Moments after Trump concluded his victory speech on election night, Canadian politician Kellie Leitch was using the news as fodder for her own fundraising.
“Tonight, our American cousins threw out the elites and elected Donald Trump as their next president,” she wrote in an email to her supporters. “It’s an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada, as well.”
Don’t let our feminist, panda-cuddling prime minister fool you — Canada is not some kind of liberal promised land. Before Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015, the Conservative Party’s Stephen Harper led the country for nearly a decade.
While Canada’s Conservative Party is no U.S. Republican Party — social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage are very rarely brought up (both have long been legal in Canada), and political debate tends to focus on taxes — the country struggles with its share of institutional racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. And thanks to Leitch, a member of Parliament from Ontario who is running for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, that rhetoric has become a focal point in the nation's politics.
Leitch’s eagerness to align herself with America’s president-elect (even as she objects to the comparison) has earned her the epithet “Canada’s Trump.” And it's easy to see why. She has followed Trump's lead on issues ranging from immigration to the free press.
Leitch recently emerged as a front-runner in her party leadership race. And the stakes for this race are high: The person who wins the leadership election next May could become the country’s next prime minister. Ahead, we break down what you need to know about the woman now known as Canada's Donald Trump.
At the core of Leitch’s campaign is her controversial proposal to screen immigrants, refugees, and visitors for 'anti-Canadian values.'
Throwing Out “The Elites”
It is no coincidence that Leitch — a pediatric surgeon, university professor, and former Harper Cabinet minister — is parroting the anti-elitist rhetoric that worked so well for Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul.
Leitch is echoing Trump's populist message, positioning herself as a champion of the “average guy or gal on the street.”
Leitch (who goes by her childhood nickname “Kellie”) grew up in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Her family lived in a trailer for a year (a detail she is quick to cite in interviews as proof of her humble beginnings) while her father was establishing his construction company. She credits her father, who was president of the electoral district association of Fort McMurray, with her early interest in politics (Leitch joined the Conservative Party at age 14). Her political career began in 2010 when she was elected as an MP in the constituency of Simcoe-Grey; three years later, she was appointed to Harper’s Cabinet.
In spite of her two advanced degrees and considerable experience in Ottawa, Leitch is now adamant that she herself is not a member of the elite. The word was entirely absent from her Twitter feed before Trump’s victory; since November 9, she has called out “elite” four times in a single month. So who is the elite, according to Leitch? In a post-Trump world, “elite” seems to have become a slippery, catchall modifier for her critics and opponents, from the Liberals to the media:
At the core of Leitch’s campaign is her controversial proposal to screen immigrants, refugees, and visitors for “anti-Canadian values.” Many of her opponents have criticized the plan as divisive. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau views Canada as having “no core identity,” which he believes allows the country to better integrate newcomers from different backgrounds. Leitch doesn't agree. She argues that Canada’s shared values need to be protected and detected in each person who enters the country. Like Trump, she hasn't offered any specifics on how to do that.
Emily Gilroy, vice president of the University of Lethbridge Campus Conservatives, wonders how Leitch would even begin to define Canadian values.
Leitch has been more specific about defining what Canadian values are not: "People that believe that women are property, that they can be beaten and bought or sold, or believe that gays or lesbians should be stoned because of who they love, don’t share, in my opinion, basic Canadian values." When an interviewer for Toronto Life asked whether her language, particularly the use of “stoning,” was code for keeping out Muslim immigrants, Leitch demurred.
“It isn’t anti-Muslim. It’s pro-Canadian,” she said.
But by implying that Canadian values need to be protected while refusing to specify from whom or what, Leitch creates a potentially dangerous ambiguity. It could be, for example, a message meant to appeal to those who are already fearful or suspicious of immigrants and refugees.
"If you want to decode what she’s saying, [it’s], 'We need borders and we need to enforce them. We’re not simply going to let everybody in,'" Philippe Labrecque, a political writer based in Québec and author of Conservatism in the 21st Century told Refinery29.
While other candidates may be catching up in terms of fundraising or have broader intraparty support, Leitch continues to dominate the media cycle.
How Worried Should We Be?
Although a few Canadian journalists have insisted that we should all “calm down” about Leitch, and that Canadians will see through her “completely inauthentic” message, her bid for attention seems to have worked. While other candidates may be catching up in terms of fundraising, or have broader intraparty support, Leitch continues to dominate the media cycle.
Labrecque isn’t especially alarmed about Leitch. Three years ago in his province, the Parti Québécois’ attempt to introduce a “values charter” resulted in the party losing half its seats.
Even if Leitch becomes her party's leader in May, for her to become prime minister, the Conservatives would still have to win a majority of seats in the next federal election. Whether her Trump-like tactics will work in Canada remains to be seen.