On February 2, after a majority of Conservative MPs ousted Erin O’Toole as Party leader, Toronto Star columnist Susan Delacourt wrote that, since Canadian Conservatives have yet to commit to either a centrist or far-right version of their ideology, their ejection of O’Toole is detrimental to the far-right radicals: “they keep wanting to hurt Trudeau, but they keep hurting themselves.”
Contemplating the beaming pleasure at O’Toole’s removal on the part of far-right figures like Keean Bexte, Delacourt suggests that they fail to see that this move is damaging to the party and weakens Conservatives’ chances of unseating Justin Trudeau.
Subsequent events indicate that Delacourt’s optimism was misplaced. Her comments were published after O’Toole was voted out, but before the Conservatives had chosen their interim leader, Candice Bergen, a Manitoba MP who has continually shown support for the convoy, and has been photographed wearing a camouflage MAGA hat. If her interim leadership is any indication, this country is in for a much more hard-line Conservative Party.
The Toronto Star piece bespeaks a naïve attitude common in liberal quarters. For figures like Bexte, O’Toole was never the man for the job, though he tried repeatedly to pretend that he was. O’Toole showed support for the truckers’ convoy, hoping to garner political capital from this foundationally reactionary movement, but backtracked just over 24 hours later when its ugly consequences were impossible to ignore. His condemnation of these actions was tempered, omitting the open displays of Nazi and Confederate flags, but insofar as it fell short of total loyalty, this attempt to appease the far-right faction was insufficient to win its favour.
As for O’Toole, his push-and-pull game around the convoy is illustrative of a pattern in his political career as federal leader. In December 2020, it was revealed he gave a talk to Ryerson Conservatives in which he whitewashed Canada’s Residential Schools. After the appropriate blowback, he walked back those comments. When the January 6 insurrection in the US sparked questions about Canadian Conservatives, O’Toole attempted to distance himself from the far-right elements, and repudiated Derek Sloan over his acceptance of a donation from a noted white supremacist was revealed.
O’Toole’s actions show that he knew that publicly courting the far-right damaged his image as the measured, thoughtful conservative that he was trying to cultivate. The next Conservative leader may not follow O’Toole’s lead in distancing themselves from more extremist elements, and that’s what the far-right base is counting on.
How is that likely to go over with voters? It may be true that Canadians view themselves as centrists, as one study cited by Delacourt demonstrates. But that study didn’t clarify what respondents understand the political centre to be. Is it the Liberal Party or somewhere else along the spectrum from the NDP to the Conservatives? Does the NDP represent the far-left, with the centre figuring as a compromise between the Liberals and Conservatives? What if the People’s Party of Canada is considered the right, with the Liberals on the left and the Conservatives in the centre?
The fact is that Canada is one of the leading sources of online right-wing hatred. Since 2017, hate crimes have risen across the country, and a third of students in North America (80 percent of those surveyed being in Canada) believe the Holocaust to be exaggerated or fabricated. These are disquieting trends.
O’Toole’s failure to translate right-wing frustration with Trudeau into seats during the last election indicated to Conservatives the weakness of a centrist approach. Under O’Toole’s leadership, three seats were lost, and the party’s actions resulted in regular embarrassment.
Those who stress that a far-right tilt in the Conservative Party would split the party’s voters neglect to consider that such a shift could attract the growing far-right movement currently outside the party. In the 2021 federal election the PPC gained 5.1 percent of the popular vote, up from 1.6 percent in 2019. It’s a safe bet that if the Conservative Party swings hard to the right, PPC voters will likely follow, and ordinary right-wing Canadians will have no option at the polls. In an era that saw the victory of Donald Trump, we can’t rush to dismiss such a scenario.
The possibility remains that a far-right leader of the Conservatives could precipitate an organizational split. After all, the current party was born of a merger between the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance, the latter which stemmed from the right-wing populist Reform Party founded in 1987 by Preston Manning. But the chance of this is remote. Unless an organized revolt takes place within the Conservative Party, it’s likely that moderate Conservatives who don’t jump ship would accept the new direction especially given that the party’s strategy in the last three elections has not yielded the desired results.
Admittedly, the victory of an openly far-right candidate in the Conservative leadership race is the worst-case scenario. Although at the time of this writing, Pierre Poilievre is the front-runner in the incipient leadership race and he has staunchly supported the convoy protestors since their arrival in Ottawa. So while it may be comforting to believe that the forces behind the convoy protestors will inevitably fail in the political arena, we can’t afford to underestimate how determined and calculating they are. Even in the best case scenario we can expect the far-right to exert mounting pressure on mainstream Conservatives.