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Ginny Roth: The BC Conservatives are cruising and could even form government—why on earth would they consider a merger?

Commentary

Last week, a lot of eastern Canadian casual politicos woke up to what’s been going on in British Columbia. Let’s play some catch-up. Only nine months ago, British Columbia’s Conservative Party held one seat in the legislature and was polling at 16 percent. Not long before that—well, they were a bit of a joke. 

The provincial Conservatives had a niche, certainly, but they weren’t a party that was contending for power. They were a place for right-wing British Columbians to park their vote when they felt that the centre-right brokerage BC Liberal Party wasn’t doing enough for the conservatives in its electoral coalition. Which was rarely required, because until recently, the BC Liberals did do a fair bit for the conservatives in their electoral coalition. So, the BC Conservatives remained on the fringe. Particularly when BC Liberal leaders could make the argument that their coalition had to hold together to block the NDP from taking power. 

Then the NDP did take power. First through an agreement with the Greens, and then with a majority government of its own. And up until very recently, a huge number of British Columbians decided the NDP weren’t so radical after all. So, what became of the BC Liberal proposition? As, at first, the NDP showed the province they could be in favour of natural resource extraction, be reasonable stewards of the economy, and resist the excesses of trendy progressive social policy, the BC Liberals struggled to present a contrasting alternative, and in time, to articulate a raison d’être

Then COVID hit, and the floundering BC Liberals made two very grave errors. They renamed the party to BC United, a branding faux pas that many others have dissected and I won’t dwell on here because I think the other misstep is even more important: they banned Aaron Gun from running in their party’s leadership race.

When Gunn sought to put his name forward to run for the BC Liberals, he had already made a name for himself as a cutting critic of the growing disorder and chaos in B.C. cities. Because while John Horgan had initially resisted the pull of progressive social policy, in time the provincial NDP, their municipal counterparts, and the public service apparatus of the region did fall prey to unwise, experimental policies, particularly related to decriminalization and drug policy. British Columbians were growing first impatient then angry at the lawlessness, addiction, death, and disorder. This as the cost-of-living crisis was growing more acute and the price of housing worse in Vancouver than anywhere else in Canada. And not only did Gunn have a strong message calling for change, he had the social media savvy to build a big audience and the storytelling prowess to channel people’s anger toward action. Sound familiar? Yeah, it did to Pierre Poilievre too. 

Gunn didn’t have to decide to put his name on a ballot. He could have continued to monetize his online influence. He saw an opportunity to translate his message into political action, though, and he was willing to put his money where his mouth was. But just as the NDP had fallen prey to trendy social progressivism, so had what remained of the BC Liberal party establishment. The powers that be determined that Gunn shouldn’t be eligible to run in their leadership. They barred him from running, and in so doing, sent a message, loud and clear to young, energized activists—many of them new to politics and conservatism and eager to help—that they weren’t wanted in the BC Liberal party. 

From that point on, exacerbated by the rebrand, BC United lost traction and relevance, finding themselves squished into a very narrow band in the middle of the political spectrum, representing Vancouver business interests and not much else. All the while, public resentment has fueled populism, forcing political parties to find ways to resonate with working-class Canadians. 

In the meantime, Gunn got himself nominated as a federal Conservative candidate, giving the party a strong chance at winning his north Vancouver Island seat and setting himself up to be a future star in a governing Conservative caucus in Ottawa.  

Enter John Rustad and the BC Conservatives, now sitting somewhere between 34 percent and 38 percent (to the NDP’s 40 percent) depending on the pollster. Five months out from an election campaign, the BC Conservatives have gone from a fringe party to contenders for government, and if not that, a strong opposition. This is an incredible political accomplishment. 

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon is silhouetted after the former B.C. Liberal Party unveiled their new name and branding, in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

But as with other right-wing populist movements, the commentariat has been quick to try to explain the success away. It’s true Rustad and his party are capitalizing on a very popular federal Conservative brand. But why assume that brand association will peel away? Yes, it’s possible some voters will clue into the difference between the provincial and federal parties during a writ period and thus choose not to lend their vote to the provincial party. But it’s equally possible that voters will simply see in the BC Conservatives much of what they like about the federal Conservatives. Namely, change. 

That’s because Rustad has not sat back and let others do the work for him. He spoke up on issues where BC United either couldn’t or wouldn’t. On the carbon tax, gender identity, drugs and decriminalization, and Indigenous reconciliation, Rustad has staked out ground Kevin Falcon has effectively conceded. And when BC United has tried to jump on an issue, it’s been too little too late, proving to voters that if they want change, they should go with the real deal. 

All of this is why last week’s frenzied coverage of rumours about merger negotiations sounded a lot more like the wishful thinking of the B.C. business community than it did a pre-election likelihood. After all, why would Rustad consider a merger? Even the mainstream media is conceding that his polling position has moved from flash in the pan to serious trend. He’s nominated young, diverse candidates across the province, and NDP Premier David Eby is treating him like his primary opponent (one who he is concerned is gaining on him). 

If Rustad and the BC Conservatives can stick to the key issues that British Columbians care about and the NDP can’t match them on, improve their fundraising outcomes by converting messaging on those issues into effective small-donor appeals, and organize a professional ground game to drive voter identification and get out their vote on election day, they stand the chance of reducing BC United’s vote and seat count even further while increasing their own. It’s hard to imagine they won’t either form government or take up the mantle of a strong opposition to a weakened NDP government. 

Rustad has nothing to gain from negotiating with a party he’s crushing in the polls. Especially because so much of his party’s appeal comes from their rejection of establishment thinking. It’s not that the goal shouldn’t eventually be for the Right to be united again in British Columbia. It’s just that if and when there are negotiations to do so, Rustad and the BC Conservatives better be darn sure they’re taken entirely on their terms. They’ve earned it.

Lisa Crawford: Loveship Griefship—What Alice Munro taught a generation of women about our lives

Commentary

Alice Munro, oracle of the lives of girls and women, master of Southern (Ontario) Gothic and the dispassionate literary gut punch, has left us.

Deeply sad for the literary community, it is a much deeper blow to my specific community—Canadian women who have always loved to write and who, thanks to Munro, believed that we could and even should. Women from Southern Ontario, who saw ourselves in the characters and the cadence of life and the place names, who believed the same. Who have carried love-worn copies of The Progress of Love or Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage around for years, hoping to absorb the brilliance by osmosis. Or perhaps just to remember the feeling of being seen.

Munro didn’t wholly belong to us, of course. She was an international literary star, the subject of unrestrained critical praise and reverent academic study. Famous and yet not (I have spent the last few days explaining her significance to a host of Americans), she made writers everywhere understand how sparse, simple language could ring with the howl of human pain. She made us understand, frustratingly, that the nearly unreachable gold standard was to achieve the same. 

(I have debated whether she should be referred to as Alice or Munro and landed on Munro—Alice is too intimate, too familiar, for one who knew me intimately without knowing me at all.)

More than literary aspirants, Munro’s women were once young girls, eager acolytes, who learned what being a woman was and would be from Alice Munro’s stories. 

There was a darkness to this, you understand. There was nothing that you couldn’t read in Munro without discovering what was waiting for your adult self. Sometimes that was terrifying. 

Munro saw us. She taught us. She warned us.

She saw our desires and our frustrations and our limitations, our relationships with our lot in life, and our free will or lack thereof. She saw the inner wars that our ancestors, our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, fought with their own lots in life. And where we (erstwhile) newer women stood in this generational chain reaction.

Munro saw us in our weakness and our shame(s) and our strength.

She saw the relentlessness of women, our obligation to keep going no matter what, to keep others going no matter what. She saw the toll it took on us all. Munro understood epigenetics before it was a thing we talked about.

She taught us, also, that there was nothing to be done.

She taught us that the fix was in. Our responsibilities and our pain were to be borne, to be accepted. Sometimes cheerily, sometimes not. Underneath but never answered was the question of what it does to us to bear things, cheerily or not, but especially cheerily.

There was also the question of how the mundane could be sacred and stabilizing and also toxic. 

That was our cultural heritage, the lineage of hardscrabble Protestant settlers, of (usually) United Empire Loyalists who opposed manifest destiny and big ideas for the tradition of the Crown. Southern Ontario Gothic, indeed.

Munro taught us that our cultural and familial repression would save and sustain and scar us.

But that’s too cerebral. Munro got us in the gut. She warned us of what was coming.

She warned us that being a woman was an occasionally glorious, usually mundane, ripoff. That womanhood was a journey of physical gore, the painstaking management of unmanageable emotions, and the tiny but weighty (or giant) emotional betrayals of our loved ones—men, parents, children.

She warned us with the Lives of Girls and Women’s Del, Lichen’s Stella, and, my God, Dimensions’ Doree.

This is the darkness of which I speak.

For her trouble, she faced protest and the dreaded threat of book-banning—an experience in which she was (be still my heart) apparently supported and mentored by no less a literary gut puncher than Margaret Laurence, whose opus The Diviners titillated curious young minds (including and especially mine) with its naughty bits and then-radical presentation of a woman living freely and on her own terms.

Munro was supremely us and not of us at the same time.

A writer’s writer and Canadian’s Canadian, she was regarded by the world in a series of contradictions—even and especially in death. Her recognition was global, her work specific in location but universal in humanness. Though Munro was beloved by the Canadian cultural establishment, even its often self-hating gatekeepers, her stories were most often published as stand-alones in the New Yorker.

Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author Alice Munro attends a ceremony held by the Royal Canadian Mint to celebrate her win where they unveiled a 99.99% pure silver five-dollar coin at the Great Victoria Public Library in Victoria, B.C., Monday, March 24, 2014. Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press.

Better known in some quarters for the screen adaptations of her work (Sarah Polley’s dazzling film Away from Her, from The Bear Came Over the Mountain; the Kristen Wiig-starring Hateship Loveship from, well, the one with the long name), Munro was remembered by entertainment trade Variety with this headline: “Alice Munro, Nobel Prize-Winning Canadian Author of ‘Away From Her,’ Dies at 92.”

(A word of warning: if you haven’t seen Away from Her, don’t follow my example and watch it on a plane. You will find yourself blubbing uncontrollably before an audience of strangers, likely from the indignity of a middle seat.)

World-class but of a curious place unheralded to the rest of the world, the Munro depicted in the media (and in many an obituary) writes of a mostly poor constituency located in dusty small towns. That seems wrong to me. And her characters were no different in soul, I am sure, from those in Wisconsin or the Dakotas or Mississippi or several other places I could name. 

But Munro gave us a sense of place. She didn’t write for the big red push-pins on the map. She wrote for the places with a dot the size of a regular old period. 

I write this from my adopted Californian home, surrounded by the ubiquitous desert dust in the land of Joan Didion, with the dirt of Kent County still under my fingernails.

Munro gave us an emotional journey of ancestors and place and sense memory. When I read the description of Munro’s forebears, Protestant settlers in Huron County, which takes up fully a third of her official Nobel Prize bio, I wept. 

In Munro’s Gothic Ontario I saw my own ancestors—the Crawfords with their farmland in the Huron-adjacent Kent County (a few of them teachers, naturally), generations of men named Peter Roy, including my grandfather. The protagonist of a Munro-style story about my family would, rightfully, centre on the displacement felt by our matriarch, my grandfather’s hot-blooded Italian wife, whose Southern Ontario Gothic experience reverberated with an undercurrent of rage. 

In their lives, and all of our lives, there are potential Munro-style stories everywhere. But only she could execute in her way. Only she could see us, teach us, warn us about who we really are.

Alice Munro taught us how to see. We are ever in her emotional wake, Munro’s women and her writers both, and we are ever in her debt.