The Conservative Party of Canada’s (CPC) defeat in the 2019 Federal election came as a shock to many within the party ranks. Blame has been laid in many directions, from Andrew Scheer’s poor aptitude and the lacklustre platform and vision to introspection from the progressive conservative camp claiming that the party was not inclusive enough to win the Toronto electorate.
The focus on winning constituents in the urban Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in particular is often considered the primary objective in Conservative electoral success ever since Stephen Harper’s victory in the 2011 election — winning the party an unprecedented majority government. Following the election, Conservatives entertained the notion that immigrant communities could be reliable constituents and their ridings certain battlegrounds against the other left-of-center parties.
Following the 2015 federal election it was clear that the urban GTA had not been tamed as Justin Trudeau and the Liberals swept the Tories away by overwhelming margins. This was expectedly repeated in the 2019 election. The immigrant vote shift from Conservative to Liberal in 2015 was commonly attributed to Harper’s appeal to anti-immigrant sentiments, due to his stance on “barbaric cultural practices” in regards to the niqab, which appeared to single out Muslims and upset moderate voters in the GTA. Critics furthermore suggested that Trudeau’s pro-immigration vision and the legacy of his father were more in line with the interest of these communities. Therefore, the Conservatives lost.
The Conservative Party in the 2011 Federal Election did not win on their own merit, but rather capitalized on the incompetence of the Liberals.
Though widely accepted, this is only a surface-level analysis of the situation. In reality, the Conservatives were never particularly popular with immigrant communities, despite Harper’s and Jason Kenney’s best efforts. The reason why the 2011 election was a success can instead be attributed to the Liberals’ underwhelming showing under Michael Ignatieff and relative weakness compared to the other parties. The vote between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP) was split and voters, immigrant and native alike, chose the strong horses — in the case of 2011, the Conservative Party and the NDP.
This paints a very important dynamic in Canadian politics: the Conservative Party in the 2011 Federal Election did not win on their own merit, but rather capitalized on the incompetence of the Liberals. Unfortunately for the Tories, 2011 was an exceptional circumstance and one that cannot be reliably replicated in future elections. Before the next election the Conservative Party must cobble together a new vision for itself and choose a new leader. That said, the party brass seem to be completely out of touch with the electoral reality into which they are now heading.
There is a consensus among mainstream conservative activists, party organizers and leadership candidates that the key to winning still remains in Toronto. This cannot be further from the truth. The Conservative Party has an incredibly poor appeal with immigrant communities residing in the GTA. A recent poll in May by Abacus Data indicated that those born outside of Canada favour the Liberals (54%) over the Conservatives (27%). Despite Trudeau’s blackface and brownface scandals, the Liberals are still the preferred party of immigrants by a wide margin. In addition, in the 2019 federal election the Conservative Party was unable to sway the vast majority of visible minority ridings in the GTA, compared to the Liberals. It is abundantly clear that the GTA is a red wall that the Conservative Party will not be able to crack without exceptional luck.
Liberal electoral dominance is not the only thing the Conservatives must overcome in the next election. The Tories themselves are at risk of being pulled apart by different factions within the party. The centrist progressive conservative camp is attempting to soften the party’s image by pushing socially progressive and visible minority-friendly positions, whereas right-wing classical conservatives are feeling increasingly alienated and standing firm on issues like immigration and abortion. The advent of the hard-right’s reaction, as seen in the Western independence movement and the breakoff People’s Party, is reminiscent of the old Reform movement — putting the unity of the Conservative Party in serious question.
In order to avoid a schism, or suffer from voter apathy by its own supporters, the Conservative Party must sufficiently appeal to the interests of social conservatives. That being said, mending this splintering relationship is proving to be a difficult task for the party brass. No real compromises have been offered by status quo Harperites. Meanwhile, the progressive conservative establishment is actively engaged in silencing hard-right voices. Social conservatives are not a demographic the Conservative Party can take for granted. If expanding the blue tent is a priority, it cannot be at the expense of pushing out passionate supporters, donors and voters. It should be fairly evident that Western alienation is as much an ideological rift within the Conservative Party as it is geographic.
It might sound unthinkable, but the truth is that taking rural Quebec is the only path to which the Conservative Party can win another election on its own terms.
As the Canadian electoral landscape currently stands, the Conservatives firmly control the socially conservative prairie provinces, and much of rural British Columbia and Southern Ontario. The progressive Greater Toronto Area, metropolitan Montreal, and Atlantic Canada are dominated by the Liberals, whereas the NDP have small working-class and indigenous vestiges in Northern Ontario, the rural shores of British Columbia, and downtown urban centres across the country. In the 2019 election, the Bloc Quebecois surged and reclaimed rural Quebec, the region that previously carried François Legault's conservative Coalition Avenir Québec to a majority government in the 2018 Quebec provincial election.
The renewed Bloc presence in Quebec, which evidently contributed towards the capitulation of Trudeau’s majority government; alludes to an alternative victory plan for the federal Tories — the key to winning an election is not in Toronto. Rather, and it might sound unthinkable, but the truth is that taking rural Quebec is the only path to which the Conservative Party can win another election on its own terms. The GTA is locked down by the Liberals, and there are not enough viable ridings in Canada to satisfy a Conservative majority otherwise. Throughout the past decade, with the decline of the Quebec separatist movement, the province's rural communities have been in constant flux, voting for the NDP, Liberals and Bloc in back-to-back elections. The Tories can take a shot of their own, but they will have to change first.
There is no question that the Conservative Party’s support in rural Quebec is weak as of now. Making inroads with Quebeckers will require a great deal of political will and reconciliation with their nationalists. The Conservative Party’s entrenchment in Western Canada might pose significant challenges to this arrangement — though addressing the regional animosity should not only be a means to an end, but a serious priority for any Conservative leader who wants to see an eastbound pipeline from Alberta, through Quebec, to the Maritimes. Along with careful political maneuvering the Conservative Party should reflect on its preconceptions and make serious policy revisions in order to appeal to the rural Quebecois. This should only happen however if the party can retain the trust of Western Canada in the process. How to go about courting both regions at once is another question entirely.
With any strategic realignment comes the need to change operations. Rural Quebec is largely in favour of reducing immigration (as is the West) — but also on average poorer and disposed towards pro-worker social economic policy. Instead of moving left on the culture war as the GTA-victory modus operandi recommends, the Conservative Party needs to take a radically different approach. The Tories can best optimize electoral success by moving to the left on certain economic issues and moving to the right on national issues, while to a lesser degree moving right on social issues, in order to keep the party united.
Some suggest that Canada is too multicultural and too progressive for this new kind of classical conservatism. This is simply not true. The majority of Canadians want immigration rates reduced and many more are uneasy about China’s belligerence. Defence investment and multilateral skepticism are also much to be desired among the population. Small but passionate wedge groups call for action on social issues such as abortion restrictions, religious liberty and gun rights. Popular as some of these issues are, they only go so far compared to addressing the financial concerns of Canadians.
The most pronounced demographic is the forgotten industrial working-class who are the primary victims of unrestrained globalization; suffering from a lack of quality employment and low wages, while living paycheque to paycheque. Canada has gone on far too long without seeing substantive policy on national development, industrial growth, trade protectionism and pro-natal family benefits. This proposed new conservative shift has found much success in the United States, the United Kingdom and across Europe. Canadian conservatism can evolve as well, but only if the Conservative Party allows it to do so. The Party’s alternatives are to allow some of its members to attempt another reform movement, or try to depart from confederation completely.
The Conservative identity is in crisis, and the party lacks the vitality to bound these approaching hurdles. The progressive conservative establishment and Harperite old-guard are completely out of touch with the interests of Canadians; their neglect to manage the aforementioned challenges will most likely deny the party a majority government for decades. Torontophilia is the Conservative’s main transgression, and in many cases its policy motivation. However, with respect to the rest of Canada, the solution doesn’t end at rural Quebec — rather, it is the largest of many necessary partners. The fault lines of a new nationwide conservative coalition will have to be erased between provincial borders, and redrawn along rural and urban ridings.
Rural Quebec isn’t the only source of electoral profit the Conservatives can reap from such a realignment. Many of the rural ridings in Atlantic Canada, British Columbia and Northern Ontario could certainly flip to the Tories if the latter were to represent a true pro-worker agenda. This rural coalition would be more than enough to secure a reliable Conservative majority over the center-of-left hold on urban centres, considering that Canada contains roughly 182 rural ridings versus 156 urban ridings. An additional boon is that the Conservatives may find greater agency to move right on social issues if they can unshackle themselves from the expectations of urban ridings. This is a surefire approach in maintaining party unity with social conservatives, while expanding the party tent to include many more working-class Canadians. A profound study in 2019 by three professors, including a top election analyst, suggests that a nativist-populist party could be successful in Canada by unifying all of the rural ridings against the urban, with a certain emphasis on combining traditional Conservative territory and rural Quebec.
If the Conservative Party ever wants to rule as a majority government again, its priorities need to be completely redefined from the top down. The fight for Toronto is fruitless and should be redirected towards winning rural ridings in Atlantic Canada, British Columbia, Northern Ontario and especially Quebec. The Conservatives must adopt a rural working-class, sober social conservative and reliably nationalistic disposition in order to keep existing Conservatives under the tent, and expand its poles to new segments of the population. Gone are the days of internationalism and economic liberalism within Canadian conservatism. The Conservative Party can only win by being truly conservative.