Politics·Analysis

Andrew Scheer's mid-campaign identity crisis

When a politician enters the top tier of federal politics without being a particularly well-known public figure, he's obliged to define himself before his opponents do it for him. Did Andrew Scheer miss his moment?

From citizenship to same-sex marriage to pre-politics resumés, Scheer is struggling to define his own image

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been losing precious campaign time to questions about his views on abortion and same-sex marriage, his work history and his dual Canadian/American citizenship. (CBC)

Andrew Scheer was not well known to Canadians when this election campaign began. For him, that wasn't necessarily an insurmountable problem.

But now he has spent nearly four weeks of the campaign struggling to explain to Canadians who he is, and muddling through a series of identity crises in public.

When he ran for the Conservative leadership, Scheer happily accepted the "Stephen Harper with a smile" label. With that as his political identity, the Conservatives sought to further define their leader as an average guy who grew up in a middle-class household.

Scheer (we were told) is a guy like you, or least like someone you might know. In other words, he's not Justin Trudeau.

In political terms, that persona has its merits. But this is Scheer's first election as party leader and, before winning the leadership, he was not a particularly prominent public figure. As a result, his character and personal history had not been poked and prodded in any serious way by journalists and political rivals before this fall.

Too often over the last seven weeks, he has seemed to crumble on contact.

Fast attacks, slow response

The Liberals took the first poke on Aug. 22, when they posted video of a speech Scheer gave in 2005 opposing same-sex marriage. Scheer didn't immediately step forward to address what he'd said 14 years ago. By the time he did talk about it with reporters, the Liberals had posted another video — this one raising questions about what Scheer had told anti-abortion activists during his campaign for Conservative leader.

When Scheer faced the television cameras on Aug. 30, he accused the Liberals of "dredging up divisive issues." But he didn't do much to account for what he'd said in 2005, and he struggled to clarify how he would handle matters related to abortion if he were prime minister now. A Scheer government, he said, would neither introduce nor support legislation related to abortion — but he stopped short of saying that Conservative backbenchers would be prevented from moving forward with abortion-related measures.

While questions about those issues were left to linger, others emerged.

First, there were the questions about whether he had misrepresented himself when he said he'd worked as an insurance broker. As it turned out, he had not been licensed as a broker, and he'd only worked in an insurance company's office for "six or seven months."

Asked by the CBC's Rosemary Barton this week whether he should just admit to being a "career politician," Scheer still insisted on the value of his apparently limited experience in the private sector.

During that same interview (part of CBC's Face to Face sessions with the major party leaders), Scheer again declined to elaborate or reflect on his opinion of same-sex marriage, or explain why he declines to march in Pride parades. (The parade-related questions for Scheer extended to the climate change strikes, which he also avoided last Friday.)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau presses Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer for his personal views on abortion and a woman's right to choose during the TVA French-language leaders debate Wednesday. 0:47

Early in Wednesday's TVA televised leaders debate, Trudeau went directly after Scheer, calling on the Conservative leader to account for his personal beliefs on abortion. Scheer has in the past described himself as "pro-life" but at that moment, in front of the cameras, he was unwilling to explain himself.

By the next morning, Scheer apparently had decided that he should be more forthcoming.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he is personally pro-life, but reiterated that if elected he would not reopen the abortion debate. 0:30

"My personal position has always been open and consistent. I am personally pro-life," he said at an event in Kingston, Ont.

Hours later, talk of Scheer and abortion was swept away by the news that the Conservative leader is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States. That detail wouldn't have been much more than a footnote in the campaign if not for the fact that several Conservatives — including Scheer himself — had questioned the dual citizenships of Stéphane Dion, Tom Mulcair and Michaëlle Jean.

"I have a few quick questions for anyone who thinks that Michaëlle Jean is a good choice to be our next GG," Scheer wrote in a 2005 blog post. "Does it bother you that she is a dual citizen (France and Canada)? Would it bother you if instead of French citizenship, she held U.S. citizenship?"

Missed opportunity?

That might've been a good moment to disclose his own American citizenship. On Thursday, Scheer said he never mentioned it because no one ever asked. When he wrote about Jean, he said, he was "just asking questions" about what his constituents thought.

Scheer has said he decided to renounce his U.S. citizenship after he became leader of the Conservative party in May 2017. But he then apparently waited until this past August to start the actual process.

And so, Scheer spent a good part of Friday morning — as he was trying to publicize his party's crime platform — fielding questions about how much he had paid in taxes to the U.S. government and whether he'd registered for the U.S. military's draft. Today, the party confirmed that Scheer is registered with the U.S. Selective Service System, the federal agency that administers the draft.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer today defended his personal stance on abortion while promising he would not reopen an abortion debate. Scheer also confirmed that he holds dual citizenship with the U.S., which he is planning to renounce. 1:52

"Everyone who knows me, or knows my family, knows that my father was born in the United States, and I've been open with that," Scheer said.

Thing is, everyone doesn't know him.

It might frustrate Conservatives that it's their guy being chased by questions about his personal convictions and history, when it's the other guy — the leader of the Liberal Party — who dressed up in blackface before entering politics.

The comparison is instructive, though.

If Trudeau has (mostly) managed to get past the blackface photos without losing a significant amount of support, it likely has something to do with how familiar voters are with him — not only as someone who has lived much of his life in public, but as a prime minister who now has a four-year record of governing. While blackface photos might have fixed the label of racism on another candidate permanently, Trudeau can point to contrary evidence, and voters can fall back on their familiarity with him.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says Andrew Scheer is not being honest with Canadians over his dual citizenship. When challenged by a reporter at a campaign stop in Quebec about whether he was dishonest about wearing blackface, Trudeau says he "took responsibility for his mistakes in the past." 0:44

Scheer has no such history to fall back on.

And what the candidate says in such situations does matter. Trudeau made a deliberate effort to explain his behaviour — first with an apology, then with a news conference. Even this week, in his own Face to Face appearance, Trudeau was still expanding on that explanation.

"I genuinely thought that intent mattered," Trudeau said. "I thought that because I wasn't a racist, I could do this and it wouldn't be a bad thing and I didn't understand back then — and I'm fully up front about it — that it actually really hurt people."

Whether you accept that explanation or not, it at least suggests some amount of self-reflection. And the more a politician explains, the less there is for reporters and opponents to keep asking about.

If Scheer had used his appearance on Aug. 30 to explain his personal convictions on abortion, how he reconciles those beliefs with the responsibilities he would have as prime minister and how, if at all, his thinking had evolved on same-sex marriage since 2005, he might not have been facing the same questions in October. (He also might have headed off some of those questions if he'd appeared in a Pride parade.)

Scheer could have used the moment on Aug. 30 to deliver a remarkable speech. And he probably wouldn't be using up precious campaign time now trying to explain himself if he'd disclosed his dual citizenship two years ago. Instead, he's ended up looking evasive.

No politician should expect to become prime minister without telling voters who they are. Running for high office always invites an intense degree of unfamiliar scrutiny. 

Ideally, a new leader might arrive with as little unflattering history as possible. But when that scrutiny does bring things to light, politicians can only hope to do a decent job of explaining themselves.

If Scheer fails to emerge victorious from this fall's campaign, one of the first questions he'll have to ask himself is whether he should have done that better, and sooner.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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