By 7:30 p.m., the Kingdom Covenant Ministries church in Mississauga, Toronto, was packed with 300 enthusiastic supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada’s rising star, Dr. Leslyn Lewis. Her arrival on stage was greeted with cheers, and her barnburner stump speech was equal parts populist talking points and political sermon—Lewis preaches like a Pentecostalist when she’s getting into her groove. She received four standing ovations, including for publicly declaring her pro-life sentiments and promising to defund the left-wing state media, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The CBC camerawoman covering the event grimaced.
In her 20-minute pitch to voters, Lewis covered a lot of territory (both politically and geographically—she paces the stage a lot while she talks). She condemned the deliberate division over vaccine status utilized by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; she mocked the media’s coverage of the Freedom Convoy and their refusal to admit that the protest was a manifestation of widespread frustration; and she noted the rise in separatist sentiment in Alberta caused by the anti-energy policies of the Liberal government. Many Canadians, she said, have felt silenced and ignored over the past several years—and her candidacy was about giving them a voice.
Fundamentally, she said, over and over again, her campaign is one of unity—for all types of conservatives, and for anyone who thinks that the ugliness of Canada’s politics over the past several years, stoked by Trudeau and his strategists, is badly hurting the country.
That might be a typical promise, but Lewis is not your typical Conservative candidate. A Jamaican immigrant and mother of two, she holds a Master’s in Environmental Studies from York University and a Ph.D. in international law from Osgoode Law. She was managing partner of Lewis Law in Scarborough, specializing in commercial litigation, international trade practice, and energy policy. She only entered politics during the 2015 federal election as the Conservative candidate for Scarborough-Rouge Park as a last-minute replacement for a candidate who was embroiled in a scandal. (She did surprisingly well, although she didn’t secure a parliamentary seat until 2021.)
Candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada are generally of a familiar sort to political watchers. Most are boys of the ‘Ottawa bubble’ who got into politics as kids and have spent their lives looking in the mirror and seeing a prime minister look back at them. Current frontrunner Pierre Poilievre was 24 when he was elected to Parliament. Patrick Brown was 22 when he was elected to Barrie City Council and ran relentlessly for higher offices until becoming an MP in 2006. Jean Charest was 26 when he arrived in the House of Commons—and former leader Andrew Scheer was 25. They are all political insiders who have wanted the top job their entire lives and have spent years planning for it. Lewis is new to politics.
What makes Conservative leadership races particularly contentious is that the party’s base is diverse, ranging from social conservatives to libertine fiscal hawks and everything in between. The Conservative Party has only existed in its current form since 2003, when Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay (who failed in his own leadership run just two years ago) signed a deal to merge the Canadian Alliance Party and the Progressive Conservative Party. Conservatives had been splintered between various parties since the late 1980s, when irate Westerners fed up with Eastern elites broke away from the Progressive Conservatives and split the Right, resulting in a string of Liberal majorities before Harper—after a couple of tippy minorities—finally won a majority government in 2011 for the first time since 1988.
Thus, it is difficult for candidates to appeal to the many factions uneasily eyeing each other in the big but shaky tent of the Conservative Party. Candidates frequently field conservative platforms to secure the leadership and promptly abandon their promises when facing a general election—the short-lived leader Erin O’Toole actually changed policies during the campaign and managed to anger nearly every faction of his base. According to Canada’s left-leaning chattering class, the only way a Conservative can win is by selling out conservative principles and enthusiastically embracing every aspect of social liberalism, including (indeed, especially) marching in a plurality of Pride Parades. Conservative base voters, on the other hand, are unenthused by this.
The last few leaders have unfortunately listened to their critics rather than their voters. As it turns out, taking political advice from those who wish you to fail is not a great strategy.
The Conservative Party has thus been trapped in an identity crisis since Harper lost to Justin Trudeau in 2015 and stepped down shortly thereafter. First came Andrew Scheer, who held conservative principles but didn’t seem capable of articulating them. He resigned after a single general election loss. Erin O’Toole, a former Harper cabinet minister, promised to massively expand the Conservative tent by embracing a progressive agenda on everything but fiscal matters but failed to persuade anyone to actually enter the tent while presiding over the exit of disgruntled grassroots conservatives. O’Toole was shown the door by an overwhelming caucus vote after just two years. Thus, the Conservatives face their third leadership race in a few years.
When Leslyn Lewis ran for leader in the 2020 race as an outsider, she was the first visible minority to run for leadership—and she shocked political pundits by coming in third and winning the most votes on the second ballot. She is being taken more seriously this time as a contender. Although Pierre Poilievre’s rallies are obviously bigger, Lewis has also been pulling in large crowds from Lethbridge to Montreal. Unlike Poilievre, Lewis takes questions from the audience and spends an enormous amount of time connecting with those who show up.
Lewis is a social conservative, but her policies on family issues are not carefully planned panders—they are personal for her, both in conviction and, in some cases, in experience. Her passionate pro-life beliefs, for example, are partially rooted in her experience of being urged to have an abortion when she was articling as a law student on Bay Street in Toronto. When asked what she would do to address abortion in a largely pro-choice country by one audience member at the Mississauga rally, she replied that she’d start by talking to pro-choice people, and she’d find common ground. Her proposed policies—a ban on sex-selective abortion, more robust supports for women in crisis pregnancy, and excising abortion from Canada’s foreign aid overseas—are broadly popular across the board.
Post-pandemic, Pierre Poilievre is pitching himself to voters as a defender of freedom, and his stump speech is resonating. The difficulty is that Poilievre is vague about the specifics. He didn’t come out against vaccine mandates, for example, until it was politically convenient to do so—well after Lewis had already spoken up for those losing their jobs. Unlike Lewis, he has not committed to defending parental rights—and actually voted for Canada’s so-called “conversion therapy ban,” which makes some pastoral and parental conversations actually illegal and constitutes the greatest threat to religious liberty in decades. (He used to be pro-life and even attended pro-life conferences, but at some point, he switched and voted against a ban on sex-selective abortions, a policy supported by more than 80% of Canadians.) His mouth says “freedom”—his votes say something else.
Poilievre is very similar to Stephen Harper—a fiscal conservative with conservative instincts who either opposes any socially conservative agenda or has bought into the idea that the only way to win government is to keep those who care about the moral health of the nation in the tent but off the platform. Poilievre has enthused the Conservative base with his economic talking points, but some are doubtful that his ability to own the Liberals with witty back-and-forths in the House of Commons and his fixation on inflation will motivate the voters that Scheer and O’Toole failed to attract. Conservative insiders are torn on whether he has national appeal—immigrant Canadians and women have proven reluctant to vote Conservative, but Lewis could break that cycle.
I have thought since her first run that Dr. Leslyn Lewis is a breath of fresh air—the outsider candidate that the Ottawa bubble and the Conservative Party needs. The Harper-clones have been at the top for a long time, but it is past time for a facelift. Lewis is capable of facilitating the paradigm shift necessary to allow Canada to actually debate fundamental issues again, rather than allowing the state-funded mainstream media and a handful of politicians dictate what is acceptable for Canadians to believe and discuss. Lewis represents an unprecedented opportunity—to choose a woman of principle over another political pragmatist willing to climb on any train (or convoy) heading for 24 Sussex.
Canada rarely sees genuine populists enter the political arena, but Leslyn Lewis is just that. She’s still the underdog, but she could conceivably win. The Canadians of every age and background crowding her after her speech the other night certainly think so. I hope they’re right.