Truckers, Nazis and the battle for the Conservative Party’s soul

The past weekend’s FluTruxKlan gathering in my hometown of Ottawa had the feeling of a breaking point for the country. To read and see pictures and videos of Nazi flags paraded openly, of Canadian flags desecrated by swastikas, of soup kitchen workers assaulted by hooligans and food stolen from the homeless, of the defacing of the Terry Fox statute and jumping on the War Memorial, of a journalist being assaulted, and shutting down the downtown core for over two days (and counting) has been nothing short of shocking. The protesters’ open embrace of the worst symbols of hate, and disregard (to say the least) for their fellow Canadians – for the love of all that is good in the world, what kind of monster steals food from a homeless shelter? – is far beyond anything I’ve seen in and around Ottawa in my almost 50 years on the planet.

It’s obscene.

As bad as these Nazi-sympathizing, white-supremacist hooligans are on their own, what they tell us about the state of the Conservative party and right-wing conservative politics in Canada is absolutely terrifying.

Like most Canadians, Donald Trump’s election in 2016 got me wondering about whether Trumpism as a political movement, in all its racist, ignorant glory, would be possible in Canada. It wasn’t so much a question of whether Canadians are more or less racist than Americans: like any country we have our share of ignorant fools, and while noisy, the jackasses represent only a tiny minority of Canadians.

My main concern was was about the strength of our institutions to resist and hopefully reshape this toxic right-wing populism.

At the time, I figured the relative integrity of the Conservative party was our best hope to ensure that Trumpism wouldn’t be able to get a foothold here. The unhinged fools in any society need a way to make themselves heard. That the extremism that defines our time is largely a right-wing phenomenon gives right-wing parties – like the Conservatives – a singular responsibility to keep politics within acceptable boundaries – like, say, don’t pal around with Nazis. Or anybody who would think it’s completely cool to parade a Nazi flag in public. Or desecrate a Canadian flag with swastikas.

This should not be a high bar to clear.

The outsized role of the Conservative party in keeping know-nothing Trumpism out of Canada makes their party leadership elections enormously important for all Canadians, as I argued way back in 2016 on the eve of another Conservative leadership race.

Because of the way power is exercised in our system, party leadership races represent the most direct way we have as citizens to determine who will run the country. And even if you’re not conservative, all Canadians share an interest in ensuring that (to paraphrase conservative American humorist PJ O’Rourke discussing Hillary Clinton) when they’re wrong, they’ll be wrong within acceptable parameters.

In that vein, the 2017 election of Andrew Scheer was a welcome sign. He ran a relatively moderate campaign as a Harperite sans Stephen Harper’s accumulated baggage.

Whatever hope I had that the Conservatives could serve as a reliable breaker against a Trumpist tide, however, faded over the course of the pandemic. That the party selected Erin O’Toole, who lost as a moderate in 2017 and won in 2020 with the support of the party’s social conservative wing, was not an encouraging sign. It suggested a party at war with itself, with Red Toryism fading ever-deeper into the background. O’Toole’s craven embrace of social conservatives, meanwhile, ensured that he would have no solid ground upon which to stand if and when the Trumpist wing of the party seized its moment, as it seems to be doing. As Brian Mulroney says, you dance with the lady what brung ya.

The Ottawa debacle, meanwhile, has served as a litmus test of what the party stands for. In a more innocent time, most politicians, no matter their deepest beliefs, would steer clear not just of swastikas and Confederate flags, but events that held even the promise of swastikas – if only for fears about the hit to their electability. Again, not a high bar.

One might even hope that mainstream politicians could recognize the difference between legitimate protests and dangerous extremist nonsense. Some hints that this wasn’t about vaccine mandates: health care is a provincial, not federal, responsibility; the United States’ vaccine mandate is what’s keeping unvaccinated truckers out of the US; the vast, vast majority of truckers are vaccinated and the Canadian Trucking Alliance opposes these protests. Also: Nazi flags and stealing food from the homeless.

Instead, what we got was a weak leader meeting with the FTKers, Conservative MP Michael Cooper being interviewed at the protest while  “protesters behind him carried a defaced Canadian flag featuring a swastika,” and Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre claiming, “The truckers I’ve met today have been peaceful, kind and patriotic.”

These are not, in my opinion, healthy developments for the country.

It is no comfort that O’Toole, Cooper and Poilievre are playing to a tiny minority of Canadians, or that O’Toole tried to walk back his support for the FTKers.

Here, the United States should serve as a warning. No matter how well the incumbent party is performing (your opinion may vary), when you have only one viable alternative governing party (sorry, NDP), at some point, that opposition party will win an election. Which is why it would be nice if that alternative would stop sucking up to the absolute worst (homeless-robbing, grave-dancing, Nazi-supporting, Terry Fox-disrespecting) elements of Canadian society.

As concerned as I am about a weak Conservative party led by a weak leader, one of the great things about living in a democracy is we can choose our leaders and vote the bums out. With the knives out for O’Toole, a Conservative leadership race is likely in the cards. This election will be at least partly a referendum on whether Canadians think that Nazi hooliganism has any place in our country.

At the moment, it’s not an encouraging sign that it’s the Pierre Poilievres of the party who seem to be agitating for change.

Still, if you’re a conservative who hates Nazis, or a non-partisan Canadian who would like to be governed by people with a basic grasp of fundamental human decency, watch for the announcement, join the party, and make your voice heard.

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