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Can We Talk?Can We Talk?

Can We Talk?

Will the strong showing of Leslyn Lewis in the Tory leadership race revitalize a socially conservative conversation in Canada? Peter Stockland isn’t placing a bet on it.

Peter Stockland
4 minute read

Theoretically, a political culture wedded to the indisputable premise that Black lives matter might have room for the hypothesis that it’s worth at least discussing whether, as most social conservatives firmly believe, unborn lives count.

Such a discussion need not champion socially conservative thinking. Nor need it arrive anywhere near a divisive conflation of racial and reproductive politics. It could remain at the level of fair-mindedly comparing what it is that's possible or permissible to talk about in the current state of democratic play. In theory, what could go wrong?

Well, practically everything, it seems. At least that’s the message from sundry pundits who have quickly scorned all talk of newly elected Conservative leader Erin O’Toole finding a corner of his caucus where those who are so inclined might ponder the possibility of eventually allowing a conversation on Canada’s legal vacuum around the limits of life. 

O’Toole, the post-convention wisdom goes, must emerge from the Conservative’s weekend leadership vote set stamp out all signs of social conservatism among the MPs, and within the party, that he inherited from Andrew Scheer. The new leader’s first step must be to present bona fides of openness, diversity, welcome all, broad-based, big-tentedness. Full proof of such expansiveness will be how quickly the tent flap is welded shut against perfidious so-cons trying to poke their noses in.

Whether O’Toole accepts the advice remains to be seen, but anyone with any inkling of what happened to his predecessor would incline toward assuming he’ll take it and run. The politico-commentariat class ran roughshod over Andrew Scheer in the last federal election merely for acknowledging his personal social conservative convictions.

Despite his vow to refrain from ever acting politically on those beliefs, Scheer was ravaged personally and, worse, left exposed as lacking any capacity to fight back. If his farewell speech to the party on Sunday night was any indication, the wounds he suffered go deeper than those left by a legacy of communicative incompetence.

There came from his mouth a tetchiness gusting to sourness utterly out of place in a moment of fond farewell. It’s one thing to witness a once smiling idealist mugged by the sordid. It’s something again to see the carefully cultivated bigger man shrink wrapped, however momentarily, down to Mini-Me. O’Toole could be forgiven for seeking to skirt similar doom.

The hitch, however, is not in the theory or the practice. It’s in the numbers. Specifically, the numbers amassed by a Black woman to whom black lives matter more than the approval of any lobby group. Her independence on that score moved her, during the Conservative leadership campaign, to proclaim her fervent belief that unborn lives do indeed matter.

Did I say independence? In media parlance, Leslyn Lewis “came from nowhere” to contest the Conservative leadership. 

From nowhere? Ummm... actually Lewis came to Canada from Jamaica at age five. She is a single mother. She has a Master’s degree in environmental studies. She has a PhD in law. She has run her own law firm for 20 years. She is a former TV host.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford named her a director of the Trillium Foundation. She was scrambled into the 2015 federal election on extremely short notice as a replacement Conservative candidate. She came second. She is the third Black woman to seek the leadership of a major federal party, walking a parallel path to Rosemary Brown who sought the NDP crown in 1975, and Hedy Fry who vied for top Liberal job in 2006.

That’s some nowhere to come out of.

But for all her rich resumé, the Lewis numbers her new leader must take into account are far colder, and therefore much more compelling. For starters, from a standing start last winter, through a pandemic lockdown, she raised, by her campaign team’s attestation, more than two million dollars. It was well below the five-million-dollar cap set by the party, but within striking distance of fund-raising front runner Peter MacKay’s $3.1 million. O’Toole himself was far closer to Lewis in dollars raised than he was to MacKay as the campaign concluded. 

Beyond proving her political moxy, then, Lewis demonstrated, by putting cash on the barrel head, that she knows the bushes to shake to keep the party beast properly fed. With the parties ramping up for a federal election that could come as early as next month, that counts as much as anything. The single set of numbers equally comparable in importance are those that gained Lewis third place in the weekend balloting.

On the first ballot, MacKay and O’Toole were neck-and-neck at 33.5 per cent and 31.6 per cent respectively. Lewis was at a surprisingly strong 20 per cent, which increased to a quite stunning 30 per cent in the second round, within striking distance of MacKay at 34.7 per cent and O’Toole at 35.2 per cent. When the third-round vote jockeying was done, of course, O’Toole was home and dry with 57 per cent. When the raw numbers are considered, though, Lewis finished the contest only 4,388 points behind MacKay, the long-presumed front runner and heir apparent. That in a contest where 175,000 Conservative party members cast ballots. 

That means bye-bye-birdie from the federal scene for MacKay, who set off the leadership race last year by criticizing Andrew Scheer for allowing social conservative issues to “hang around his neck like a stinking albatross” during the 2019 campaign. Theoretically, that should in turn leave room for a profoundly intelligent, highly educated, communicatively sophisticated female social conservative such as Lewis to at least raise the hypothesis as to whether, among other social conservative issues, unborn lives are worth political and cultural consideration. Certainly, she has the numbers to show she has the gifts to articulate the issue better than it has been expressed in Canada for generations.

But is it practically possible given the current political and media environment as evidenced by what happened to Andrew Scheer last year? I’m not sure I’d take that bet just yet. 

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