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Is Kellie Leitch For Real

Bernnie Federko

TRIBE Member
When the Conservative insider pushes
her anti-elite, Trump-light message —
who’s listening, and what do they hear?

By Richard Warnica


Imagine for a second that everything wild that’s happened in politics over the past several years — all the madness from Trump to Brexit and even Rob Ford — could be broken down into three points: pushpins, if you like, punched into a corkboard in a triangle pattern. Those pins have always existed in politics — call them the message, the messenger and the audience. That much hasn’t changed. What’s warped somehow is the relationship between them.

There was a time, not long ago, when there were bounds in politics. The pushpins were connected by string. You could trace the path from messenger down to message across to audience and back up again. The pins existed, in other words, in defined relation to each other. If you pulled any one too far from the others the whole thing would break.

What that meant in a practical sense was that, to succeed, politicians had to sell things that seemed, at least on some level, authentic to who they were. They couldn’t pull the message too far from the messenger and still reach an audience. The two had to seem connected for people to buy in.


Kellie Leitch participates in the leadership debate in Moncton, N.B., on Dec. 6, 2016. Conservatives vote for a new party leader on May 27, 2017. (Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press)
Politics doesn’t seem to work that way anymore. Today, that string has become an elastic band. The ties are still there, but they are stretching. The pins are all over the board, and the old ideas of who can sell what to whom are slipping away.

Today, a rich kid screw-up with a drinking problem can sell a city on fiscal prudence and hard work. A billionaire grifter with a son named Barron can become the champion of the forgotten working class. And right now, in Canada, a consummate political insider — a woman who has spent her entire adult life chasing conventional political success — can build a campaign against “insiders” and the “elite.”

All of which helps explain, why, on the first Tuesday of 2017, as the Conservative Party leadership race trudged into its third calendar year, Kellie Leitch, MD, MBA, and veteran of almost four decades of insider conservative work, appeared on a Fox Business Network segment titled “The Global Trump Effect.”

Leitch is no natural on camera. She struggles with banter and has a curious affect, a way of seeming to process questions almost physically before steering her answers roughly back to her message track. The “elites,” Leitch — who once ran two university programs at once — told the host, are “out of touch with the average Canadian.” Along with the “insiders” and the “left wing media” they are “pushing their open border, globalist agenda.”

It was, in many respects, a remarkable address. Had it appeared in isolation it might have been enough to cause several dozen Conservative heads to explode. But for Leitch, it was only the latest in a long series of deliberately provocative gambits. In the last five months, Leitch has promised to test immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values.” She has praised Donald Trump’s victory and aped his campaign messaging, with vows to “drain the Canal” — an allusion to his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington. She has, after a lifetime of working within conservative parties, decided that “insiders” are a bad thing.

Along the way, Leitch has succeeded, if nothing else, in shaping the public conversation around the Conservative leadership race. In a long, low profile campaign, absent — until the recent entry of Kevin O’Leary — any big names, Leitch has dominated media coverage. She has made the race, on a certain level, a referendum on herself and on her ideas. In the process she has enraged and baffled some party veterans. She has alienated friends and colleagues who have known her for decades and emboldened an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant fringe within her own party.

And she’s done it all because of those pins.

Leitch’s entire campaign is a wager. It’s a gamble on elasticity. She is banking, with every dog-whistle statement, every Trump allusion and anti-elite jibe, on the idea that the link between messenger and message in politics is so loose now it might as well not exist. She’s trusting that in 2017, anyone can sell anything. History doesn’t matter. Background doesn’t matter. Authenticity is dead.

It’s a hell of a bet.

For Leitch, it means putting at stake the very public idea of herself. Even if she succeeds she will be forever branded by this campaign. She will always be known as the one who opened that door in Canadian politics. And she’s risking all of that, one has to assume, because she thinks it can work. And that’s where things get really interesting.


A small group gathered outside Kellie Leitch’s constituency office in Collingwood, Ont., on Nov.18, 2016 to protest against the leadership candidate’s Trump-style politics. (J.T. McVeigh / Postmedia Network)
Leitch’s advisors aren’t stupid. If they have her preaching Canadian values and immigrant screening, it’s because they think that message can land. They believe there is an audience for her Trump-light shtick, the same audience, on a different scale, in a different country, that came out for Trump’s inauguration last week, the audience that stunned the Republican Party, the United States, and the entire world last year.

If they’re right about that, then Canadian politics are about to change no matter what happens with Leitch’s campaign. Because that would mean that the same forces that reshaped American politics and British politics, that have taken over Hungary and moved into France and Holland and half of Europe are not just active here, but ascendant.

That means the most important question in Canadian politics right now — the one that has the most potential to disrupt how this country looks and feels and governs itself for the next generation — is this:

When Kellie Leitch speaks, who’s listening, and what do they hear?


Don Link grew up in Calgary in the 1960s, just northeast of the city’s core. He had a great childhood there, he said. But he’s 60 now, and he’s worried his nieces and nephews won’t have the same opportunities that he did. “I see things changing in Canada for the worse,” he said recently from his current home on Vancouver Island. “I envision — looking at what’s happening in Europe at the moment, in Germany, France, Belgium, England — that Canada is going in the same direction.”

Link is worried about many things, but chief among them are Muslims and Muslim immigration. He holds views on Islam that are, by any definition, extreme. He thinks Canadian Muslims are trying to impose Shariah law in Canada. “It’s happening already,” he said. His Facebook page is littered with references to the “Caliphate Broadcasting Company” — what he calls the CBC — and to the “Prime Mohammedan” — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. At the top of his page, behind his profile picture, is a large image of Kellie Leitch.

At the end of November, Leitch released a statement on her Facebook page branding her campaign The Revenge of the Comment Section. “Are you tired of being ignored or mocked by the Liberal and media elites?” she wrote. “It’s time to say ‘enough’ to this condescending, elitist sarcasm.” Her supporters, Link included, lapped it up. “We need to take this country back from this liberal globalization,” wrote one user, who posted under the name Brendon Irwin. “Just like our brothers and sisters did in the U.S.A.”

Leitch fans online — her personal comment section — run a pretty wide gamut. But talk to enough of them and themes do emerge. As an experience, it’s not dissimilar from talking to Trump supporters last year in places like West Virginia, New Hampshire and Ohio. There’s a core distrust for the mainstream media and a dislike of the politically correct. Fears about immigration and refugees pop up a lot, along with horror stories, often dubiously sourced, about Muslim refugees in Europe.

As much as anything, what you get from talking to Leitch supporters is a loose sense that she can refocus the country inward somehow, away from refugees or international aid and back toward something that may have never existed at all. “I thought, well, this is the lady that’s going to represent what Stephen Harper used to call the Old Stock Canadians, the ones that have been here for a while,” said Shellie Corriea, a Leitch fan who lives just outside of Welland, Ont. “And I think that’s important. Because you don’t want new people coming in thinking they have special rights and that they will be catered to over the people who have been here all along.”


Shellie Correia at her rural home outside of Welland, Ont. (Tyler Anderson / National Post)
That feeling manifests itself in different ways. But it comes off in general as a preference for Canada — and a very particular idea of Canadians — first. “I see homeless people or poor people in Alberta, people affected by the economy,” said Devon Mannix, a 19-year-old Leitch supporter in Fort McMurray. “All those hundreds of millions of dollars that go to Syrian refugees, I feel like those could go to helping (them) instead.”

In person, Leitch tends to be very guarded in what she says. She rarely diverts from her message track and will find a way to yank most questions back to a short list of talking points: about Canada having a core identity, or on face-to-face interviews for potential immigrants and refugees. Somewhat paradoxically, that has earned her a reputation among her fans as a free-speaking enemy of the politically correct. They bring it up all the time.

“Nobody knows, basically, how to speak their mind anymore,” said Wally Fitzpatrick, a Leitch supporter in Newfoundland. “There’s too many feelings out there to be hurt…. You gotta bite your tongue. You can’t say Merry Christmas, for God’s sake.” Leitch, he believes, is different. “I find, boy, she speaks her mind.”


In person, Kellie Leitch tends to be very guarded in what she says. (Pierre Obendrauf / Postmedia News)
That reputation likely comes less from what Leitch says than for what people — supporters and detractors — assume she’s hinting at. Don Link was initially attracted to Leitch because of her plan to screen immigrants, refugees and visitors to Canada for “anti-Canadian values.” He believes that what she really means is screening for Muslims. “The biggest thing that drew me to her is her understanding — I think it’s her understanding anyway — of the threat of political Islam to Canada, ” he said.

Link isn’t bothered by the fact that Leitch herself doesn’t talk about Muslim immigrants or refugees specifically. He thinks she’s just trying to avoid a backlash from the liberal media and the politically correct. “I know she understands that Canadian values are under threat and to me that (Muslim immigration) is one of the biggest threats,” he said.

Link isn’t alone among Leitch supporters in feeling that way. In fact, most of those interviewed for this story brought up Islam or Muslim immigrants without prompting. “My biggest beef is with the invasion,” said Fitzpatrick. “I call it an invasion from the Middle East…. We had one small mosque in St. John’s and now there’s two in there and they’re blocked. They’re absolutely blocked. They’re coming in and nobody knows.”

In a recent interview, Leitch was asked why, if her campaign isn’t targeting Muslims, some of her supporters seem to feel that it is. “Well, I can’t speculate on why it’s happening,” she said. “All I can do is talk about what I believe in and I believe that our country was built on a certain value set and I continue to talk about that.”

She also pointed out that when a noted white supremacist tried to join her campaign, she had his membership quashed. She did not address why a white supremacist might be interested in joining her campaign in the first place.

In the interview, Leitch bristled when asked about her campaign’s flirtation with Trumpism. “If imitation is on one occasion that something like that may have occurred, sure,” she said, about her promise to drain the Canal. “But overall, if you’re asking me if I’m speaking sort of the same language as Mr. Trump, I’m talking about a number of the same issues because what I’m hearing from Canadians are similar concerns.”

It’s clear, for some of her supporters at least, mimicking Trump is a virtue, not a sin. “I think Donald Trump is the best thing that could have ever happened to America,” said Correia. What isn’t as clear is whether that message can resonate beyond a particular fringe.



Kellie Leitch, MP for Simcoe Grey, officially launches her Conservative leadership bid on Oct. 15, 2016. (J.T. McVeigh / Postmedia Network)
On a recent windy morning in Welland, Tom Napper, a retired union official, walked through the cracked asphalt parking lot of an abandoned factory just off the canal. Napper spent 32 years working at that factory, for John Deere. He started when he was 21, as a maintenance welder, and climbed the ranks until he became president of his local. He was in charge in 2008, when the factory shut down, putting about 800 employees out of work.

Napper believes that a politician selling Donald Trump’s message on trade and jobs could go a long way in the Welland area. The city — devastated by years of factory closures and industrial decline — is perhaps the closest thing Canada has to the American Rust Belt, states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that delivered Trump his win. “I’m telling you, in this area, there’s no question in my mind, it would definitely fly,” Napper said.

In the last few months Leitch has seemed, at times, to be speaking to those voters. Like Trump, she pushes hard for natural resource development, including pipelines, that would employ the blue-collar set. On her Fox appearance, she referenced a “globalist, open-border agenda,” using language lifted from anti-trade nationalists in Europe and the United States.

But Leitch herself remains decidedly pro-trade. “I think that we’re a trading nation,” she said. “There’s only so many Canadians and we have an opportunity to expand the opportunities for small- and medium-sized businesses when we have fair and open trade.” She stands by the pro-trade record of the Conservative government she has served in. She’s pro NAFTA, pro-Trans-Pacific Partnership, pro-free trade with the European Union.

Her appeal, then, is to a narrower slice of the Trump constituency, one engaged more by identity issues and immigration than economics and jobs. The question for Leitch is whether there are enough of those voters to carry her to victory in the Conservative race, let alone in a general election.

Pollsters and analysts from all three major parties are generally skeptical, though few rule out the idea entirely. Many see her values campaign more as a tactical attempt to stand out in the early going of the race than a genuine expression of belief. “She’s running against the mainstream, which helps her get headlines and raise money in the short term,” said Brad Lavigne, a longtime senior NDP campaign official. “But the bet is the short-term exposure that she’s getting now will come to haunt her if she were to win, because there is not a significant audience for this among general election voters.”

That’s not to say there is no constituency at all for that message in Canada. Compared to Europeans and Americans, Canadians are still relatively open to things like foreign investment, immigration and multiculturalism, according to pollster Frank Graves, the president of Ekos Research. But that support is not as strong as it once was, and it’s been going down for years. “A lot of people think Canada doesn’t have the same forces that produced Trump or Brexit,” Graves said. “It absolutely does. They’re a little bit muted, but they’re here.”


Former union leader Tom Napper in front of the old John Deere factory in Welland, Ont. (Tyler Anderson / National Post)
That audience is also disproportionately concentrated among Conservative supporters, the people Leitch needs to capture the leadership. Graves polled Canadians on support for Trump in November. A significant majority of Liberal, NDP, Green and Bloc supporters disapproved of the job he was doing as president-elect. But a majority of Conservative supporters — 57 per cent — approved. So when the Leitch team flicks at Trump’s themes or parrots his campaign, they aren’t necessarily poisoning the well, at least not the one they need to drink from right now.

Tim Powers, a longtime Conservative strategist and outspoken Leitch critic, believes at the very least she could use the Trump message to sell memberships. “I probably have responded as strongly as I have because I believe that they have the potential to win by playing off fears and discontent and misunderstandings,” he said. “I think I’m not alone in that. There is still a good portion of Canadian society that harbours an older, traditional version of the country. And some of that traditional version is good and some of it is not so good.”

There are also those in other parties who will admit, quietly, that Canadians of all stripes are not nearly as allergic to nationalist anti-immigrant messages as some would like to pretend. One senior Liberal said the party’s own internal polling shows that Canadians on the whole don’t love immigration, and that even on the refugee issue that captivated and helped turn the last election in the Liberals’ favour, the polling was pretty mixed.


Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch speaks during the debate in Saskatoon on Nov. 9, 2016. Some party insiders believe Leitch embraced Canadian values and immigrant screening in an effort to carve out space in a crowded campaign. (Liam Richards / The Canadian Press)
“It would be a folly to pretend that there isn’t a market for the Canadian values message. There just is,” said Jason Lietaer, a Conservative communications strategist who ran the party’s war room in the 2011 campaign. “And it’s not just in rural Ontario, rural Canada either. We’re not the United States. It’s a different market, different message, different culture, different everything. But there is a market for this. And she’s betting on what the size of that market might be.”

Lietaer believes Leitch may find particularly fertile ground for her message in Quebec, where debates over cultural values, immigration and assimilation have raged for years. The Conservative Party actually won more votes and more seats in Quebec in 2015 than it did in 2011. Many attribute that marginal bump, concentrated in the Quebec City region, to the prominence of the debate over the niqab in the campaign.

“A student of mine told me, a few months later, that he had been working as an election worker and he said that the words at the end of the campaign were “niqab, niqab, niqab,” said Louis Massicotte, a political scientist at Laval University. “The general feeling here was that it was a good idea for the Conservative candidates to raise this issue.”
For Leitch, whose French remains lackluster, cultural values could be a way in to the crucial Francophone voter pool. In the lead up to the recent French-language leadership debate, she spent several weeks straight in Quebec, much of it concentrated in the Quebec City region. “I wouldn’t say this is a province-wide phenomenon, but certainly in some parts of Quebec, the kind of areas that vote federally for the Conservative Party … there is a market, so to speak, for such ideas,” Massicotte said.

All of that said, the general consensus among the dozen or so strategists, pollsters and party insiders interviewed for this story, was that while Leitch may find an initial, vocal audience for her anti-Canadian values and anti-elite message, her potential for long-term growth is probably limited. “I don’t see what the second ballot strategy is here, because it’s such a polarizing issue,” said Lietaer.

Indeed, several strategists suggested Leitch’s best hope is to win on the first ballot, an exceedingly difficult task in a race with 14 candidates, a preferential ballot and an arcane system of dividing points between all of Canada’s 338 ridings. For Leitch, that job will be made even harder by the fact that, according to multiple Conservative sources, her campaign strategy has offended wide swaths of the party.

“Among the rank and file of the party, and frankly anybody I talk to in the party, anybody I know in the party, everybody is really, really right pissed off at her for doing this,” said Yaroslav Baran, who ran communications for Stephen Harper’s 2004 Conservative leadership campaign. Officially neutral at the time of his remarks, Baran announced his support for Michael Chong, one of Leitch’s rivals, this past week.


Thirteen candidates participate in the Conservative Party French language leadership debate on Jan. 17, 2017 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press)
Though she has been campaigning effectively since the end of the last federal election, almost 16 months ago, Leitch has attracted only three endorsements from her fellow MPs, including one from longtime friend Peter Van Loan, and another from David Yurdiga, who represents her hometown of Fort McMurray.

Another longtime senior Ontario Conservative suggested that, as of now, Leitch is “nobody’s second choice.” “You can’t win this thing by burning down the house with everybody else in it, and that’s what she’s trying to do,” he said.

Of course, there are two very different issues here: One is whether there is a large enough audience in Canada for the anti-elite, pro-nationalist message. The other is whether, even if there is, Kellie Leitch is the right vehicle for selling it. She is no doubt qualified to do many things, but her resume and life experience suggest pitching populism and outsider politics may not be among them.


Leitch volunteered for her first political campaign when she was nine years old, putting up lawn signs for her father’s friend, the local MP at the time, in Fort McMurray. She joined the old Progressive Conservative Party as a youth member as soon as she was legally able, and she has, in the more than three decades since, worked on more political campaigns, federally, provincially and internally, than even she can count, including almost every significant leadership and election race in Ontario for the last several decades. “This is somebody who has been the ultimate Conservative insider since she was a teenager,” said Powers. “You don’t get any more elite than Kellie Leitch.”

Leitch is quick to admit that her education is elite. But she said that doesn’t make her an elite politically. “I think someone who is an elite is someone who thinks they know better than other people,” she said, “who wants to impose their views on others.”

There’s also the authenticity question. Leitch was, for most of her political life, considered a centrist. She has no history of championing cultural values issues, anti-elite populism or much of anything to do with immigration, at least not before the last federal election campaign. “Over the years we’ve had literally dozens of conversations about whether or not we would eventually run and what we would run on, what kind of issues attract us to politics and things like that,” said one Ontario Conservative who has known Leitch since the mid-1990s. “I can tell you the number of times issues related to anti-Canadian values came up was zero. Like not three, not seven, zero.”


Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Labour Minister Kellie Leitch visit the Honda assembly line at the manufacturing plant in Alliston, Ont., on March 30, 2015. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)
Another longtime acquaintance in the party tacked up her embrace of those issues to “100 per cent pure bullshit tactic(s).”

Leitch believes that last criticism likely comes “from an angry individual who thought they could tell me how to do things and is realizing I have a mind of my own.”

But that idea — that she embraced Canadian values and immigrant screening not from some deep-seated sense of principle but more in an effort to carve out space in a crowded campaign — came up repeatedly in conversations with other Conservatives.

All those criticisms of Leitch, though, rely on the idea that politics still work in some kind of predictable, old-fashioned way. Leitch’s campaign, of course, is a bet that they don’t. She is an imperfect messenger — in tone, talents and history — for a set of ideas that have not yet been proven to have any broad resonance with the Canadian public. If nothing else, we are in a golden age for imperfect messengers.

Even if she does lose, that doesn’t mean her message and her tactics — the Trump-light nativism of her campaign — are doomed in Canada. If she does well enough, if she makes it to the last several ballots, someone else at some point — someone more naturally suited to a Trump-like, Brexit-like or even Rob Ford-like campaign — will seize her ideas and run with them. In fact, someone may already have.



Kevin O’Leary in Toronto on Jan. 18, 2017 after he announced he is running for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party. (Veronica Henri/Postmedia Network)
Last week, just before Donald Trump swore the oath of office in Washington, Kevin O’Leary, reality television star, businessman and professional self-promoter, appeared on CNN, live from a studio in Florida. The title of the segment, preserved online, was “Canada’s Donald Trump?”

O’Leary brings to the Conservative race the other half of the Trump equation, the half that Leitch lacks — the celebrity, the bombast, the sheer cussed refusal to care about looking dumb on TV. A Forum poll released shortly after his announcement put him in the clear lead: among Canadians at large, Conservative supporters, and party members. Leitch, after all her press, all her great bets and provocative moves, was in a three-way statistical tie for fifth.

Horse race polling in this kind of leadership race has limited value. It doesn’t measure membership sales, second choices or riding-by-riding strength, all of which are as important, if not more, than total national support. But for Leitch, having gambled so much, it must gall. She bet her whole reputation on a toxic idea — becoming Canada’s less lunatic Donald Trump. Now, with O’Leary in the race, she can’t even be that anymore.
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