In mid-January, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole issued an unusual and lengthy statement, which seemed to address an existential question facing his party. “I am proud of Canada as a welcoming, modern and inclusive country,” it said, in part, adding: “I am also proud of the history of the Conservative party being made up of trailblazing Canadians from all backgrounds.” The very existence of the statement and its vexed and defensive tone suggest that O’Toole and the Tories may have some work to do in buttressing that case.
Against that backdrop, within the party’s grassroots, is the Conservative Black Congress of Canada (CBCC), originally founded in 2009 and recently relaunched, which hopes to show Black Canadians the Conservative party can be their party. It would be a counterpoint to the steady trickle of eruptions from conservatism’s intolerant fringes.
When Tunde Obasan, national chair of the CBCC, campaigned as a United Conservative Party candidate in Alberta’s 2019 election, he heard the same response over and over. “While knocking on doors, I hear people, immigrants, asking me—because myself, I’m an immigrant—why am I part of the Conservative party, that I don’t belong there. I began to wonder, ‘Do I actually belong there?’ ” he says. “And I realized that is where I actually belong because the Conservative party supports who I am, supports my values.”
Obasan says his priorities are family values and a strong economy that allows people to provide for their own, with a core of fiscal and personal responsibility. He knows he is a demographic anomaly. “The reality is the majority of Black Canadians either are with the NDP or with the Liberal party,” he says. “When they see the few of us who are part of the Conservative party, they begin to ask questions.”
To him, those trends are a result of personal history and precedent—someone’s father voted that way, or when they arrived in Canada, a friend pointed them in a certain direction—rather than policy or deeper alignment. In Obasan’s mind, that means that all his organization needs to do is explain Conservative values and policy to other Black Canadians. “When we educate people about what the Conservative party stands for, they will change their minds,” he says. “They will know where they actually belong.”
Obasan is careful to clarify that his organization is a grassroots effort with a mandate to support any federal or provincial conservative parties, but not an official arm of any party. The strong finish of Leslyn Lewis in the Conservative party leadership race last summer—she came third, drawing more popular support than O’Toole or Peter MacKay in the second round—was a big moment, Obasan says: “That spoke volumes. It’s also encouraged Black Canadians that we have people within the conservative movement. They don’t actually care about your skin colour, they only care about what you’ve got to offer, and that was what we saw in the leadership election.”
As part of its reboot, the CBCC has launched a parliamentary internship named for Donald Oliver, the first Black man in the Senate, who was appointed by Brian Mulroney in 1990 (Anne Cools had been the first Black woman in the Senate six years earlier). “I’ve been a member of the Progressive Conservative or the Conservative party since 1956—65 years ago—with Mr. [Robert] Stanfield in Nova Scotia,” says Oliver, noting that several Conservative leaders have sought to bring in visible minorities. “One of the greatest was Brian Mulroney,” the retired senator says. “He just broke new ground, and he pushed the tent wide open.”
Mulroney drew in former separatists in Quebec and Blacks in Toronto who had never voted anything but Liberal, Oliver says, and he won back-to-back majorities because of that wide appeal.
Oliver likes that O’Toole stands for tax cuts, halting the practice of “printing new dollars to be like a band-aid” on the wounds of the pandemic, and trying to find balance in both the federal budget and the needs of Canadians. Social issues are a tougher thing to handle. “I think he’s struggling with them,” he says of O’Toole. “He’s got to go back to the Mulroney way of handling issues. To say: ‘Here’s an issue and here is what I hear the party saying, and here is the right thing to do.’ Brian always came down on the side of the right thing to do. I think of his standing up to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in relation to [Nelson] Mandela—those were not easy things.”
Obasan, however, does not see winning over Black Canadians as a difficult task for his organization. He figures that if they simply show people what Conservative politics is, they will see themselves in it. “It’s going to be very easy, because people don’t understand why they belong to [a] particular political party,” he says. “All they need is understanding, and that is what we are providing.”
This article appears in print in the March 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Pitching a broader tent.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.