Andrew Scheer has a problem. No one likes to be labelled a career politician — particularly not a Conservative. The conservative ideal is Cincinnatus, that noble Roman who left his fields to save the Republic before returning once again to his plow. But the Conservative leader is neither Cincinnatus nor silver-tongued Cicero. Nor, as his zig-zag to power shows, is he Voltaire, the defender of free speech whose mantle Scheer has often sought to don.
From the beginning, his career seems to have been an exercise in political expediency, albeit driven by a strongly held philosophy of social conservatism that has attracted likeminded voters when he’s most needed them.
Scheer’s early biography is somewhat in flux these days. Born in Ottawa in May 1979, he shares with tennis star Bianca Andreescu both Romanian ancestry and recent photo ops with Justin Trudeau. He also has dual U.S. citizenship via his parents, a situation he says he is attempting to rectify. And to be fair, it’s not as though he’s running for Governor General or anything.
Scheer followed his future wife Jill Ryan to Regina where he attended the University of Saskatchewan. But following a recent Globe and Mail report, Scheer’s claim to have been an insurance broker looks to be busted — he never acquired the license necessary to hold that position in Saskatchewan. Rather it seems Scheer was more of an office gopher at Shenher Insurance in Regina. Scheer, having often boasted of his experience in the private sector, has understandably been pressed for specifics. He has obliged. The era spanned “approximately spring to some time in the fall.”
It stands to reason that Cincinnatus might have had a more difficult time taking power had he been revealed to be a resume-padding stable boy, but ultimately no one is likely to have supported Scheer due to a sterling career peddling supplementary hail coverage anyway. His qualifications, for good or ill, are political.
Free speech, now and then
The rallying cry of free speech, “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is usually attributed to Voltaire. But wrongly — the famous quote apparently originated with historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall. Which fits with Scheer’s political history — his free speech pronouncements do not always hold up to scrutiny either.
At the 2017 convention where he accepted the leadership of Conservative party, Scheer positioned himself as a champion of free speech, telling attendees that universities should be denied federal funding if they fail to allow freedom of expression. The line drew loud applause from the convention crowd, aimed as it was at those left-wing campus snowflakes who attempt to shut down and de-platform anyone who disagrees with them. But Scheer’s own stunning 2004 political breakthrough was accomplished partly on a strategy that any snowflake would love.
At the time Scheer was just 25 years old and what little political experience he had was arguably a liability — he had left his now-legendary insurance career to serve in the office of Canadian Alliance MP Larry Spencer. Spencer would then be booted out of the party for proclaiming his belief that homosexuality should be criminalized. Scheer continued to work for Spencer for months afterward before launching his own candidacy in the riding of Regina-Qu'Appelle.
In 2004, the riding was held by NDP MP Lorne Nystrom, then among the most respected men in Parliament. Scheer was an Ottawa-raised nonentity who had lived in Regina all of two years. But during a House of Commons debate on a censorship bill, Nystrom expressed concern that over-broad legislation could criminalize artistic works such as Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita. Scheer seized on Nystrom’s defence of free speech to declare him a supporter of child pornography. The Conservative candidate told the press: “People are going to be scratching their heads and asking, ‘What forms of child pornography have artistic merit?’”
That year the snowflakes would fall in June — enough of them to give Scheer a winning margin of 861 votes.
Returning to his Ottawa home like a spawning salmon, Scheer was launching his parliamentary career at a remarkably young age, with pressing questions to share with his constituents. The very next year, for example, Scheer asked them via his blog: “Does it bother you” that Michaëlle Jean, about to be sworn in as Governor General, “is a dual citizen (France and Canada)?”
Scheer’s inquiring mind also, for some odd reason, wanted to know: “Would it bother you if instead of French citizenship, she held U.S. citizenship?”
In 2011, Scheer would go on to become the youngest Speaker of the House in Canadian history. He was no John Bercow, the flamboyant maestro of the British parliament. Instead he found himself dodging claims he managed or cut off debate in ways that aided the Conservatives in what is supposed to be a non-partisan role.
When Guelph Conservative MP Marty Burke was under investigation by Elections Canada in the robocalls scandal, it was found that Scheer’s riding association had transferred $3,000 to Burke’s campaign fund. Scheer then took fire for blocking some lines of inquiry in the ensuing House debate.
One of those targeted by the Conservatives’ black ops was Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, whose constituents had been phoned with the false news he was stepping down. Conservatives defended the dirty robotricks as (you guessed it) “free expression.” When the Opposition implored Speaker Scheer to punish the Tories, he declared their tactics “reprehensible,” then shrugged there was nothing he could do about it.
Scheer ran into more accusations of playing favourites in the House from then-NDP leader Tom Mulcair, upset the Speaker allowed Conservatives to hurl non-sequiturs and “big swear words” his way. Not my job to police the quality of what gets said in the House, Scheer averred.
Scheer may have initially gained entry to Parliament by smearing Nystrom as some sort of free-speech, free-love pervert. But as a solid Catholic, Scheer would surely know the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke: “There is more joy in Heaven over one lost sinner who repents.” And eventually the free speech cause would reclaim its wandering Conservative disciple.
But let none assume that this marks Scheer as some sort of apologist for child pornography. Rather, Scheer’s commitment to free speech seems to have been renewed first by the 2017 introduction in the House of Motion 103, and later that year by the case of Lindsay Shepherd.
Motion 103 was introduced by the Liberal government calling on the government to conduct a study that would eventually result in a program to eliminate racism and religious discrimination. Coming shortly after the Quebec City mosque massacre, the motion made specific mention of combatting Islamophobia.*
Motion 103 led to a major outbreak of hair fires in Conservative ranks. The motion was mischaracterized as a law by opponents like MP Brad Trost and conservative political activist Charles McVety, who claimed it was a step toward “blasphemy laws” and an attack on free speech. Rallies against M-103 attracted groups like the Soldiers of Odin and La Meute. The motion also drew opposition from Scheer.**
Lindsay Shepherd was a Wilfrid Laurier University teaching assistant sanctioned for showing a video that featured popular author Jordan Peterson, a man generally beloved by the right and loathed by the left. The university apologized for its heavy-handed approach and Shepherd became a hero in that familiar yet depressing fashion — a free-speech champion to people who agreed with her, attacked by those who didn’t. Scheer was among the former. In the House he denounced what he called the “inquisition” Shepherd was subjected to by Laurier faculty. Scheer was by this time a born-again libertarian.
The Motion 103 debate took place in the context of the Conservative leadership race in which Scheer was attempting to keep pace with fellow right-wing candidates like Trost seeking to replace Stephen Harper as Conservative chief. But as the convention approached, everyone was trailing the member from Beauce, Maxime Bernier. With TV blowhard Kevin O’Leary also making plenty of noise, few were paying attention to the kid from Regina-Qu'Appelle. The May 27, 2017, contest would go on for 13 ballots. The results would reshape the Canadian political landscape, creating a new leader and ultimately a new party to boot.
More on that in the second instalment of The Tyee’s series Scheer Ambition.
The third part of the series is here.
*Story updated at 9:25 a.m. on Oct. 7 to correct the location of the Quebec City mosque shooting.
**Story updated at 12:20 p.m. on Oct. 7 to correct that Charles McVety is a conservative political activist, not a member of Parliament.