In Toronto this spring, Andrew Scheer, the man seeking to replace Justin Trudeau as prime minister of Canada, made what is perhaps the most important speech of his career. While Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), is no Trudeau—he’s younger, dorkier, and less foppish—his speech, about immigration, sounded at times like something Trudeau would say. Scheer spoke of Canada as a generous, diverse country and denounced “intolerance, racism, and extremism of any kind.” If anybody disagreed, he added, “there’s the door.”
But if Scheer was aligning himself, in some ways, with his electoral rival, he was also setting himself apart. He quoted scripture, something politicians in Trudeau’s Liberal Party are less likely to do. He praised the entrepreneurial spirit that impels immigrants to leave their home. And he spoke darkly about “Mexican drug-cartel members” and “individuals flagged as threats to national security,” who exploit weaknesses in the immigration system at the expense of lawful applicants who wait their turn. The speech was shot through with conservative themes: free enterprise, law and order, self-reliance, and faith.
In this respect, Scheer sounded more like his CPC predecessor Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015. When Harper became the leader of the CPC in 2004, the organization had only just come into existence, through a merger between an establishment Tory party and a populist upstart. Harper built a winning electoral coalition by linking rural western Canada to the ethnically diverse suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver, which were then considered Liberal strongholds. He framed conservative and populist talking points in ways that resonated with many minority voters.
Tories across the world took notice. British Prime Minister David Cameron personally sought Harper’s advice, a former Canadian government official told me, as did operatives close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On the American right, too, strategists were contemplating what a more magnanimous conservatism might look like. In 2013, the Republican National Committee ran a postmortem on Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid, concluding that, to ensure their long-term viability, Republicans needed to become less hostile toward immigrants.
Much has changed since then. The rise of Donald Trump and the European far right has made political cultures more toxic. The CPC is under pressure both to distinguish itself from its far-right counterparts and to resist the lure of nativism, while the revelation that Trudeau wore black- and brown-face makeup several times prior to his entry into politics has undermined his status as an icon of liberal cosmopolitanism. Canada will hold a general election on Monday, and nobody is sure what will happen. Will the country again be at the vanguard of a multiethnic conservative revival? Or is it no longer possible to build a voter coalition that is at once right-leaning, populist, and diverse?
Jason Kenney had what he describes as a “eureka moment” in 1994, in the Vancouver studio of a Cantonese-language radio show. Then just 27, Kenney was the president of the fiscally conservative Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and had been invited on the program to discuss economic issues. The host started translating callers’ questions into English, and Kenney—who at the time subscribed to the conventional wisdom that immigrant communities skew leftward—was shocked by what he heard. “The calls were coming from the right,” he recalled to me. “People commented on government waste, on their dislike of welfare culture, and on abuse of our asylum system by false refugee claimants. There was this whole parallel universe of political opinion that had never made its way into the mainstream.”
Today Kenney is perhaps the most important conservative politician in the country—the premier, the Canadian equivalent of governor, of Alberta province. Before that, he was a chief architect of the CPC’s multicultural-outreach strategy. And if there was a birthplace for that strategy, it was in that studio, a quarter century ago.
In 2004, the CPC lost its first election as a combined party to an unpopular Liberal incumbent. Kenney, however, was convinced that the problem had less to do with policy than with messaging and tone. If you wanted people to take an interest in your platform, he reasoned, you first had to take an interest in them. Conservative candidates were used to showing up at events for gun owners and meetings of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture; now they’d be expected to appear just as regularly at mosques, gurdwaras, and cultural community centers.
Kenney himself was a tireless retail politician who campaigned doggedly in suburban neighborhoods thousands of miles from his district. “My Irish ancestors, who stepped off the boats in New York and Boston in the 1850s, were greeted by folks from the local Democratic Party organization, who got them their first houses and jobs,” he said. “That led to generations of partisan fealty. It was all about relationships.”
For the CPC, building such relationships didn’t mean changing its political identity. Once elected as prime minister, Harper sometimes crafted policies with diaspora communities in mind, such as removing visa requirements for Polish and Hungarian visitors and publicly apologizing for the historic mistreatment of Chinese people in Canada. But the party mostly doubled down on conservatism, reasoning that small-business owners (many of whom are immigrants) would respond well to anti-tax rhetoric, just as observant Muslims and Hindus would appreciate messaging about family values and faith.
The most difficult balancing act was in the area of immigration. Under Harper, Canada admitted more new people than at any previous point since the First World War. But the CPC also reoriented the immigration system away from family reunification and toward younger, skilled immigrants, and introduced new laws making it tougher for certain classes of refugee claimants to resettle in Canada. Here, again, communication was key. Ian Brodie, Harper’s former chief of staff, told me that he encouraged CPC politicians to talk with voters in a “status reaffirming” way, emphasizing that the new policies were not anti-immigrant but rather favored “law-abiding” immigrants who would “create jobs and raise good families.”
The CPC didn’t go in for snobbish, country-club conservatism. Its policies—agricultural subsidies, expanded gun rights—had a folksy appeal, and Harper explicitly addressed his speeches to “ordinary Canadians” who felt estranged from the urban liberal elite. Patrick Muttart, a former Harper strategist, describes this outlook as one of “inclusive populism,” a message he says was supposed to resonate beyond a white rural base. In 2011, Harper won his third consecutive election and his first majority mandate. This time he did better among new Canadians than among the native-born.
What happened next is well known. By the time of the 2015 election, the CPC was embroiled in controversies over several hard-line initiatives, including a law enabling the government to strip Canadian citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism and an election pledge to establish a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline whereby citizens could snitch on foreign-born neighbors. The European migration crisis and a domestic trial over a thwarted terrorism plot had brought issues of border security to the fore, and turmoil in the industrial sector had heightened anxieties about foreign competition for jobs. “The influence of nationalism in Western democracies was touching Canada,” says Tim Powers, a policy analyst and former CPC adviser. “In this climate, new Canadians and immigrants were convenient targets of derision.”
In the end, Harper’s cynical messaging limited his appeal, and Trudeau, with a cheery, Instagram-friendly campaign, recaptured many of the multicultural, suburban areas that the CPC had so recently won. If the 2011 election demonstrated that an inclusive populist coalition was buildable, the 2015 one showed just how quickly it could disappear.
Today Scheer is looking to avoid Harper’s mistakes, but he’s operating in an even more noxious culture. Canada has seen the rise of energetic protest movements in which participants borrow symbols and rhetoric from the European far right, while a right-wing splinter political organization, called the People’s Party of Canada, is promising to dramatically reduce immigration rates and push back against “extreme multiculturalism.”
Sometimes the CPC has seemed to cave to nativist pressures. In 2018, a party operative circulated a racist social-media advertisement criticizing Trudeau for his allegedly lax immigration policies: The image depicted a black man with a suitcase approaching a hole in a border fence. Scheer himself later publicly lambasted Trudeau for signing the Global Compact for Migration, a nonbinding United Nations resolution that Scheer claimed would undermine Canada’s immigration sovereignty, an assertion that seemed oddly paranoid coming from a politician who prides himself on equanimity. Recent news stories have revealed that one CPC candidate shared Islamophobic conspiracy theories on social media, while another had ties to a prominent white nationalist. (Trudeau has seized on revelations such as these as evidence that the CPC is a front for bigotry, although some voters question whether he has the moral authority to make such claims.)
The campaign itself, however, has been mostly in line with Muttart’s notion of inclusive populism. The CPC is running a relatively diverse slate of candidates with a platform centered on nickel-and-dime issues such as tax credits for commuters and reduced heating costs. Its signature campaign pledge—to support the oil sector and scrap the carbon tax that the Trudeau Liberals passed—seems designed to pit fuel-dependant exurban voters against downtown environmentalists. And Scheer’s affable, soccer-dad persona makes him a suitable foil for Trudeau, the wealthy scion of Canada’s most storied political family. Preelection polls put the two parties at a statistical tie.
If Scheer prevails, his victory will call into question fashionable notions about the future of conservatism. In their 2004 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira argue that demographic change in the American electorate could pose existential problems for the Republican Party. Since then, liberal pundits have gleefully interpreted this thesis to mean that growing cultural diversity portends the demise of the right. But such assumptions rest on questionable premises: that voting patterns remain fixed over time, that minority voters are natural liberals, and that political movements cannot adapt to change.
Recent Canadian history suggests otherwise. And if the CPC pulls out a win—or even a respectable second-place finish—it will have offered a blueprint for how populist conservatism can survive in the 21st century.
On a chilly morning in September, I watched Scheer give a campaign speech in Alberta’s capital, Edmonton. It was the day after an international climate strike, and the CPC leader stood defiantly on the back of a pickup truck, flanked by Kenney. In the crowd, amid white men in cowboy hats and buffalo-plaid jackets, there were Asian, Middle Eastern, and African Canadians. Scheer’s topic was Trudeau, whom he positioned as an international playboy—more concerned with shoring up his green credentials and global-celebrity status than with the needs of ordinary citizens. “Trudeau travels around the world,” Scheer said, “and he talks down the men and women who exploit our natural resources.”
Like all populist rhetoric, the speech turned on a distinction between people versus elites. The elites were celebrity environmentalists and foreign advocacy groups. (The previous day, the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg had met with Trudeau to discuss scaling back the extractive sector.) The people, Scheer implied, were in the crowd in front of him, here in the nation’s oil-producing heartland. “I will defend Canada and Canadians’ interests,” he promised, to enthusiastic cheers. The people in the audience weren’t all white or native-born, but they seemed to agree that when Scheer spoke about Canadians, he was speaking about them.