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Rahim Mohamed: Poilievre must find his inner Jack Layton to give the Tories a chance


Last week, the talented Ben Woodfinden contributed a thought-provoking piece to The Hub that pitched a winning strategy to Pierre Poilievre, the prohibitive favourite to become the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Woodfinden argued provocatively that Poilievre should continue to aim his rhetorical cannon at “the Gatekeepers”: an insular clique of powerful and well-connected interests who dominate Canada’s economic and cultural landscape—a sort of Laurentian Elite for the QAnon age. These gatekeepers hoard wealth and influence at the expense of everyday Canadians, who are struggling to pay off their student loans, buy their first houses, and keep their small businesses afloat nearly two years into a global pandemic.

Woodfinden sees in the gatekeepers narrative a rare opportunity for Poilievre to “thread the needle” in crafting a message that will resonate with both rank-and-file Conservative Party members, who will choose the party’s next leader, and a swath of critical swing-voters in the next federal election, namely aging millennials who have been locked out of home ownership, career stability, and other rites of passage taken largely for granted by their parents’ generation.

Woodfinden is one of Canada’s sharpest young political minds (you should check out his Substack if you haven’t already) and he has undoubtedly keyed into a populist wave that Poilievre can ride comfortably to his inevitable coronation as the Conservative Party’s next leader. However, I am less convinced that this message will take Poilievre all the way to the promised land.

Populism has never played well with a Canada-wide electorate, being antithetical to a risk-averse national political culture that prizes un-Americanness above all else. Woodfinden, a scholar of seminal Canadian political thinkers like George Grant, should be well aware of this fact. A few Gadsen flag-waving truckers in Ottawa and a handful of other major cities are unlikely to turn the tide of 155 years of Canadian political culture; Poilievre can only do further damage to his brand by hitching his wagon to the sort of sentiment that fueled last month’s “freedom convoys.”

Beyond this, Woodfinden seems to imply that the tattered “Harper coalition“—a once-unstoppable bloc connecting the multiethnic suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver with the Tories’ base in Western Canada—can be stitched back together with a smattering of pocketbook appeals to cash-strapped millennials. He seems willfully blind to just how thoroughly successive Conservative campaigns have torched bridges with dog-whistles aimed at Muslim and Chinese Canadians, among other non-“old stock” populations. These wounds will take more than a single election cycle to heal; and the myriad minority communities that have been alienated from the Conservative Party over the past seven years will not just be bribed back into the fold by a few wonkish housing policy proposals—proposals which, to begin with, are unlikely to elicit much enthusiasm outside of the darkened corners of “YIMBY Twitter”.

From a purely strategic standpoint, the Liberal Party’s crack data sciences team knows that the Conservative Party is angling for a Harper-esque breakthrough in southern Ontario and has set up an impenetrable firewall there (former Trudeau consigliere Gerald Butts gushed about the party’s “vote efficiency” following this past September’s election). Now former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole (MP for Durham) staked his political fortunes on rolling back Liberal gains in the Greater Toronto Area only to lose seats in the region. It’s high time for the Tories to scrap the Harper playbook and go back to the drawing board.

Fortunately, Mr. Poilievre can look to another major political figure from the early-2000s for inspiration: former NDP leader Jack Layton.

While many of us in English-speaking Canada will remember Layton as an avuncular figure—”the guy you’d like to have a beer with”—the NDP’s 2011 electoral breakthrough reflected a more calculated and Machiavellian side of Smiling Jack. Above all, the outcome was attributable to Layton’s hard-nosed strategy of peeling off votes from the left flank of the Bloc Quebecois. This strategy entailed a policy of deliberate ambiguity surrounding a number of thorny questions relating to national unity, most notably the margin of victory necessary to decide a future Quebec referendum, and a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to welcoming Quebec’s left-leaning nationalists, many of whom voted “yes” in the 1995 referendum, into the NDP fold. (A minor scandal erupted when Nycole Turmel, formerly a member of the separatist Quebec solidaire, became the leader of Canada’s Official Opposition after Layton’s failing health forced him to step aside).

Layton, who grew up just outside of Montreal and spoke flawless French, also took advantage of the relative isolation of Quebec’s media ecosystem. Rival Michael Ignatieff would later reminisce, not without a note of bitterness, that Layton had a “neat way of saying one thing in Quebec and another in the rest of Canada.”

Fast-forward a decade and the Bloc Quebecois has little reason to fear the NDP, whose current leader’s turban would get him fired from any number of public sector jobs in la belle province. In fact, the Bloc has been able to sail largely uncontested through the past two election cycles, with the Liberals content to coast on the Trudeau name and the Conservatives lacking anything that resembles a coherent Quebec strategy.

This lack of genuine competition has allowed the Bloc to get away without clearly articulating what it stands for, or even having to justify its very existence in a post-referendum national landscape. The party, established in 1991, was originally conceived as a temporary alliance of referendum-seeking separatists from across the political spectrum, but you would never know this from reading its most recent electoral platform, where the word “independence” did not appear even a single time. Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet proclaimed that he was “not very much interested in leading Canada” in last year’s English-language leaders’ debate.

Well, if the Bloc Quebecois has no aspirations to government and no timetable for Quebec’s next referendum, then I just have to ask, what exactly is the point of the Bloc?

The Bloc’s complacency presents a window of opportunity for Pierre Poilievre, who boasts Franco-Saskatchewanian roots and is one of the most effective French-language communicators in the Conservative Party’s frontbench. By actively campaigning against the Bloc, putting Blanchet on the defensive, and making the case to Quebec’s electorate that a Conservative government with a sizeable Quebec caucus would do more to advance their interests than an isolated and feckless Bloc Quebecois, Poilievre could give the Tories a fighting chance in Quebec. If there’s one thing that the 2011 election illustrated, it’s how soft Bloc support is when push comes to shove. A Poilievre-led Conservative Party would pull even with the Liberals by sweeping the 32 seats currently held by the Bloc Quebecois, a scenario not entirely outside of the realm of possibility.

Poilievre also has a powerful potential ally in Quebec Premier François Legault, arguably Canada’s canniest politician. Blanchet, who is just under a decade Legault’s junior, presents the most serious medium-term threat to Legault’s premiership—and leadership of the Bloc Quebecois has been a springboard to the premier’s office in the past (as, for that matter, has leadership of the federal conservatives). Legault has every reason to want to see his most formidable potential rival marginalized and reduced to a historical footnote. Moreover, Poilievre could drive a wedge between the Bloc and CAQ by goading Blanchet into uttering the “r-word”— it’s worth noting here that the Bloc’s sister party, the Parti Quebecois, has been reduced to an afterthought by a provincial electorate that has no appetite for another referendum.

The obvious wrinkle in this plan is that Quebec, by and large, leans to the left of the other Canadian provinces on most fiscal and social issues. At face value, the province does not present the most favorable ideological climate for self-proclaimed deficit hawk and “boy who cried inflation” Pierre Poilievre. However, the essential ingredients of a Conservative breakthrough in Quebec can potentially be found in last month’s protests.

Lost amidst the national media’s fixation on a small number of Confederate flags and Swastikas spotted at the protests were a much larger number of Fleur-de-lis; a good amount of French could be heard from protestors on the ground as well. The media has also been slow to draw a connection between the protests and Premier Legault’s draconian winter curfew, a rare miscalculation from a premier who generally knows which way the wind is blowing (merchandise that reads TRUCK LEGAULT can be found on a number of pro-convoy websites). Poilievre would be wise to sift through this stew of populist anger, where he may find a theme that can bring Quebec’s disaffected freedom fighters into the Conservative political fold.

Taking on the Bloc Quebecois on their home turf would be a risky gambit for a Poilievre-led Conservative Party, but at the very least it would be bringing something new to the table for a party that has struggled to break free from the “same old, same old.” At this point, what do the Conservatives have to lose—other than their status as Canada’s Natural Opposition Party?

Paul W. Bennett: After COVID-19, Canada’s K-12 education is now a recovery mission


Teachers on social media, often hiding behind anonymous names, are beginning to talk out-of-school with far more frequency. One of the better known and bravest, @TeacherGrind on Twitter, is grinding her teeth more than usual about the crushing burden of maintaining appearances two years into the pandemic.

Frontline teachers like @TeacherGrind are now speaking up about the fact that, in the absence of coherent and integrated policy, learning recovery is becoming their responsibility. “I have students who have missed every school day of school this year due to extenuating circumstances,” she reported, “and it keeps falling on the teachers to somehow support them independently.” Then, almost in desperation, she added: “This is why every district needs a remote option forever.”

Answering her cry, Nova Scotia high school arts education teacher Paul Syme (@symecreative) hit the nail on the head: “Class time is full and busy. Then, outside of class time is forfeited to communicating and planning for missing kids. This structured deficit needs to be met with a systemic remedy.”

Two full years into the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still no plan to address learning loss and move from assessing the collateral damage to planning for recovery. Speaking recently on TVO Ontario’s The Agenda, Western University education researcher Prachi Srivastava cut through the usual edu-babble: “I’m shocked at the lack of planning, at the lack of forward planning in the face of what is quite a predictable outcome,” referring to the short and long-term consequences of mass school closures.

When Srivastava speaks, education authorities should be listening and heeding her advice. She’s one of the few Canadian education researchers attuned to global education development and co-lead author of the June 2021 Ontario Science Table brief on the impact of educational disruption not only in Ontario but from province to province in Canada. Back in July 2021, she and the research team issued a follow-up report confirming the cumulative learning loss and social harms inflicted since March 2020 and recommending that, barring catastrophic circumstances, schools should remain open for in-person learning for the foreseeable future.

A pan-Canadian scan of Canadian K-12 COVID-related education plans conducted by Toronto-based People for Education and released in early February, after two years of disrupted schooling, came up virtually empty. While all provinces and territories have public health safety strategies for schools, few have anything approaching a vision or plan to manage, assess or respond to learning loss or the psych-social impact of mass school closures and none have allocated sufficient funding to prepare for post-pandemic recovery.

A near total lack of student data is seriously hampering our capacity to assess how the pandemic has affected student learning over the past two years. “One of the problems we have,” Srivastava told the London Free Press, “is that there is no baseline data.” That is confirmed, in spades, in the recent People for Education report. Only four of our 10 provinces and territories, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, are engaged (even in the 2021-22 school year) in any form of data collection, and it’s irregular at best.

As a G7 country, Canada is purportedly one of the seven most highly industrialized and relatively well-resourced liberal democracies on the planet, and it has, relatively speaking, one of the smallest cohorts of children, some 5.1 million, in elementary and secondary school. With all those resources and one of the most extensive educational bureaucracies in the world, it’s fair to ask why our school system came up short during the pandemic.

Four mass school closings in Ontario have cost K-12 students some 29 weeks of schooling since March 2020, roughly double the average lost time, 14 to 16 weeks, across all advanced industrial societies. While Ontario leads in weeks claimed by school closures, most other provinces are close behind, with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, for example, checking in at 20 to 22 weeks of disrupted instructional time. In the case of Nova Scotia, it’s compounded by the fact that four to six additional days have been lost to storm day closures where teachers are not required to provide alternative instruction.

Suspending or curtailing system-wide student assessments has compounded the problem. With Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) testing cancelled during the pandemic, there was no way to assess how that province’s two million students were performing or whether they were recovering.

The Ontario pattern was repeated elsewhere as provinces, one-after-another, abandoned large-scale student assessments and suspended high school examinations. Maintaining consistent and credible benchmark assessments would certainly have made logical sense and left us better prepared to plan for the recovery. While some provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia have restored testing in 2021-22, it’s going to be difficult to analyze without consistent baseline data.

School authorities have failed us during the COVID-19 pandemic and it will prove costly for the pandemic generation of children. A child who was in kindergarten in March 2020, is now in Grade 2 and will be in Grade 3 in September 2022, so pandemic closures will have cost them between 10 and 27 weeks of their schooling. Students in Grade 9 when COVID-19 hit will have had their entire high school years disrupted by closures and mostly ineffective online learning experiments.

Repeated pivots to emergency home learning were detrimental to school-age children and families, and education was used as a “pandemic control” instrument without sufficient recognition of the academic and social impacts on children and teens. Public policy devolved into complying with public health dictates, and responding—in ad hoc fashion on the fly—to educator and parent concerns, applying band-aid upon band-aid, from social distancing to bubbles to HEP filter units, to secure a modicum of consent, several times, to restart in-person school.

Serious research into COVID-19’s impact on student learning is gradually emerging and, given the preoccupations of our education schools, it originates mostly elsewhere. Studies in the United Kingdom during COVID-19 point to a learning loss of between two months and two years, depending upon the educational jurisdiction. One of the few Canadian studies, conducted by University of Alberta researcher George Georgiou, found that students in Grades 1 and 2 in Edmonton and Vermillion performed, on average, 8 months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks at the end of the last school year. More recently, a U.S. study, conducted from 2019 to 2022 by Amplify utilizing DIBELs assessments, found that more than one in three children from kindergarten to Grade 3 fell significantly short of their expected reading level without major and systematic interventions.

A more coherent, integrated, and responsive pandemic education recovery plan is now a matter of immediate necessity. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the key components of such a plan, repeatedly articulated by Srivastava, me, and others, are hiding in plain sight. Such a comprehensive plan would consist of three main education recovery initiatives:

  • Revamp the entire K-12 curriculum – recognizing that it’s a massive “catch-up operation” in which parts of the curriculum in each year need to be lengthened, some curriculum moved into the next grade, and other parts missed earlier integrated into the current grade.
  • Boost core competencies and skills in reading and numeracy – close the basic skills gap while introducing pro-social skills throughout the curriculum for all children, focusing on the elementary grades.
  • Implement targeted interventions – focusing on schools with the highest number of disruptions and infection rates, or large numbers of students from marginalized communities or special needs students.

Three years ago, Canadian K-12 education occupied a bubble and the architects of the current school system were fond of routinely referring to Ontario as a “world class system.” When the pandemic hit, prominent Canadian school promoters saw it as a golden opportunity to “build back better” with a focus on enhancing social and emotional learning. What a difference a pandemic makes. It’s now a recovery mission and there’s no room for complacency.