By Jonathon Van Maren
After more than a decade of being forced to the fringe of the Conservative Party of Canada under the leadership of Stephen Harper, social conservatives are displaying their strength, numbers, and dedication—and nowhere has it been more noticed than the Conservative Leadership Race. Maxime Bernier directly contradicted the Harper line and announced that he had no problem opening the abortion debate, mentioning that Canada’s lack of abortion laws put us out of step with the rest of the world. Rick Peterson, a firm social liberal, actually sent out an entire campaign email dedicated to detailing the common ground he had with social conservatives. And as interviews with nearly all of the candidates conducted by the pro-life political action group Right Now showed, Conservative leadership hopefuls are indicating a refreshing and encouraging willingness to find issues to work together with social conservatives.
There’s a backstory to all of this. In 2006, Harper biographer William Johnson told CBC reporter Gillian Gindlay that Harper knew a large portion of his base was socially conservative, but that he wasn’t worried about it. “[He] knew all he had to do,” Johnson said, “was control these people.” There were a few reasons Harper was so intent on keeping so-cons quiet. First of all, he wanted to avoid a repeat of 2004, when British Columbian MP Randy White fueled Liberal accusations of a so-con “hidden agenda” with a rant about gay marriage. Second of all, Harper perceived so-cons as a group that simply could not be pleased, and thus it was easier to simply ignore them while holding to the safe assumption that most so-cons would continue to vote Conservative because they simply had no other political home.
The Harper perspective had a trickle-down effective. Even many genuinely socially conservative parliamentarians began to repeat the line: social conservative issues were divisive, politically dangerous, and would ensure electoral defeat. Stephen Harper went as far as intervening to ensure that MP Mark Warawa’s Motion 408, which asked that the House condemn gender selection abortion, never came to a vote, even though over 90% of Canadians disapproved of the procedure. After the 2015 defeat of the Harper Government, columnist Tasha Kheiriddin even managed to twist Harper’s successful marginalizing of so-cons and claim that he pandered to them, costing Conservatives the election.
But the 2017 Conservative Party Leadership Race has changed the narrative, and a lot of the credit for that belongs to leadership candidate and former Member of Parliament Pierre Lemieux. A former military man with a twenty-year career that brought him the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, Lemieux is charismatic, well-spoken, engaging, and an unashamed social conservative. Advocating for a “bigger Conservative Party” with a “broader, more inclusive platform,” Lemieux traveled across Canada speaking to thousands of Canadians and explaining that social conservative values were Canadian values—and that the common ground that existed on issues like abortion was actually enormous.
That message began resonating. Journalists who were used to seeing politicians twist haplessly in the wind and swallow their own tongues when asked about their pro-life position were surprised—and sometimes speechless themselves—when Lemieux calmly and winsomely affirmed that he was pro-life and then smoothly moved on to explain that a large majority of Canadians supported common-sense legislation on pre-born victims of crime and gender selection abortion. Not only were Lemieux’s responses devoid of the typical defensiveness, he illustrated why the relentless fearmongering about pro-lifers was not only baseless and highlighted that many pro-life policies were eminently reasonable—something that the defensive dodging of most politicians had omitted from the public conversation.
This has also signalled to many in the Conservative Party that social conservatives may be willing to play ball. In other words, perhaps their support can be relied on in return for the endorsement of policies that social conservatives champion but the majority of Canadians support, including many different types of pro-life legislation. It’s not only pro-lifers, either—as we saw with the recent sex education controversy in Ontario, the vast majority of new Canadians hold very social conservative views—a Conservative Party that chose to champion values held by a large plurality of Canadians would be an electoral advantage rather than the other way around. As door-knocking in majority-immigrant ridings has shown me, most new Canadians are simply unaware of the status quo on abortion—and are shocked to be informed.
Pierre Lemieux’s performance in the leadership race—as well as the strong performance of Brad Trost—sends a strong message to the Conservative Party: Social conservatives are active, they demand a voice, and they represent policies that are not the political toxins the media insists on portraying them as.