Is Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown truly in 'a war' with his own party?

The governing Liberals are down in the polls, but infighting among the opposition conservatives has some party members worried it could cost them the Ontario election in 2018, writes Meagan Fitzpatrick.

Disgruntled conservatives unhappy with Brown's leadership are worried it could cost them election

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown is fending off criticism from some members of his own party who say there is division in the party that needs to be addressed ahead of the 2018 election. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

With Ontario's election about eight months away, Premier Kathleen Wynne's approval ratings are near rock bottom, there are two trials linked to her Liberal party in the headlines and the party is trailing in the polls.

But her main opponent, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, has his own set of problems. His party is struggling with "internal fist fights" and he's been accused of leading "a war" against his own members.

Controversial nomination meetings have prompted calls to police and a court battle, riding association executives have quit in protest, party elders are going public with their criticism and organized conservative groups are threatening to undermine Brown's chances of beating Wynne when Ontarians vote next June.

"We want to replace Kathleen Wynne, but he's just as bad — probably worse," said Carlos Naldinho, the founder of an online group for conservatives called I'm Out.

Emma McLennan, the former president of the Ottawa West-Nepean riding association, said she's heard of conservatives planning an incredible move in response to Brown's management of the party.

"There are people who are going to vote NDP," she said. "It's just amazing."

McLennan and other peeved conservatives say the turmoil isn't simply party infighting — they say all Ontario voters should pay attention.

"I think the province needs someone with integrity and who brings ethics and is committed to democracy and who respects the people," McLennan said. "If [Brown] doesn't respect the membership ... what's his feeling towards the average voter?"

Upset riding associations

McLennan is among the riding association members who have quit in protest over how Brown and party officials have responded to disputes over candidate nominations.

She and others say party officials dismissed evidence of ballot-stuffing at the riding's May 6 meeting, refused to hold a new meeting after Karma Macgregor won for Ottawa West-Nepean by just 15 votes and didn't allow the defeated candidate to go through with an appeal.

They say Brown isn't keeping his promise for fair and transparent nominations, a claim party officials reject. Brown has acknowledged there are "a few who are disgruntled," but has downplayed the infighting, describing it as a natural consequence of growing and modernizing the party.

Brown has said, 'I actually think our party is more united and larger and more energized than ever before.' (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

But former senator Marjory LeBreton worries Brown and his inner circle are alienating riding associations and said they are doing so "at their peril." Those are the party loyalists who hammer in the lawn signs, raise money and go door-to-door to get out the vote, she noted.

LeBreton, known as a strident partisan, said she doesn't want to see Wynne continue as premier, but that she's "not happy with the tactics" Brown is using.

Some frustrated conservatives are aiming to give voters an alternative. The Trillium Party is threatening to peel support away from the PCs, especially in some rural ridings. The Ontario Alliance is another fledgling party whose registration with Elections Ontario is pending.

Bob Yaciuk, who founded Trillium, claims grassroots conservatives are fleeing the PCs for his party, and that he's already recruited more than two dozen candidates. Jack MacLaren has been a Trillium MPP at Queen's Park since Brown kicked him out of the PC caucus in May.

Support could splinter

Yaciuk said Brown isn't trustworthy, citing two positions he's taken that have caused rifts in the party. When campaigning for leader, Brown said he would oppose Wynne's sex education overhaul. When he won, he decided to support it instead. Brown also stunned conservatives at a party convention when he declared that he supports a carbon tax.

"It doesn't matter what he says right now, he will change on a dime with zero conscience about it," Yaciuk said.

Marjory LeBreton, who retired from the Senate in 2015, is known as a loyal and partisan conservative, yet she's spoken out publicly about her concerns with Brown. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

​Social media groups such as Take Back Our PC Party and I'm Out are generating more anti-Brown sentiment.

Jim Karahalios helped organize the Facebook group Take Back Our PC Party, which is advocating for grassroots nominations and he's also opposed to Brown's support of a carbon tax.

Karahalios, who lives in Cambridge, Ont., said his loyalty to his party is prompting him to speak out. "If nothing is done about it, this is going to impact our chances of winning the next election."

'A war against his party'

Karahalios organized a petition to try and force the party to hold a special meeting where the constitution could be amended so that Brown can't overrule nomination results.

He said Brown can choose to either listen to his grassroots and have the special meeting, "or he can dig in his heels and be against his own party members and continue to have a war against his party."

I'm Out's Carlos Naldinho, who is based in Ottawa, is so against Brown that he wants him to lose the 2018 election and prompt a leadership review that would force him to step down.

"It's a huge internal conflict, but if Patrick Brown wins, there is no way of getting rid of him and no way to mitigate the damage he does to the party and the damage that will be done to the province," said Naldinho.

Retired senator Bob Runciman, a former interim PC leader and cabinet minister in the 1980s and '90s, disagreed with the notion that people like Karahalios and Naldinho are mobilizing against Brown out of loyalty.

"They are not loyal members," he said. Their actions are "mind-boggling to me and upsetting to me." Runciman said "change is in the air" and that the PCs have an opportunity to get rid of the Wynne government. 

"We can't endanger that through internal fist fights," he said. Runciman is encouraging party members to pull together, stop attacking their leader and make defeating Wynne the priority.

"I would say step back, take a deep breath and think about what you're doing — the fact that you could be doing serious harm to our chances to get rid of this very corrupt and incompetent government."

Trying to make PCs a 'big-tent party'

Brown acknowledged on CBC Radio's Ontario Today recently that "some people within the conservative family" are upset with him, but he made no apologies for the positions he's taken. As examples, he gave marching in pride parades and talking about combatting climate change.

He said he's shifting the party away from "an old boy's club" and suggested that some riding associations "that like to control their little fiefdom" aren't comfortable with the growth and changing makeup of the party.
Brown was at the Sept. 10 nomination meeting for Caroline Mulroney, where she was named the candidate for York-Simcoe. (Twitter)

"I wanted to open the party up and become a modern, inclusive, progressive conservative party — a big-tent party," Brown said.

Despite the infighting and legal troubles it's prompted, he said the PCs are in good shape. They are attracting new members, volunteers and high-calibre candidates such as Caroline Mulroney, he has said.

"I actually think our party is more united and larger and more energized than ever before," said Brown.

That's not how ex-riding president Emma McLennan sees it. She said distressed members are torn over what to do in the months ahead and are feeling pressure from fellow conservatives who are telling them to "be quiet."

"There are debates going on," she said. "There are definitely divisions within the PC party right now."


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.