In 1996, a couple of creepy young dweebs named David Frum and Ezra Levant organized a conference called “The Winds of Change.”
The goal was to re-unite the Canadian right-wing in the wake of the disastrous (for them) disintegration of Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives. The 1993 election that saw the PCs go from one of the largest majorities in parliamentary history to just two seats also saw the emergence of Preston Manning’s Reform party—which took over 50 seats in the west.
Axis of Evil
Reform was a mashup of faux anti-establishment prairie populism with anti-Quebec and anti-First Nations bigotry. As such it seemed doomed to languish as a western protest party. Remember young Stephen Harper making virtue of necessity, arguing for “firewalls” between Alberta and the rest of the Canadian state?
Back then I laughed at the “unite the right” brigade. I remember joking with friends about the stinky winds of change blowing in from Alberta. I thought characters like Frum and Levant were what you found when you turned over rocks, and that nobody would ever take them seriously.
While I was right about the former, I was sadly mistaken about the latter. Frum went on to be an advisor and speech writer for George Bush, instrumental in selling the lies that justified the invasion of Iraq—coining the phrase “Axis of Evil.” And Levant has played a significant role in shifting the political discourse in this country dangerously to the right.
I was right to ridicule positions that these characters took, and continue to take, but I was wrong to treat them as a joke.
Patrick Brown has just won the leadership of the Ontario PC party. Many joked about how the Liberals couldn’t have chosen a better Tory leader. After the failure of former PC leader Tim Hudak, due to repeated gaffes and a reputation as being too far to the right, why would the Tories pick someone whose record is even more extreme?
There is much to ridicule in Patrick Brown’s political record, but it would be a mistake to treat him as a joke.
Brown is a child of private school and privilege who seems to have three passions in life: hockey, the Tory party and getting ahead.
After years of learning the ropes—organizing, identifying new constituencies to exploit, glad-handing and currying favours—he realized that the road to a seat in parliament led to Barrie. A combination of right-wing social policies–anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage–and carefully connecting with conservative sections of immigrant communities resulted in a job in Ottawa.
As an MP Brown’s attendance record has been one of the worst in Parliament. He frequently misses important votes and is absent from the committees he has been appointed to (and gets paid for). Where is he if not in Ottawa representing the people of Barrie? Often he is playing hockey, at charity fundraisers organized by fellow Tories, or attending the annual Wayne Gretzky Hockey Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas where he fostered connections with hockey celebrities who, in turn, endorsed his Ontario leadership campaign.
Or he might be jetting around the world, with special interest groups paying part of the fare. He was careful to stay just within the limits set by Parliament’s ethical watchdogs, yet he managed to rack up $57,000 in free travel in seven years.
His most frequent port of call was to India, where he made connection with Narendra Modi, the far-right Hindu nationalist leader who was elected Prime Minister in 2014. When Modi made an official state visit to Canada earlier this year, he made a point of traveling to Ontario to add his endorsement to Brown’s leadership campaign.
In Ontario, Brown has adroitly applied the same tactics used by Jason Kenney to identify socially conservative sections of immigrant communities and bind them to the Tory party machine.
So, when the Ontario Liberal government introduced the same updated sex education curriculum that has been implemented without a problem in almost every other province, Brown saw a wedge issue and created a thinly veiled homophobic hysteria.
Brown used his connections to create an alliance between the far-right Christians extremists, like Charles McVety, and socially conservative sections of newcomer communities, specifically Muslims. The same social media jokesters laughing off Brown’s ascension through the Tory ranks heaped insults on the “backward” parents. The jokes carried more than a whiff of Islamophobia.
Building the anti-war movement in the early 2000s, many of us visited mosques and Islamic centres in the suburbs surrounding Toronto. Now Tory operatives like Brown are whipping up homophobia and signing up people to Tory party memberships at the same time.
Following Tim Hudak’s failures to win seats in the greater Toronto area, the Ontario Tories were a moribund, rural rump. The conventional wisdom was that the way out of the wilderness lay with Christine Elliott and a Tory-Lite approach. She had the support of the party machine and the pundits. Brown blew her out of the water, signing up literally thousands of new Tory members in communities and ridings where that party had never before succeeded.
We should be making use of the important relationships built in opposing war and Islamophobia, to build solidarity with LGBT activists rather than the Tories. If we leave our anti-war allies to make common cause with the Tories, federally or provincially, we will rue the day. If we treat Patrick Brown as a joke we are playing into his hand.