The Conservative convention looks to be more inclusive

The Conservative Party begins the task of reinventing itself

Leadership candidates and young partisans begin by both building on and repudiating Stephen Harper’s legacy

Stephen Harper speaks during the 2016 Conservative Convention. (Chris Bolin)
Stephen Harper speaks during the 2016 Conservative Convention. (Chris Bolin)

“The past is no place to linger,” Stephen Harper told party faithful in a farewell address at last weekend’s Conservative convention. The former prime minister needn’t have bothered. Tory delegates in Vancouver showed little interest in lingering in a past they’re suddenly unafraid to label secretive, negative and controlling. This convention, with the doors thrown uncharacteristically wide open to media, felt almost celebratory, as the party emerged from under Harper’s long shadow, and the ashes of a disappointing 2015 campaign.

Already, the new course looks more open, more pluralistic, more democratic, more positive—all things that could make the Tories a lot more electable come 2019.

“I feel very comfortable in the party the way it is now,” former transport minister Lisa Raitt told Maclean’s over the weekend, noting she occasionally felt “out of step” with her party’s social policy and its often autocratic communication style that kept MPs and even cabinet members speaking from tightly scripted party lines.

But the weekend’s truest signal of change came when the party excised a plank defining marriage as the “union of one man and one woman.” This will have zero practical function—marriage equality has been an irreversible fact in Canada since it was first decided by courts almost a decade and a half ago. But the grassroots effort, driven by two young delegates from Alberta, Natalie Pon, 24, and Joseph Heap, 26, was a big deal for Conservatives, and emblematic of the wider mood.

Related: What will Stephen Harper’s legacy be?

All of the declared and rumoured leadership candidates backed the motion to scrap the old definition. “It’s about us telling Canadians: You can love who you want,” Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, one of three to have announced a run, said on the convention floor.

Sure, some of the party’s social conservative wing made for the exits in a huff after the motion sailed through with a 70 per cent majority. But it was the loud cheers, the hugging that followed the vote count and the heckling by delegates who’d tried to shutter the opponents who left a more lasting impression.

That, in part, was Heap’s motivation. The electrical engineer had no idea the ugly definition even existed until stumbling across a reference to it on Reddit during last fall’s federal election. Shortly after the Liberals’ majority win, the Conservative riding association president for Fort McMurray–Cold Lake, together with Pon, an Edmonton accountant who sits on the Conservatives’ Edmonton West riding executive, co-sponsored a motion to axe it.

“If we are going to define what a Conservative is based on the definition of marriage then we are doing something wrong,” says Pon, whose Grade 9 yearbook lists her ambition to be Canada’s “best female Prime Minister.” “We are not thinking about what makes us Conservative. We don’t need to repeal laws that have been in existence for 10-plus years.”

The duo spent five months cold-calling Conservative MPs and leadership candidates, hunting down supporters on Twitter and social media, and planning strategy, a battle that pitted them against a well-known special interest group, the Campaign Life Coalition.

One of Pon and Heap’s early, high profile recruits to the fight was Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel. “When you look at Canadian pluralism, what unites us are our shared values,” said Rempel, who championed their motion in a policy workshop that media were given an opportunity to watch first-hand in Vancouver. “But we have to ensure equality among Canadians—every definition of that word.”

To sell it over the weekend, Rempel, 36, chose a more personal tack, telling party faithful about her cousin: “She is brilliant. She contributes to our country. And she’s gay,” Rempel said, her voice cracking. “Our party is the party of equal rights. We are the party of equality and freedom, and it’s about time we passed this resolution.”

“I get emotional, right?,” she tells Maclean’s, her tongue firmly in cheek. “It’s a thing chicks do. But seriously, if you’re flying across the country every week and you have 110,000 people who have given you this amazing privilege to go and be their voice, you should be passionate.”

Social conservatives were less enthusiastic. Before Sunday’s vote, Saskatoon–University MP Brad Trost warned the policy shift would “fly like a lead brick” in parts of Canada. “The traditional family is the bedrock of society. You cannot have a functioning free enterprise economy without it,” he added, as if the 13 years since the wedding of Michael Leshner and Michael Stark had never occurred.

To Trost, the question is also an existential one: Without the distinction, the party will become “Liberal-Lite,” he warns. “What’s the point of having another Liberal party?”

To Rempel, born Michelle Marie Godin, in a middle-class family with francophone roots in south Winnipeg, supporting this issue doesn’t make anyone less of a Conservative. “I think it makes our party more Canadian.”

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose gestures while speaking to delegates during the 2016 Conservative Party Convention in Vancouver, B.C. on Thursday May 26, 2016. (DARRYL DYCK/CP)
Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose gestures while speaking to delegates during the 2016 Conservative Party Convention in Vancouver, B.C. on Thursday May 26, 2016. (Darryl Dyck, CP)

She’s been a Conservative since her days at Winnipeg’s arts-focused Glenlawn Collegiate, where she played in several bands. Rempel, who’s planning to write a book on Canada’s wine industry, describes her parents as “apolitical”; she came to her political views on her own, she says. A former bandmate, now a local lawyer, remembers Rempel as someone who “seemed much older than most kids in high school,” and held “different interests than the rest of us.”

In 2004, after earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Manitoba, she moved to Calgary with her husband, where she became more deeply engaged in politics. Soon, she was spending all her holiday time “going off and running political campaigns across the country.” In 2011, she ran for office herself, in north Calgary.

Rempel has, in jest, labelled herself aggressive, bossy, brazen, abrasive, young—all to mock and call out the sexist language regularly used to demonize her and other women in politics. Case in point: On Friday, Trost, apparently irked by her support for marriage equality, dismissed the two-term MP and former cabinet minister as a “rookie.”

Related: FYI, the CPC contenders — official and unofficial

Rempel is one of several former Harper cabinet ministers, including Raitt and former defence minister Jason Kenney, who are considering leadership runs. Former justice minister Peter Mackay says he “hasn’t ruled it out.” When asked, Rempel sells herself hard: “Often, women shrink away from promoting themselves. But I’ll tell you, I have a great CV. I think I’m very capable.” For now, Rempel says she wants to focus on “taking the Conservative lens and transposing it over the lens of being a woman. Can those two things be compatible? Are there different viewpoints and ways to look at pushing a feminist agenda?”

Picking a new leader is just the beginning, Rempel says. “A lot of work” will need to be done “to regain the trust of certain communities,” she tells Maclean’s. Key to that will be dumping retrograde fights over identity issues that came to define the last election, one fought solely on “fear,” says Pon—“fear of what is different, or of what you don’t understand.”

Despite the perceived fumbles of the last campaign, the rousing ovation Conservatives granted Harper as he left the convention stage last week helped illustrate how positive they feel about his legacy. He helped unite the country’s right; and his tax measures, his budgets, his trade agreements, and his bid to add muscle to the country’s military remain popular among the party faithful.

But the 2015 election and the turn to identity politics, like the so-called “barbaric cultural practices” tip line, and the niqab ban for citizenship ceremonies, left a bitter taste in many mouths, even among supporters. It was an election many felt could have been within reach had it been fought on economic issues.

“As a party I think we have to take ownership of that,” says Rempel. “We have to look to communities for whom this [rhetoric] was highly offensive, and we have to say: ‘Look, sometimes we get it wrong.’ ”

“I’m not interested in turning a blind eye to injustices,” she is quick to add. “But we have to do that in a way that is not xenophobic either.”

Delegates Michelle Rempel and Natalie Pon celebrate the yes vote to change the wording of the traditional definition of marriage in the conservative policies at the Conservative Party of Canada convention in Vancouver, Saturday, May 28, 2016. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)
Delegates Michelle Rempel and Natalie Pon celebrate the yes vote to change the wording of the traditional definition of marriage in the conservative policies at the Conservative Party of Canada convention in Vancouver, Saturday, May 28, 2016. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)

To Pon, whose Chinese-born great-grandfather paid a head tax to enter Canada, the issue also felt personal. That could be me, she remembers thinking last summer, after the so-called “barbaric cultural practices” tip line was introduced. In the wake of an often ugly campaign, she struggled to reconcile her place in the party.

“Conservative values run through our family: we’re going to work hard, and do what we can to make our lives better. I was raised with those ideals. My grandfather had a Chinese restaurant in a small town in Alberta. He saved every dollar he earned to put his four kids through university.”

For Pon, this meant working to try to shift the party’s focus to one based on “inclusivity, integrity and positivity.” It’s also meant being gutsy enough to tell the party she’s sick of hearing complaints about whatever Justin Trudeau did the day before. “I want to know: What is the Conservative plan to make Canada a better place?”

“We need to look forward to fiscal or foreign policies that make us Conservative but also let us be inclusive and accepting of all people in our party,” she says. “We want fiscal Conservatives who believe in gay marriage, or are gay. We don’t want to exclude them.”

It would be hard to imagine open dissent like this in the Harper era. “But something different is happening,” says Heap. “We’re seeing a younger group of Conservatives, with a different definition of what being Conservative means to them, and they’re challenging a lot of policies and issues that have been around for a long time.” Former Harper cabinet minister Monte Solberg told Maclean’s he believes climate change is the most important policy issue facing the party and country. Bernier, meanwhile, recently spoke out against supply management. MP Kellie Leitch is promising a more collaborative approach than under Harper. MP Michael Chong, the son of immigrants, believes he represents a new Canada, and is making a play for the loyalties of new Canadians.

Political buttons are pictured at the Conservative Party of Canada convention in Vancouver, Friday, May 27, 2016. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)
Political buttons are pictured at the Conservative Party of Canada convention in Vancouver, Friday, May 27, 2016. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)

The official Opposition is hardly in disarray. The Conservatives lost just 200,000 votes from 2011; and in the first quarter of the year, they’ve raised $5.5 million—more than the Liberals and the NDP combined.

The more Canadians are allowed to hear from gutsy feminists like Rempel, and young, social libertarians like Heap, and urban moderates like Raitt, and tax wonks like Pon, the more they are reminded that these are all Conservative stories, too, broadening the appeal of a party that turned relentlessly inward in its final years in power.

“For a long time I felt that was the side I needed to beat out of me,” says Rempel, ruing her fiery, scrappy id. “You really cheese people off. There are people who are exceptionally unhappy with me right now. But if you’re seeking to make everybody happy and be liked instead of doing what’s right, then you probably need to rethink what you’re doing.”

In sparking national conversations on sexism in Parliament, in championing minority rights, she’s also attracting a new set of followers, curious not just about her, but her party’s new messaging.

It worked for Justin Trudeau. The Tories are hoping change like this could work for them too in 2019.