Erin O’Toole has one real job as Conservative leader — expand the party’s appeal beyond a fiercely loyal base that’s too small to deliver an election victory.
He’s failing, instead choosing to fan the flames of culture wars instead of finding ways to attract moderate voters.
His most recent gambit seized on Canada Day. O’Toole delivered a video speech last week to the party’s MPs, complaining about communities that have decided to cancel Canada Day events this year after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves holding the remains of Indigenous children taken from their parents.
“I’m concerned that injustices in our past or in the present are too often seized upon by a small group of activist voices who use it to attack the very idea of Canada itself,” he said.
O’Toole acknowledged that the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools is “very troubling” and “dreadful.” (Any parent would find those words horrifyingly inadequate, and for Indigenous families they must feel like a wound.)
But let’s still have fireworks and face-painting on the national holiday, O’Toole said. “I can’t stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day,” he said.
It’s a good message for the Conservative base, evoking the “cancel culture” fears.
But fatal for the party’s hopes of winning moderate voters, and a signal of how desperately out-of-touch O’Toole and the party’s strategists have become.
Among O’Toole’s “small group of activist voices” attacking “the very idea of Canada” is Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki. He’s in his mid-70s, a developer, Rotary Club member and former councillor. He most recently made the news for fighting against a homeless shelter in the small B.C. city’s downtown.
But Vassilaki championed the city’s decision to cancel Canada Day celebrations this year.
“Out of respect for Indigenous communities across Canada who are grieving, it is important to Penticton City Council that this year’s Canada Day activities honour the history, culture and traditions of Indigenous people,” he said in a statement. “Given time constraints and ongoing gathering restrictions that protect us during the pandemic, the city is not able to offer Canada Day activities that we consider appropriate.”
Vassilaki — small-town businessperson, local leader, small ‘c’ conservative — is exactly the kind of voter the Conservatives need to attract to have a hope of forming government. Penticton is in the South Okanagan–West Kootenay riding, which the NDP won in 2019, beating the Conservatives by less than 800 votes. A few hundred people wooed away from the Liberals and Greens, and the party could take the seat.
Except O’Toole has just declared Vassilaki and the elected council as enemies, part of his imagined “small group of activist voices.” Along with other councils across Canada who decided that this isn’t a time for celebration when their neighbours are feeling so much pain and anger about their stolen children.
It’s reasonable to argue for or against Canada Day events this year. Some people think there is still much to celebrate, others that Canada Day could be a chance to acknowledge and address the genocide that underlies the nation.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took that approach. “I think this Canada Day, it will be a time of reflection on what we’ve achieved as a country but on what more we have to do,” he told reporters. Federal government Canada Day events are going ahead.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took a similar stance. “While there’s things that we can be proud of, absolutely, there are things that are really horrible, and that are a part of our legacy,” he said.
Both respected people’s right to make their own choices without judgment. Which likely makes sense to most voters struggling with the terrible contradictions of a country that claims a noble purpose yet has a history of genocide and continues to wage war against Indigenous people.
O’Toole’s video speech was a calculated political move. It was carefully scripted and designed to win headlines like the CBC’s: “O’Toole accuses activists of ‘tearing down’ Canada after towns cancel Canada Day events.”
The Conservatives still have many supporters — they did win the most votes in the 2019 election. But their increasingly divisive approach seems aimed only at the people already likely to vote for them.
And Conservative supporters are outliers on most major issues, from climate change to immigration to the pandemic, and the party increasingly seems to be held hostage by religious social conservatives. Pandering to the base drives away centre-right voters who once were the party’s main constituency.
And that's what the polls show. The party captured 34 per cent of the popular vote in 2019, when the Liberals won a minority government. An Ipsos poll last month found support had fallen to 26 per cent. (Making a fall election even more likely.)
We should be troubled this Canada Day, as the terrible reality of residential schools is thrust upon us, the children taken away who never came back, small bodies in unmarked graves, the families left in perpetual grief. We should reflect, mourn, consider how to end a history of cruelty.
Instead, Erin O’Toole chose to pander to his party’s base by attacking people for choosing human decency over blind patriotism. It’s cynical, wrong and ultimately destructive for the Conservatives.
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