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‘Stay ahead of the desperation tactics’: Ian Brodie outlines the Conservative’s key strategies as Parliament returns

Commentary

Parliament is back, but what should we expect from the Official Opposition during this sitting? The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer exchanged with Ian Brodie, the former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to get an insider’s perspective on what issues the Conservatives should be focusing on, how they should be preparing for the next election, and what Pierre Poilievre can do to defuse accusations that he is just a watered down Donald Trump.

SEAN SPEER: A common subject of debate in political circles centres is the proper balance for the Opposition leader and party in terms of prosecuting their case against the government and setting out their own policies and priorities. What’s your advice on that balance? Should Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives start to roll out their own policies? Or should they mainly continue to make the negative case against the government and its record?

IAN BRODIE: Mr. Poilievre has succeeded so far by mixing innovation and tradition. He’s focused on traditional conservative (and Canadian) pocketbook issues. When Stéphane Dion proposed a carbon tax, Stephen Harper understood it was a “massive new tax on everything” and turned it into a pocketbook issue. Six, now seven, years I guess, after Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax, none of our major trading partners are following his lead, and certainly not at his ultra-high level. Poilievre has driven the link harder than Harper did—”The carbon tax is making your life more expensive”—and even Trudeau has been forced to cave. 

The innovation has been to bring housing into the equation. Housing wasn’t really a federal Conservative issue in the Mulroney years, despite Alan Redway’s efforts. It certainly wasn’t an issue for Harper. But Poilievre wrapped his personal branding around the housing issue and made it his own with the “housing, not bureaucracy” pitch. It worked like magic. And when the Trudeau Liberals tried to blame immigrants for the housing crisis, Poilievre nicely adjusted his immigration position to keep the focus on the big picture. 

There’s more to do over the next year or year and a half. Step out a bit on crime. Maybe he can take on health care the way he took on housing. There is no reason to put out a platform right now. Harper gave the right advice on this in March at the Canada Strong & Free Network conference. But the way you attack the government gives clues on the platform. We didn’t release any of Harper’s 2006 platform until just before the election. But I don’t think there were any surprises in that platform. Our attacks on taxes, ethics, crime, health, and child care gave away most of that platform ahead of the election call. 

SEAN SPEER: Another possible tension is between holding the government accountable in the House of Commons and getting out to meet Canadians, recruiting so-called “star” candidates, and raising money. How should Poilievre think about his role as Opposition leader and Conservative Party leader in terms of the allocation of his time and attention in Parliament itself?

IAN BRODIE: Poilievre doesn’t have to worry about money. The Conservative fund goes from strength to strength. Message leads to momentum leads to money. While the media environment has changed since 2006—there’s a lot more DIY media through Facebook and YouTube—a leader who doesn’t spend time in Ottawa drops off the public agenda and loses touch with his caucus. Poilievre has a good balance of time in Ottawa versus time in the field, and he keeps his eyes on the issues facing Canadians when he’s in Ottawa. No need for a big rethink there. 

Candidate recruiting will get easier as we get closer to the election. If he’s still up 10 points at the end of the year, he’ll have his pick of candidates. Really good candidates don’t want to give up their jobs 18 months ahead of election day for nonstop campaigning. Leaving the nominations open in those prime seats is the best way to make room for good candidates. The best open seat is Calgary Signal Hill, where Ron Liepert isn’t running again. I don’t see a need to open the nomination race any time soon there. 

If there’s a challenge it’s in convincing Canadians the team is ready to govern and can be trusted with the keys to the cabinet room. Harper always refused to discuss the details in public but did say voters should be satisfied that he was doing everything needed to be ready should he get a mandate. He began those preparations in 2004 and never really stopped working on his preparations for governing. Knowing he had a good team doing good work freed his mind and made him more confident on the campaign trail. That, as much as any policy or program pronouncement, helped make him a winner. He reached out beyond his immediate circle and found people he could trust. It all went on behind the curtain if you will, but it improved the public face. 

SEAN SPEER: It’s pretty clear that the Trudeau government’s main attack on Mr. Poilievre and the Conservatives is that they amount to so-called “MAGA Republicans” outside of the mainstream of Canadian politics. How should they respond to this line of attack?

IAN BRODIE: Poilievre isn’t Trump. He’s far more disciplined, far more traditional, and shares almost no key policies with the former president. That said, the constant suggestion that he’s Canada’s Trump is suggestive to people who don’t pay much attention to politics. Harper faced the same thing with the “hidden agenda” message. The only solution is to stay ahead of the desperation tactics. Focus on issues that matter to Canadians. Offer positive ideas of freedom and aspiration. 

Donald Wright: Canada has no single national story—and that’s a good thing

Commentary

It was a weird December at The Hub. Reading it, I felt like I had fallen into a time hole and landed in 1998 when I was a PhD student at the University of Ottawa and everyone was talking about Who Killed Canadian History?, a slim volume by Jack Granatstein. To some, it was a much-needed counterpunch and a necessary corrective to the social history revolution. To others, it was a depressing diatribe by a scholar who hadn’t read the scholarship he so blithely dismissed. And to yet others, it was a bit of both.

To mark the 25th anniversary of Who Killed Canadian History?, The Hub published five—yes, five—op-eds and one podcast. As Hub editor-at-large Sean Speer explained, the series was intended “to grab Canadians and Canadian policymakers by the lapels, so to speak, and say this matters: a common sense of citizenship and a common national narrative.”

A been-there-done-that Rudyard Griffiths was nonplussed. In effect, The Hub’s executive director said, you can grab all the lapels you want, but you’re wasting your time. He should know, he added, because he had cut his teeth at the Dominion Institute where, in defence of national history, he “bled a couple of quarts of blood in the history wars of the late ‘90s and early 2000s.” 

The last 20 years have been more of the same, only worse, as “radical and I think dangerous ideas around decolonization” have taken root. “If you spend 20 years pushing your history into the proverbial dustbin, and then larding on top of it mounds of kind of racial and other cultural-induced guilt, and you assume that everything colonial, everything that happened, I don’t know, before 1867, is just an endless list of sins of omission and commission, I’m sorry Sean, there’s nothing to re-build. There’s no going back. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again. The book isn’t Who Killed Canadian History? The book that is written today is Canadian History Is Dead.” 

Speer demurred, insisting that Canadian history isn’t dead, although it is on life support. And he held out hope for a national story. “It’s not an option at this point. It’s a necessity.” 

Listening to their conversation, I found myself wondering if I inhabited the same universe as Speer and Griffiths. Do they really think that a common national narrative or that a single national story is possible or even desirable? Trust me, no one wants to live in a country with a single national story.

Where does their anxiety come from? And what explains their pessimism? I don’t know. But I suspect that the taking down of, and in some instances, the toppling of statues—yet another front in the history wars—has confirmed their worst fears. And here I have some sympathy for them. I don’t like the idea of a city’s statuary being determined by vandals, even if I agree with their political motivations. But it’s an altogether different story if a statue is removed after a democratic, transparent, and deliberative process, as was the case with Halifax’s statue of Edward Cornwallis. After all, the past is reinterpreted all the time. That is the essence of history as a discipline.

I don’t want to revisit Who Killed Canadian History?. God knows enough ink has been spilled on it. Nor do I want to engage with each op-ed, although one in particular stuck in my craw. Instead, I want to invite Speer, Griffiths, et al. to conduct a simple thought experiment. I want them to start from a different place and ask themselves a different question, not who killed Canadian history, but who broadened Canadian history?

That’s not my question, by the way. It belongs to Ramsay Cook. In a recent conversation, Jack Granatstein described his former colleague as an essayist in the tradition of Frank Underhill and as an omnivorous reader: “He had a wide reading knowledge. Probably wider than anyone I knew.” In fact, it was one of his “great strengths” as a scholar. Despite their mutual respect, however, the two men didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, including the state of Canadian history.

In 2009, Cook delivered the inaugural H. Sanford Riley Lecture in Canadian History at the University of Winnipeg, his alma mater when it was still United College. His title—“Who Broadened Canadian History?”—was an obvious riff on Who Killed Canadian History?, which in his words was “a polemical little tract.”

Canadian history, he began, is “alive and well,” not “subverted or sundered or murdered.” To make his point, Cook didn’t list book after book on this or that specialized topic (although he did some of that and, in the process, confirmed Granatstein’s observation about his reading habits). Instead, he looked at large-scale demographic, economic, and political changes across English and French Canada, as well as the rapid expansion of higher education and the growth of PhD programs. The old history—the history that he had been taught at United College and later studied at Queen’s and U of T with Arthur Lower and Donald Creighton—could neither contain nor explain these enormous, even tectonic, shifts. Something had to give, and it did in the form of history from the bottom-up written by a new generation of historians from diverse backgrounds.

History wasn’t killed. But it was broadened by, among other people, his PhD student Franca Iacovetta and her book on Italians in Toronto, Such Hardworking People (1992). “She nicely symbolizes my explanation for the emergence of a new, fuller understanding of Canadian history: a second-generation woman of Italian working-class origin, the first in her family to attend university and then graduate school, now a Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Work of this quality surely deserves better than Jack Granatstein’s slur: ‘multicultural mania.’”

To people like Griffiths who lament, in Cook’s words, that the “fragmented history of Canada, like Humpty Dumpty, can never be fitted together again,” Cook asked, “does it matter?” He didn’t think so, because history isn’t a civics lesson, much less a national consciousness raiser. It’s an intellectual discipline.

In a short essay published in 1967, Cook coined the phrase “limited identities.” There isn’t a single Canadian identity and there never has been, he argued. Instead of pining away for something that doesn’t exist, scholars should look at Canada’s limited identities, or its regional, ethnic, and class identities. The term stuck and soon took on a life of its own and came to include gender, religious, and Indigenous identities.

Participants run with a multinations pride flag during the Toronto Pride Parade, on Sunday June 25, 2023. Chris Young/The Canadian Press.

For his part, Granatstein never liked it. Writing in Who Killed Canadian History?, he argued that “Limited identities were almost openly anti-nationalist: it was not the nation that mattered, but ‘smaller, differentiated, provincial or regional societies’; not Canadians as a whole, but the components of the ethnic mosaic; not Canadians as a society, but Canadians in their social classes.”

Admittedly, Cook had an ambivalent relationship to “limited identities,” but not for the same reason as Granatstein. In his opinion, it wasn’t big enough to capture Canada’s complexity. Maybe “unlimited identities” would be better, he said in 1977. Or maybe, he said in 2000, it’s neither limited nor unlimited, but rather “multiple, relational, shifting, [and] contingent,” or intersectional, although he didn’t use that word. Still, that wasn’t quite right either.

In his 2009 Riley lecture, Cook took a final stab at identity, casting a wide and generous net that included an important nod to national identities. “Having been lucky once, let me try again: ‘multiple identities: national/limited/transnational.’ That conceptualization, I think, would help us better understand both the Canadian past and the world in which we live.”

If it lacks the pithiness of limited identities, it contains a lot of thinking, reading, and writing about Canada. It’s also optimistic and forward-looking and avoids the blame game inherent in trying to identify who, exactly, killed Canadian history when no one did.

On that note, and in my capacity as president of the Canadian Historical Association, I want to publicly invite Sean Speer and Rudyard Griffiths to our annual meeting in June in Montreal where they will see how Canadian history, and history in Canada, have been broadened, where they will meet scholars doing really cool things, from the social history of trans communities to the political biographies of prime ministers, where they will learn how the past is being communicated through tweeting, blogging, and podcasting, and where they can dip into any number of interesting monographs at the book display.

I’ll even pick up their conference fees.