For the Conservatives' messenger on firearms, thoughtfulness is a secret weapon

OTTAWA — For Raquel Dancho, words have always come easily.

She remembers her parents saying she was less than a year old when she started stringing them together, speaking in short sentences.

"Everyone's born with natural gifts," she said in an interview from her Parliament Hill office. "I've always just been a good communicator."

Today, Dancho is the federal Conservative party's main voice on one of the country's most heated topics: firearms and crime.

The issue of gun control had backfired for former party leader Erin O'Toole in the 2021 federal election. He angered supporters by backtracking on a pledge to repeal a federal Liberal ban of so-called assault-style weapons after an attack from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Following that campaign, O’Toole needed a communicator in Parliament with the skills to go toe-to-toe with the Liberals on a tough file, in a way that avoided getting the party into trouble.

Enter Dancho, who had been elected two years earlier, at 29 years old, to represent the suburban Winnipeg riding of Kildonan-St. Paul.

Her performance on the file was impressive enough that she outlasted O'Toole and remains the party's critic under current leader Pierre Poilievre, for whom tough-on-crime measures are a major priority. This despite having volunteered for O'Toole in 2020 and stayed neutral during the contest that Poilievre won in 2022.

The former staffer in the Manitoba legislature hailed from four generations of farmers, and she was raised with a tradition of hunting.

But Dancho said it was attending post-secondary in Montreal that most informed her approach.

Walking into McGill University in 2008, she said she felt like a "fish out of water" — not just because she knew how to drive a tractor when many around her didn't even bother with a driver's licence.

Barack Obama had just been elected president of the United States, the Occupy movement was on the rise and the streets of Montreal swelled with thousands of students decrying tuition hikes — all events that Dancho said exposed her to perspectives outside her traditional blue-collar upbringing.

"You're never going to make everybody happy with your opinions," she said. "But I really try to give pause and consider what the other side thinks of this, and why they think that way, and speak to something that builds a bridge between the two. It's a lot of thought."

When Stephen Harper led the Conservatives to a majority mandate in the 2011 election, Dancho joked that she might have been the only Tory voter living in her Montreal riding, which neighboured Trudeau's.

She recalled seeing herself in newly elected MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who was elected to a Calgary riding in her early 30s. "That was the first time that I felt, 'Oh, I could do that, too.'"

More than a decade later, Rempel Garner is returning her praise. "She's incredibly smart. She's strong, quick on her feet," she said of Dancho in a statement. "She can go as far as she wants to go."

Dancho has led the Conservatives' charge against the Liberals' Bill C-21, which seeks to ban handguns. It became a political mess for Trudeau last fall when Liberal MPs proposed an amendment that would have entrenched a definition of banned weapons that critics including First Nations chiefs warned would include popular hunting rifles. The change was withdrawn.

Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights spokeswoman Tracey Wilson admits she first saw Dancho as someone brought in to clean up a mess O'Toole created with firearms owners in his base.

Instead, she has shown herself to be an expert, and someone with staying power, Wilson said. "She's a real little bulldog."

Wilson said some of Dancho's effectiveness comes from the fact she is not "an older, white, angry guy," which is the image many conjure of a politician or lobbyistspeaking positively about guns. "A lot of women in her position may be on the other side of that debate."

Dancho said that when she speaks, she wants firearms owners to feel respected — but in a policy-focused way that will earn the trust of non-gun owners in the suburbs, and "women in particular."

Carlene Variyan, associate vice-president at Summa Strategies and a former senior staffer in several Liberal ministers' offices, said political parties know that women bring their worries about guns to the ballot box. And statistics show that women face greater risk of domestic and firearms-related violence.

Variyan said she doubts that putting a millennial woman at the forefront of the Conservative firearms message will sway people's entrenched beliefs — but she still sees Dancho as one of the party's most formidable MPs, and someone who can represent those who are not "white, male and middle-aged."

Dancho said it is a "great injustice" that young women continue to be the most under-represented group in Parliament.

She said she felt inspired seeing Families Minister Karina Gould become the first cabinet minister to give birth while in office in 2018, and she supports hybrid measures the House of Commons brought in for legislators during the pandemic, such as remote app-based voting.

"This is an absolute game-changer," she said. "I feel very strongly about my support for the option to have this, while respecting that you should be here as much as you can."

Dancho said the job is a privilege but it comes with "significant sacrifices for your family," and a heavy workload that requires a highly regimented routine to sustain.

It comes with its share of vitriol, too, though she said she doesn't let it sway her.

After her return to Manitoba from Quebec, Dancho worked in politics. In 2016, as a young Progressive Conservative staffer, shefound herself running for office in the province's most secure NDP riding — a "sacrificial lamb candidate," as she put it.

When canvassing neighbourhoods, "by the time they were yelling at me I'd be on (to) the next door," she said. "It toughened me up a lot."

Later, Dancho brought her persevering attitude and burgeoning political skills to a pair of contests that few predicted she would win, besting the daughter of a former MP in the Conservative nomination race for her riding then defeating an incumbent Liberal MP.

Both times, Dancho said she was advised to brace for embarrassment.

"Here we are."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press