Millennials, boomers meet as Conservative Party-crashers

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Millennials, boomers meet as Conservative Party-crashers

​The 160-plus voters crowded into a Toronto barroom last Tuesday would seem at first to be ripe and easy pickings for the Conservative Party of Canada.

The group included longtime Liberals and New Democrats who now seethe under the much-larger-than-promised deficits of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and want to test out a more right-wing politics. There were millennials who have voted left but are now aghast at the far-left intolerance they see dominating debate on university campuses.

But here's the catch: These people gathered not to praise the CPC but to question it and perhaps even try to tear it in two.

As the party of Stephen Harper prepares to select his successor, forces are at work to influence that process. They include thousands of atypical CPC members, many of them recruited and directed by young activists bent on electing a moderate.

The party was born just 13 years ago, the product of an ideological marriage between the longstanding Progressive Conservative Party, home of many so-called Red Tories, and the Canadian Alliance, a successor to the prairie-populist Reform Party.

Like many 13-year-olds, the CPC may be going through an awkward stage.

Maclean's magazine writer Scott Gilmore has used his popular column to rally moderate conservatives in search of a political home. Tuesday's event was the second of eight "dinners" that Gilmore says Maclean's has helped him to arrange across Canada. Still to come are gatherings in western cities and Ottawa.

"What I'm trying to do is start a conversation with, I think, a lot of people that share the same concerns that I have," Gilmore told the Toronto crowd.

"That, as a conservative who believes in climate change, who believes in gay rights, who believes in immigration, I find it increasingly difficult to find a voice in the House of Commons."

His message has riled Conservatives.

"Another so-called conservative party starting up would be the federal Liberals' dream scenario," said Stockwell Day, the former Conservative cabinet minister.

Day also led the Canadian Alliance, back when the centre-right vote was split. "It's the reason Jean Chrétien won three elections," he said of the split.

Some people have suggested Gilmore, a CPC member, is trying to undermine the party on behalf of his wife, Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

One Twitter user imagined the conversation between husband and wife in which the idea was born.

"Listen," Gilmore tells CBC News. "If that's the best attack people have to this idea that there is a modern conservative movement, then I think we already are winning the argument.

"There are a lot of angry voices in the Conservative Party that are afraid of conversations like this. I think they realize they have doubled down on a very small base, and so they're worried that we are going to split the party. …

"Starting a new party is not what everyone wants to do, but it's what people are willing to do if it's required."

Gilmore may hear angry voices in the CPC, but few are willing to go on the record about his project. Interview requests to a handful of prominent party figures were declined or went unanswered.

It was quite the opposite at Gilmore's Toronto event, where the host seemed intent on giving the floor to his guests as much as possible. What they said in public and to CBC News suggests some of those who attended who wouldn't normally identify as Conservative are ready for a move toward the political right.

David Birnbaum, a card-carrying Liberal and party volunteer, despairs of the far-left hyperbole he says dominates debate on university campuses. He has launched a podcast for fellow millennials called Mi Politics to show that beliefs can be nuanced.

"Right now, society accepts that there's a spectrum for everything," he says. "There's a spectrum for gender, there's a sexuality spectrum, but we seem to refuse to admit that there could be a political spectrum. You're either right or you're left, there's no in-between, and I think that's kind of silly."

Doug Rodger and Barbara Gordon are hardly millennials. She's a veteran actress with more than 100 IMDB credits and the affection of many in the theatre community — a crowd that both say leans toward a stifling groupthink.

"So much in [Gilmore's Maclean's column] made specific sense," says Gordon.

"And I think I've become a little lazy in my thinking politically. Yes, I think I'm a left-winger and I'm a feminist, you know, but…"

She pauses to put her feelings into words.

"But I think I fall into some old labels sometimes, and I think it's time I threw away the labels and started making up my own definitions of what works for me. You know, I can't get excited about the NDP anymore, and like a lot of people, I'm disillusioned by the Trudeau Liberals, so I'm excited just to maybe see something completely new."

Gilmore's #newconservatives has great appeal to Nicholas Tsergas, part of the activist group A Strong Canada, which was formed to keep Donald Trump-style politics from spreading north.

He says of Gilmore's movement: "I don't see it as an affront to the party or the big tent. I think what Canada needs right now is less American-style sensationalist politics and less polarization and better discussion across party lines and disagreement and a competition of ideas — which is, you know, a small 'c' conservative value, competition — but competition that's respectful."

Ideological outsiders

The competition to lead the CPC can be described with another adjective: infiltrated. A poll of party members done by Mainstreet Research for the website iPolitics suggests 25 per cent of them voted Liberal, NDP or Green in the last election. That could translate to roughly 50,000 in a potential voter pool of 259,000 party members.

It suggests ideological outsiders may be angling to have an impact. Tsergas says A Strong Canada, in tandem with similar groups, convinced 7,000 to 10,000 young people to join the party. If they act as one to get behind a moderate candidate, he says, perhaps they can push that person into real contention.

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Fellow activist Kasey Dunn says she was struck by one participant who emotionally blurted out how "disgusted" she was by all the Conservative leadership candidates.

"I wondered how much she knew about some other people who are running and who have a different platform," said Dunn, "because we're hearing so much about these kind of crazy things coming from [Kevin] O'Leary or [Kellie] Leitch." (Less than 24 hours after the Toronto gathering, O'Leary dropped out of the race.)

'A merchant of fake news'

Many who answered Gilmore's call have expressed admiration for leadership candidate Michael Chong, a laggard in party popularity.

As far as Day is concerned, the presence of moderate candidates in the race just pokes another hole in Gilmore's campaign.

"By using his column to hilariously label Maxime Bernier and Kevin O'Leary social conservatives, that just makes him look like a merchant of fake news," he said. "Nobody can hear that without bursting out laughing."

Day questions why Gilmore, rather than grandstanding, doesn't roll up his sleeves and do the hard work of policy-making within the party. "I just fail to see the intellectual basis [of his campaign]."

As Gilmore's event wrapped up, he urged his guests to contact all the CPC leadership candidates to make their presence and their sentiments known.

"What's clear when you take a look at the Conservative leadership race right now is the majority of the candidates either aren't interested or don't realize how many moderate conservatives there are in this country," he told CBC News.

The future stops on Gilmore's cross-Canada tour are: Winnipeg on Monday, Calgary on Tuesday, Edmonton on Wednesday, Vancouver on Thursday and Ottawa on May 8.