Outsiders joining Conservative Party to save Tories from 'extremist' views

Some are people who aren't traditionally Conservative, and some are lapsed members heading back to the party. But they're all joining to make sure they have a say in the 2017 Conservative leadership vote.

New Conservative leader to be decided in a vote in May

Some people who aren't traditionally Conservative are joining the Tories to make sure they have a say in the 2017 Conservative leadership vote. (David Donnelly/CBC/Liam Richards/CP)

Though he's far from the picture of a card-carrying Conservative, urbanist Ryan McGreal has joined the Conservative party to vote in its 2017 leadership election — in what he says is an effort to save the Tories from "extremist views."

And he's not alone. Several Hamiltonians are doing the exact same thing, in a movement that has been adopted by everyone from singer Amy Millan to Dave Bagler, former president of the Green Party of Canada.

Some are first time Conservatives, with no real ties to the party. Others are former members who have found their way back through the wilderness.

In each case, their rallying cry is the same — they don't want Kellie Leitch (and in some cases, Kevin O'Leary) to lead the federal Conservatives come the vote in May. The party itself isn't weighing in on the issue, but Leitch's former campaign manager knew about it, and said in an interview he was actively trying to root out "imposters" in the party's voting base.

The party that I supported was global in its outlook, stood up to international bullies and had strong economic policies. I never signed up for immigration bans or profiling.- Rich Gelder, Conservative Party member

"I feel like I'm trying to do my own part in a small way, in saving the Conservatives from being hijacked by extremists," McGreal told CBC News. "We can't afford the luxury of letting extremists take over any of our federal parties."

Many of those views, he believes, are coming from Leitch. The MP for Simcoe–Grey has outraged some with proposals like screening prospective immigrants for "anti-Canadian values," and a tip line for reporting "barbaric cultural practices" during the last election.

"The party that I supported was global in its outlook, stood up to international bullies and had strong economic policies," said Rich Gelder, a longtime Conservative Party member from Dundas who rejoined just to vote in the upcoming leadership election.

"I never signed up for immigration bans or profiling."

A need to vote

Gelder first joined the Progressive Conservative Party in the late 80s, and hung around for the better part of a decade, even working for a cabinet minister in the Mulroney government.

He lost interest (due in part to some ambivalence with Stephen Harper, he says) but felt like he had to sign up again to vote in 2017.

"When Kellie Leitch and others start going off on barbaric cultural practice snitch lines, all I can think is, 'This is not the party I signed up for,'" he said.

Hamilton urbanist Ryan McGreal is now a member of the Conservative Party. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The current Conservative Party isn't touching the issue. A spokesperson told CBC News that the office of the opposition wouldn't wade into "leadership politics."

Leitch's office didn't return calls for comment. Nick Kouvalis — Leitch's former campaign manager who abruptly resigned Thursday — said in an interview with Maclean's earlier this month that he had a plan to unearth anyone who is joining the Tories just to oppose Leitch.

"We call it Operation Flytrap," Kouvalis told Maclean's. Essentially, the "operation" consists of posting false information "to make the left go nuts," he said — but also to be checked against the party's membership list, to see if anyone joined purely to vote against Leitch.

"We did it knowing that people who aren't real Conservatives can't help themselves, so they post something negative about me, or Kellie," he said. "Some of them use real names. We find out who they are, and check them against the membership list. I'm going to challenge as many as I can."

Maureen Wilson is another Hamiltonian who has joined the Conservative Party in advance of the vote. She called Kouvalis's measures "a bit ironic."

"This is the same candidate who is campaigning on the basis that freedom of speech is being curtailed," said Wilson, who told CBC News that she has voted for several political parties in the past, and has identified as a progressive conservative. 

"In Canada, our history is of compromise and consensus building," she said. "[Leitch's ideas] aren't keeping in the tradition of progressive conservatives. She's peddling hate."

Joining 'in good faith'

David Dawson, the president for the Hamilton Centre Electoral District Association, told CBC News that he doesn't have a problem with "lapsed members" returning to the party.

"But I would be wary if there are people who are not Conservatives joining the party just to vote against Kellie," he said.

Leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, right, speaks during the Conservative Party French language leadership debate on Jan. 17 in Quebec City. Looking on are Erin O'Toole, from the left, Kellie Leitch, Andrew Scheer, and Pierre Lemieux. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Part of the reason, he says, is the preferential ballot system that is used in this election — that's a system where a voter indicates his or her order of preference for each of the candidates listed on the ballot so that if no one receives a majority, the other preferences can be counted together until one candidate emerges.

In that situation, Dawson says, people joining the party just for the vote could bump a candidate from sixth up to third, which could drastically change an outlook.

"And I would hate to be a candidate who is seen to be benefitting from the Kellie Leitch backlash."

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McGreal says he firmly believes he signed up for the Conservative Party "in good faith." While he is most often linked to traditionally left wing issues like public transit expansion and complete streets, he says he doesn't have a "natural ideological home in any of the parties."

To join up, a person needs to be older that 14-years-old, pay a $15 fee, and agree with the party's list of 22 principles. McGreal says that he did find himself agreeing with those principles, and isn't being underhanded. 

"Their founding principles are all policies that are integral to a liberal democracy," he said.



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.