Reaching for the top while bashing the elites: Kellie Leitch picks up the cudgel

Kellie Leitch is a university professor, an orthopedic pediatric surgeon and has a master's degree in business administration, but she's running a Conservative Party leadership campaign centred around denouncing "elites."

Tory leadership candidate’s strategy to denounce elites follows a well-worn path in U.S. politics

Kellie Leitch, the surgeon, business scholar and cabinet minister, is running a campaign against the elites. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

​Oddly enough, Kellie Leitch is an orthopedic pediatric surgeon with a master's degree in business administration. She's also a university professor, and helped found a graduate course of study at the Richard Ivey School.

I use "oddly," because despite that elite level of education and accomplishment, she's chosen to sit as an Opposition backbencher, and surely repairing the bodies and saving the lives of children is more rewarding work than clamouring for some attention in Ottawa, or, as Liberal minister Carolyn Bennett so succinctly called her time in opposition, "yapping."

Leitch did manage to attain the rank of labour minister for a couple of years under Stephen Harper, after a stint as a minister's assistant, but today, five years after she first won her seat, most Canadians probably have little idea who she is.

Which is a problem, because she wants to lead her party, and needs some recognition.

So, she's not talking about reforms our health-care system desperately needs, or eliminating trade barriers, or the nosebleed levels of personal debt Canadians are carrying.

Instead, Dr. Kellie Leitch, surgeon and distinguished scholar at one of the best business schools in Canada, has decided to denounce "the elites."


Among the elites her campaign has targeted is Andrew Scheer, the former House Speaker, who also happens to be running for the party leadership. Scheer, a right-leaning conservative, is so elite that he holds a bachelor of arts degree, and except for six elite months working in insurance, has made a living getting elected to office.

Scheer demonstrated his hopeless elitism by announcing his campaign in, of all places, Ottawa's National Press Theatre, a notorious nexus of elitism, where, according to Nick Kouvalis, Leitch's campaign manager, he "pandered to the whinging media hordes."

Jill Scheer looks on as her husband, Conservative MP Andrew Scheer, announces he will run for the leadership of the Conservative Party in the National Press Theatre (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

According to Leitch, the media elites are always "blowing gaskets" about her campaign, because she's so outrageously patriotic and un-elite.

After posing for the cover of Maclean's magazine hoisting a big Canadian flag over her shoulder, she announced that "self-hating Canadian elites" were upset because they "can't stand the idea of a proud Conservative standing up for Canada."

That all reporters are elite, particularly the ones in Ottawa, is established conservative orthodoxy, but Leitch is now raising the question of what they hate more: themselves, or being Canadian.

Anyway, the line about the elite National Press Theatre (which, incidentally, Stephen Harper used, if only rarely) was pretty clever. Leitch's team was desperate for some coverage, and deliberately baiting the elite national media that way paid off. 

The press gallery went for it like gannets, sort of the same way I'm doing here.

Nick Kouvalis is Leitch's campaign manager. He also helped Rob Ford and John Tory to win their Toronto mayoralty races. (Nick Kouvalis/Twitter)

"Instead of 15 or 20 [media] mentions, we got 850," says a Leitch campaign insider who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But tossing red meat — sorry, filet mignon — to the elite media isn't the point. The point is to convince the Conservative Party base it has a choice between that darned gal Kellie, who shops at the dollar store and loves a double-double at Timmy's, and the rest of the Tory contenders, who in all likelihood love hot yoga and hate hockey and read the Globe and Mail.

"Elitism is not a function of income or education," explains the Leitch strategist. "It's about being out of touch with average people."

Which is, actually, a very American view.

George W. Bush, the multimillionaire son of a multimillionaire, used to pose for cameras in jeans with a big belt buckle, endlessly clearing the same patch of brush on his Texas ranch. Because, you know, running the world means dealing with tiresome elites all day, and sometimes a man longs to carry a brushhook scythe out into the sun-blasted scrub.

Bush's principal campaign theme in 2004 was mocking Democrat John Kerry for being an elitist. Kerry windsurfed, for example, which only elites do, and, even worse, he speaks fluent French. (Bush speaks Spanish, which is manly.)

Senator Ted Cruz, who roared in Congress about the tyranny of the Washington elite, attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

President George W. Bush uses a chainsaw to cut up a hackberry tree on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in August 2001. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Sarah Palin, who became rich pretending she spends her time running around in the wilderness shooting and skinning grizzly bears and moose, likes to divide America into "real Americans" and the elites, who aren't real Americans at all, because they live in places like New York or Los Angeles.

And of course Donald Trump somehow manages to be a non-elite Manhattan billionaire.

These people gush this nonsense because it works. The chumps buy it: Donald and Sarah and George and Ted are just like them.

In Canada, educated and wealthy politicians have certainly played the humble-origins game – Jean Chrétien was not actually a "little guy" with Chevrolet tastes, and Brian Mulroney did not come to Parliament from, as Pierre Trudeau once sarcastically noted, "a little log cabin on the Miramichi."

But harping on "elitism," which ultimately plays on envious contempt for any sort of learning or distinction, is relatively new here.

Make no mistake: Kellie Leitch is a charter member of the elite, and should be admired for it.

Accomplished, elite people in positions of leadership is a good and natural thing.

Common sense, while valuable, is no replacement for serious education. Only in the Tea Party world does running a gas station in Peoria qualify you to oversee monetary policy.

I'd prefer my heart specialist to be best in class, and so what if he, or she, arrives at work in a Porsche?


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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