bring himself to take this stand, over fear of driving votes to the PPC or offending his base in Western and rural Canada where there has been greater opposition to vaccine mandates.

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This is another issue that the Conservatives must address. The Conservative vote is heavily concentrated in rural and Western Canada. Despite garnering 33.7 per cent of the national popular vote, greater than the 32.6 per cent achieved by the Liberals, it was not reflected in the party’s seat count. This produces two outcomes: first, the impression that the Conservatives are the party of Western and rural alienation, and second, actual Western and rural alienation.

Western alienation is nothing new. It has waxed and waned over the decades. It flared in the 1970s due to Trudeau senior’s infamous National Energy Policy, which birthed a bumper sticker that read, “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark.” It found its political home in the 1990s in the Reform Party, whose slogan was “The West Wants In.” Today, for some, that slogan is “The West Wants Out,”,as embodied by the Wexit party and the “Free Alberta Strategy,” which would “exempt” Alberta from the application of federal laws.

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Central and Eastern Canada may scoff at these sentiments, but they are no laughing matter. The terrible situation in Alberta today, with its health system failing in the name of “freedom,” is a direct result of alienation. Jason Kenney acted the way he did not merely because he thought it was the right call, but because he thought his electorate would, too. This has important ramifications for the federal Conservative party, as it saw during the final days of the past election. Because the Conservatives draw an important part of their base from Alberta, they are identified with its sentiments. Voters in the rest of the country will not want to be associated with the Conservatives if they are seen as the “angry party of the West.” New Canadians will not either. And neither will Quebec.

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, Tasha Kheiriddin: Rebuilding the Tories’ ‘big tent’ starts with new Canadians, Nzuchi Times National News
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole attends a Stampede pancake breakfast in Calgary on July 10, 2021. The Tories must avoid becoming known as the “angry party of the West,” writes Tasha Kheiriddin. Photo by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

One cannot discuss the Conservatives’ future without discussing Quebec, for its success there is intimately tied to its success in the rest of the country. Quebec voters are notorious for voting “en bloc,” and for voting for the federal party that is likely to do well in Ontario. But instead of playing to this reality, the Conservatives sought to satisfy Quebec demands directly, by means of a “contract” with the province, executed in the first 100 days of its mandate. The contract included giving Quebec full powers over immigration — powers it pretty much has already thanks to a long-standing memorandum of understanding with Ottawa. But even Premier François Legault’s blessing wasn’t enough to win the day. Instead, a debate question that decried Quebec’s Bills 21 and 96 as discriminatory legislation enraged the province’s political class, boosted the Bloc Québécois’s fortunes, and upended the Tory campaign.

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In other words, promising more powers to Quebec did not work; this was not 1984, O’Toole was not Mulroney, and there was no sense of “honour and enthusiasm” about the Tories’ plans. They were pure electoral calculus. Strategically, the Conservatives would have been better to appeal to Quebecers on the basis of their pan-Canadian strength, and by focusing their efforts on the 905 belt — and yes, the immigrant vote — and delivering a strong showing there.

For Conservatives, earning the support of new Canadians is the key to unlocking the Grand Coalition. Unless the party can find a path to bridge East and West, new and old, and rural and urban Canada, it will not form government. It risks becoming a Western rump party instead of the national government. But this exercise isn’t just about “saving” the Conservative party, or finding the “flavour of the month” for the next election. It is also about preserving Canadian democracy. A democracy needs viable alternatives, real choices for voters to weigh. Conservatives owe it not just to themselves, but to all Canadians, to provide one.

National Post

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