By Jonathon Van Maren
By 7:30 p.m., the Kingdom Covenant Ministries church in Mississauga, Toronto, was packed with 300 enthusiastic supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada’s rising star, Dr. Leslyn Lewis. Her arrival on stage was greeted with cheers, and her barnburner stump speech was equal parts populist talking points and political sermon—Lewis preaches like a Pentecostalist when she’s getting into her groove. She received four standing ovations, including for publicly declaring her pro-life sentiments and promising to defund the left-wing state media, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The CBC camerawoman covering the event grimaced.
In her 20-minute pitch to voters, Lewis covered a lot of territory (both politically and geographically—she paces the stage a lot while she talks). She condemned the deliberate division over vaccine status utilized by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; she mocked the media’s coverage of the Freedom Convoy and their refusal to admit that the protest was a manifestation of widespread frustration; and she noted the rise in separatist sentiment in Alberta caused by the anti-energy policies of the Liberal government. Many Canadians, she said, have felt silenced and ignored over the past several years—and her candidacy was about giving them a voice.
Fundamentally, she said, over and over again, her campaign is one of unity—for all types of conservatives, and for anyone who thinks that the ugliness of Canada’s politics over the past several years, stoked by Trudeau and his strategists, is badly hurting the country.
That might be a typical promise, but Lewis is not your typical Conservative candidate. A Jamaican immigrant and mother of two, she holds a Master’s in Environmental Studies from York University and a Ph.D. in international law from Osgoode Law. She was managing partner of Lewis Law in Scarborough, specializing in commercial litigation, international trade practice, and energy policy. She only entered politics during the 2015 federal election as the Conservative candidate for Scarborough-Rouge Park as a last-minute replacement for a candidate who was embroiled in a scandal. (She did surprisingly well, although she didn’t secure a parliamentary seat until 2021.)
Candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada are generally of a familiar sort to political watchers. Most are boys of the ‘Ottawa bubble’ who got into politics as kids and have spent their lives looking in the mirror and seeing a prime minister look back at them. Current frontrunner Pierre Poilievre was 24 when he was elected to Parliament. Patrick Brown was 22 when he was elected to Barrie City Council and ran relentlessly for higher offices until becoming an MP in 2006. Jean Charest was 26 when he arrived in the House of Commons—and former leader Andrew Scheer was 25. They are all political insiders who have wanted the top job their entire lives and have spent years planning for it. Lewis is new to politics.
What makes Conservative leadership races particularly contentious is that the party’s base is diverse, ranging from social conservatives to libertine fiscal hawks and everything in between. The Conservative Party has only existed in its current form since 2003, when Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay (who failed in his own leadership run just two years ago) signed a deal to merge the Canadian Alliance Party and the Progressive Conservative Party. Conservatives had been splintered between various parties since the late 1980s, when irate Westerners fed up with Eastern elites broke away from the Progressive Conservatives and split the Right, resulting in a string of Liberal majorities before Harper—after a couple of tippy minorities—finally won a majority government in 2011 for the first time since 1988.
Thus, it is difficult for candidates to appeal to the many factions uneasily eyeing each other in the big but shaky tent of the Conservative Party. Candidates frequently field conservative platforms to secure the leadership and promptly abandon their promises when facing a general election—the short-lived leader Erin O’Toole actually changed policies during the campaign and managed to anger nearly every faction of his base. According to Canada’s left-leaning chattering class, the only way a Conservative can win is by selling out conservative principles and enthusiastically embracing every aspect of social liberalism, including (indeed, especially) marching in a plurality of Pride Parades. Conservative base voters, on the other hand, are unenthused by this.
The last few leaders have unfortunately listened to their critics rather than their voters. As it turns out, taking political advice from those who wish you to fail is not a great strategy.
The Conservative Party has thus been trapped in an identity crisis since Harper lost to Justin Trudeau in 2015 and stepped down shortly thereafter. First came Andrew Scheer, who held conservative principles but didn’t seem capable of articulating them. He resigned after a single general election loss. Erin O’Toole, a former Harper cabinet minister, promised to massively expand the Conservative tent by embracing a progressive agenda on everything but fiscal matters but failed to persuade anyone to actually enter the tent while presiding over the exit of disgruntled grassroots conservatives. O’Toole was shown the door by an overwhelming caucus vote after just two years. Thus, the Conservatives face their third leadership race in a few years.