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Some Conservative opponents to Leitch’s divisive leadership campaign still praise her, others say ‘who does she think she’s kidding?’

By Derek Abma      

But one party insider says Kellie Leitch’s populist ‘shtick’ is seen as phoney by many in the party.

Although they're not supporting her leadership bid, caucus colleagues such as Deepak Obhrai, top right, and Peter Kent still have good things to say about Kellie Leitch. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright
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Despite running a Conservative leadership campaign labelled by some intra-party opponents as “irresponsible populism,” Trump-like, and negative, other caucus colleagues of Kellie Leitch—even those opposed to her in the leadership race—say she remains a respected member of the party.

Yet, one Conservative insider who asked not to be identified said Ms. Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.) has never been “particularly loved” in caucus and many find her portrayal of herself in this leadership campaign as a populist as disingenuous.

Ms. Leitch has attracted negative headlines during this campaign for proposing that immigrants be screened for anti-Canadian values and for heralding Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in the United States as a win against elites.

Yet, some of her opponents in the leadership race still have nice things to say about her.

“She’s a great lady,” Conservative MP and party leadership candidate Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.) said in an interview with The Hill Times. “I’m very highly respectful. We worked very well in caucus.”

But Mr. Obhrai said he was surprised when Ms. Leitch started focusing on tighter immigration policies, given what her approach to new Canadians has been like in the past.

“On many occasions, when I used to do ethnic events in Toronto and elsewhere, she would accompany me so she could know more people and understand the cultures,” said Mr. Obhrai, who was born in Tanzania. “I know for a fact that she was reaching out to the communities, the ethnic communities, the immigrant communities.”

He said Ms. Leitch’s leadership campaign has taken a direction that backtracks on many of the gains the Conservatives made with immigrants that allowed them to win a majority government in 2011, winning many ridings in the multicultural Toronto-area suburbs.

“Many of the efforts we have made reaching out to the immigrants and everything, she is absolutely going in the opposite direction of what was the successful formula for us in the 2011 election.”

Mr. Obhrai said Ms. Leitch’s interest in immigration has previously been focused on wanting to connect more to minority groups, as opposed to concerns over the security of Canada’s immigration system.

He said other issues that Ms. Leitch—an orthopedic surgeon who still practises at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario—would typically champion included human rights and health.

He added that Ms. Leitch has been and continues to be widely respected in the Conservative caucus, and it was not a surprise that she opted to run for the party leadership.

Mr. Obhrai said he cannot say why she stood out so much to be made a parliamentary secretary immediately after being elected an MP in 2011 and was promoted two years later to being minister of both Labour and Status of Women.

“It was [former prime minister Stephen] Harper’s decision,” he said. “We respected the decision and we all worked with her.”

As well, Mr. Obhrai also said he doesn’t know why Ms. Leitch, along with former MP and current leadership candidate Chris Alexander, were designated as the spokespeople for the Conservatives’ controversial proposal for a “barbaric cultural practices” tip line during the last election campaign.

“I had nothing to do with that decision,” he said “It came as a surprise.”

Mr. Obhrai said he and fellow Conservative MPs continue to respect Ms. Leitch and work with her in caucus, and whatever happens in the leadership race, their relationship will endure.

“She has put forward her campaign ideas; I have put forward mine,” he said. “That’s the way it goes.”

Still, a Conservative insider, who did not want to be identified, said Ms. Leitch “wasn’t particularly loved” in caucus, even before the leadership campaign.

He said Ms. Leitch was involved with politics for a long time before being elected as an MP in 2011, although she was always seen as a Red Tory as opposed to someone aligned the Conservative Party’s Reform roots.

“Her whole shtick now is being kind of a rabid populist, not a Red Tory. … The sentiment now is: ‘Who does she think she’s kidding? Like, we know you’re not a populist. We know this isn’t you talking. This is your campaign talking.’ ”

Despite her rhetoric against elites, The Prince Arthur Herald, a news website run by McGill University students, reported last week that Ms. Leitch, responding to criticism from a young Conservative during an event in Montreal, said: “Please understand that I do have 22 letters at the end of my name. I’m not an idiot.”

This party insider said Ms. Leitch “has this inability to see how others perceive her.”

Her campaign strategy is largely seen as being the work of her campaign manager Nick Kouvalis, who in the past has worked with people such as the former and late Toronto mayor Rob Ford and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark.

While the Conservative insider said Ms. Leitch’s strategy might appeal to the older, whiter, and more rural segments of the Conservative Party and even allow her to win the leadership, it would be unsuccessful in a general election. He said it is actually hurting the Conservative brand with some swing voters who could help elect a Conservative government, particularly new Canadians who might have voted Conservative in the past.

“The great fear I have is Kouvalis might know what he’s doing,” this person said.

Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) was also complimentary of Ms. Leitch, even though he’s supporting Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) in this leadership race.

“I admire her as an individual,” he said in a phone interview with The Hill Times. “She has amazed me with her application both to her parliamentary duties and her cabinet duties, as well as continuing to serve in the emergency room at the kids’ hospital in off hours, very often coming to work in scrubs.

“She’s a very smart person. She’s a very compassionate person. I don’t agree with all of the policy statements that she’s made in this leadership race, but that’s for the candidates to make and I respect all who have put their names forward,” Mr. Kent said.

Commenting on Ms. Leitch’s quick ascension to being parliamentary secretary and then cabinet after being elected in 2011, Mr. Kent noted she came in with long history with the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

He added: “She’s a very capable and focused and talented and smart member of Parliament, so it wasn’t surprising that her skills and abilities were recognized.”

Asked about her current standing among Conservative MPs, Mr. Kent said: “She’s a member of our caucus, she’s properly elected, and she’s engaging in a leadership campaign as she and her campaign manager sees fit.”

Mr. Kent said Ms. Leitch’s controversial statements during her leadership run are designed to get attention, and he has no problem with that.

“Some [candidates] are using more provocative, attention-getting statements than others, but that’s all part of the game, and far be it for me to question them,” he said.

Asked if the way Ms. Leitch is presenting herself during this leadership campaign contradicts how he knew her previously, Mr. Kent said: “No, because until someone puts their name forward as a candidate for, in this case, the leadership of the Conservative Party, you don’t see the tactical and the strategic approaches that they would take to that campaign.”

He would not say whether concern over immigration is something Ms. Leitch previously spoke about in caucus, saying “what happens in caucus stays in caucus. Caucus confidentially is as sacred as cabinet confidentiality.”

Mr. Kent said he doesn’t feel Ms. Leitch’s campaign style has been damaging or divisive to the Conservatives. He described the Conservatives as a “big tent party” with a “wide range of a opinion.”

“Every leader puts his or her stamp on the party, and I’m anticipating it will be Michael Chong, and that the party, having made a selection for a new leader, will celebrate and work with that leader to replace the Liberal government in 2019,” he said.

Mr. Kent said it’s possible that certain MPs, including some leadership candidates, could leave caucus if they feel that they are unable to support positions the party adopts after a new leader is chosen.

Mr. Chong’s campaign did not respond to request for an interview about Ms. Leitch. At a debate in Moncton, N.B., in December, he said Ms. Leitch is someone “who suggests that immigrants are anti-Canadians,” and he noted the endorsement she received from “a white supremacist group called the Council of European Canadians.”

In November, shortly after Mr. Trump’s election victory while on CTV’s Question Period, Mr. Chong accused Ms. Leitch of “importing Trump-style politics north of the border, which has been so divisive south of the border.”

Shortly after the U.S. election was called in favour of Mr. Trump in the early hours of Nov. 9, Ms. Leitch issued a Facebook statement saying: “Tonight, our American cousins threw out the elites and elected Donald Trump as their next president. It’s an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well.”

The campaign team for Conservative MP and leadership candidate Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.) also refrained from making her available to discuss Ms. Leitch. Both candidates, coincidentally, were in Québec City for French-language training last week.

However, earlier this month, Ms. Raitt said during a news conference that Ms. Leitch and potential candidate Kevin O’Leary were “both taking lessons from what we just saw recently in the U.S. election, and they’re embracing a style of negative, and I would say irresponsible, populism.”

Ms. Raitt described Mr. O’Leary in a Huffington Post Canada column last week as “the TV entertainer with no filter,” and Ms. Leitch as someone who “wants to destroy one of the pillars of my party’s success—a decade of work becoming the party of immigrants, the party of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney. Kevin O’Leary and Kellie Leitch are both taking lessons from the worst of what we saw in the U.S. election and embracing a style of negative, irresponsible populism.”

Ms. Raitt said their brand of “negative and divisive politics would drive our party into the ground,” and allow Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) “to govern for a generation.”

dabma@hilltimes.com

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