Yellowknife woman joins Conservative Party for the 1st time to have say in leadership vote

With a leadership election on the horizon, the federal Conservative Party may be getting a flood of unlikely members. Yellowknife's Courtney Howard is one of them.

Howard, who will vote for the next Conservative leader, calls herself a 'political opportunist'

Howard says one of the main reasons wants to influence the Conservative Party's leadership race is for her daughters, who are asking questions about what they hear on the radio. (Submitted by Darcy Scott)

Yellowknife woman Courtney Howard recently paid $15 and joined the Conservative Party of Canada.

But she doesn't politically identify as a Tory.

It was a decision that may leave her closest friends and family "probably slightly surprised," she says. "But if they spoke with me about my motivations… I think they'd understand."

Howard is one of many self-professed, non-Conservative Canadians across the country engaging with the current federal Conservative Party's leadership campaign. Members of the party will have a say in who will lead the Tories in a May election.

"It really is easy to join," says Howard, who's working as a physician in Yellowknife. "It's not really that different than joining a library and getting a library card."

To have someone that I love, that I helped to bring to Canada feel that way as a result of the political discourse in my country, really upset me.- Courtney Howard

Howard calls herself a "political opportunist" — she's done this before, during the 2012 NDP leadership race. Howard has also volunteered for the Liberal party and has donated to the Green Party in the past.

She says she values access to healthcare, the environment, fair play for different ethnicities and Aboriginal health.

"If you actually read the constitution of Conservative Party of Canada, there's nothing in there that I disagree with," she says.

Howard says she's frustrated with what she calls 'some really nasty, Islamophobic things' coming from the U.S. that has 'really hurt' her family's nanny who is a Muslim woman from Djibouti. (Submitted by Darcy Scott)

So what is her biggest motivation this time around?

She says it's her for kids and their nanny, a Muslim woman from Djibouti who Howard met while she was working there on a pediatric malnutrition project. Howard helped her to move to Canada.

"I've got two little girls and they're listening to the radio every morning, asking me who people are and why they're saying things," says Howard, who is frustrated with what she calls "some really nasty, Islamophobic things" coming from the U.S.

During the 2015 federal election, Howard says her family's nanny was "really hurt" by the Conservative Party's rhetoric around Islam.

"She was tearful. She wanted to go back home to Djibouti," says Howard. "To have someone that I love, that I helped to bring to Canada feel that way as a result of the political discourse in my country, really upset me."

Howard is ranking Michael Chong first because he has "the most progressive ideas," with promises of a carbon tax and to inclusiveness of ethnic minorities, she says.

"There are harms associated with just the talk," she says. "I just want to do what I can to make sure that our discussion in Canada doesn't go in those directions."

Not a unique phenomenon

People are joining the Tories for the first time ever because they're concerned about the rhetoric of some of the candidates in the leadership race — particularly Kellie Leitch and Kevin O'Leary, according to Harold Jansen, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge.

The spike in membership could be partially due to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Jansen says.

"There's no doubt that this is partly motivating this. There's a large swath of the Canadian population that is not happy and doesn't want to see that repeated here in Canada."

Kevin O'Leary (left) and Kellie Leitch (right) during a Conservative leadership debate in February. Self-professed non-Conservatives are joining the Conservative Party to influence the Tory vote away from these two candidates and towards others who they say are more 'progressive.' (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan)

These campaigns encourage people to vote Michael Chong, "who they see as the most progressive, and the most acceptable of all the candidates running to be leader," says Jansen.

Joining a party that one doesn't necessarily support to vote in a leadership race isn't a unique phenomenon, Jansen says, pointing out the 1990 Liberal leadership race, where Jean Chretien emerged as the party's leader.

In the lead-up to the election, Jansen says, pro-life activists joined the party to try to help the candidacy of then-Toronto MP Tom Wappel, who was seen as friendly to their concerns. In 2003, anti-free trade activists joined the Progressive Conservative Party in an attempt to get David Orchard elected as the leader.

However, Jansen concedes that it is easier today.

"What's changed now is that we have these one member, one vote kinds of processes that don't use the delegate model. So that makes it a little easier for people to join and vote."

However, he added that he's "not that confident that it's going to have a huge impact."

Many of these self-professed non-Conservatives will be voting for Michael Chong, 'who they see as the most progressive, and the most acceptable of all the candidates running to be leader,' according to political science professor Harold Jansen. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

That's because there are some "barriers," says Jansen. First is the $15 fee, which will go directly to the Conservative Party's coffers. Second, there's a time constraint. March 28 is the deadline to join, "so the clock is ticking," says Jansen.

Lastly, the individual has to rank their votes. "That all takes a bit of research and effort, which I'm not sure lots of people want to go to those kinds of lengths to figure all this out."

Jansen says it might be frustrating for long-time, committed Conservative Party members.

"Essentially, you can have your vote cancelled out by somebody who basically just shows up at the last minute."

But it's not bad news for the Tories. Jansen suggest that this may be a way for the Conservative Party to appeal to the wider electorate.

"By sort of expanding the pool of people a little bit, it might actually help to select somebody as leader who might be more electable in a general election," he says.

With files from Joanne Stassen, Loren McGinnis