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Scott Aitchison: aspiring Conservative leader ‘raised by Huntsville’

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OTTAWA — Scott Aitchison started knocking on doors at a young age.

While other kids growing up in the beautiful Muskoka region of Ontario spent their Saturdays on the water, at soccer practice or watching cartoons, Aitchison went house to house making his case.

He was not, at the time, trying to convert neighbours to his political cause. He was speaking to them about the virtues of his parents’ faith group: Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“In many strange ways, my experience growing up and the training that I got as a public speaker came from this organization that actually is fundamentally opposed to what I do now,” Aitchison says in an interview.

Now 49 years old, he is one of five candidates hoping to be announced as the new leader of the federal Conservative party on Sept. 10.

The relationship between Aitchison, his family, their faith and their community in the town of Huntsville, Ont., laid the foundation of his political aspirations.

Jehovah’s Witnesses is a denomination of Christianity, but unlike other mainstream Christians, its adherents generally eschew political institutions and anything akin to nationalism.

As a young teen, Aitchison began to pull away from his parents’ religion as he questioned how only one belief system could be the right one. The conflict caused frequent fights with his father.

One evening in November, 1988, his father laid down the law.

“My dad said, ‘listen, I don’t want to fight anymore, but can you accept at least that it’s my house? It’s my home. There has to be rules, and you have to respect those rules in my house,’” Aitchison recalls.

So, at 15 years old, he left home.

Aitchison often says he was raised by Huntsville, a town in the heart of Muskoka, where his story spread quickly through the community. The young teen was taken in by the family of a friend. Others in the community also looked out for him and guided him as grew up.

As president of his student council in high school, Aitchison developed an early interest in running for office. His principal, the town’s former mayor Terry Clarke, encouraged him to run for town council.

He never expected to win, but at 21 years old, he was elected the youngest ever member of the council.

“People kept saying, ‘Oh my goodness, your dad must be so excited and so proud,’” he said.

He said his father’s actual reaction was far more muted.

“He said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve voted only once in my life,’” Aitchison remembers. “He said, ‘I’ve voted for God’s government, and everything else is in direct opposition to that.’”

Aitchison said that hardly fazed him.

But in a way, it was his foray into politics that helped bring Aitchison and his parents closer together again.

He still gets misty-eyed when he remembers the moment, a few days later, when his father congratulated him — something that he says must have been difficult for him to do.

“He was immensely proud that I had accomplished something like that,” says Aitchison.

Though he lost contact with many of his other relatives after leaving his home and faith community, he worked hard to maintain a relationship with his parents, even as the gulf between their world views widened.

“They have deeply held and profound beliefs, and I respect that. They respect me,” he says of their relationship now.

It’s the kind of reconciliation Aitchison has been preaching for the divided Conservative party to achieve.

After that moment of rapprochement with his father in 1994, Aitchison spent the majority of his political career in municipal politics in Huntsville. He worked as a councillor part time, which is typical in small towns, while also holding down full-time jobs elsewhere in the community before serving two terms as mayor from 2014 to 2019.

Aitchison may not have been a Canadian household name at the outset of the Conservative leadership race, but his name is hard to miss in Huntsville. His name and photo are found on buildings and plaques all around the picturesque town.

A small “mayor’s garden” outside of the town’s city hall is named in his honour because of the flowers he planted there.

While Aitchison appeared the sober grown-up during an often fractious performance by other candidates in the first Conservative leadership debate, he’s more relaxed and playful at home.

It’s easy to spot the locals among the sea of tourists on Huntsville’s Main Street one day this summer. They are the ones who greet Aitchison with a wave or a hug as he makes his way through the community.

As he passes by a Coldwell Banker real-estate office where he used to work his day job while serving as a councillor, office administrator Barb Hewittbursts out of the door to chide him for not stopping in to say hello.

On a tour of the town during a reprieve from the campaign trail, he proudly points out projects he helped develop as councillor and mayor that now serve as gathering spaces to bring people together,like the town amphitheatre or dockside park where people can leave their boats and hit a restaurant patio on Main Street.

Aitchison says he learned about the art of consensus-building in Huntsville, first with his family and later with his council.

“It should be a requirement if you want to run for higher office to serve on a municipal council or a school board somewhere, because it is a consensus model,” he says.

Another former mayor of Huntsville, Hugh Mackenzie, says municipal politics can teach anyone a lot about finding common ground and winning people over, but Aitchison is a true expert at it.

Of course, he built that up over time. He brought a certain brashness to his youthful political première, says Mackenzie, who served as mayor while Aitchison was a councillor.

“There was a time when he was a little less patient than he has been in the last few years,” he said.

And even after Aitchison became mayor, his assistant, Crystal Paroschy, came to recognize when he needed a strategically timed Snickers chocolate bar on his desk.

“He does better when he’s fed,” Paroschy jokes.

Now that Aitchison is a member of Parliament and Paroschy is the town’s deputy clerk, the two share a sibling-like bond, she says.

When Aitchison started working in Ottawa after being elected to represent Parry Sound-Muskoka in 2019, he found the atmosphere of the House of Commons far less warm. He wondered how anyone could get anything done when differences of opinion created such deep divisions that people were not even willing to listen to each other’s points of view.

“I wondered to myself, had I made a mistake? Because the place was so broken,” Aitchison said.

The division he saw within the ranks of the Conservative party made him throw his name into the race, he said.

If polls are to be believed, Aitchison is unlikely to find a path to victory. But that won’t stop him from knocking on colleagues’ doors in an attempt to pull the party together, he says. “I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2022.

 

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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Canadian politics: Poilievre and Trudeau spar at QP – CTV News

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There’s been a 20-year series of middleweight clashes in the parliamentary fight club – Chretien vs. Day, Martin vs. Harper, Harper vs. Mulcair, Trudeau vs. O’Toole – but nothing comes close to the slugfest now raging between Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

After three grudge-settling matches this fall, which is all the prime minister has managed to show up for in the dozen days since the House returned to normal Question Period operations, my scorecard is Pierre Poilievre 2, Justin Trudeau 1.

For their first two encounters, the fledging Official Opposition leader clearly had the upper hand.

But give Thursday to the prime minister for his neck-wrenching topic switch. Answering a question about the rising cost of Thanksgiving dinners, Trudeau segued to the story about a boneheaded Poilievre staffer who had linked their boss’s YouTube messaging to a misogynistic online movement.

Poilievre knew it looked bad, particularly given his reputation of playing footsie with extremist elements. He stood silently to endure 20 seconds of high-volume Liberal shaming after Trudeau demanded an apology.

But he didn’t apologize, merely condemning the movement before swinging wildly into the past to attack Trudeau’s sins, be it wearing blackface or firing Jody Wilson-Raybould as attorney general.

It didn’t quite connect as an emergency defensive strategy, but sometimes it’s best to flail away and move on as quickly as possible.

The reality of Question Period in Canada is that it hasn’t produced a political bombshell since March 2003 when then-prime minister Jean Chretien revealed Canada would not go to war in Iraq without a United Nations Security Council resolution.

That suggests a thousand-question gap filled with huffing and puffing since the House was last blown away by any major revelation from a prime minister.

But breaking news is not its primary purpose. In this age of social media, Question Period has become a mine for YouTube quips, a sentence or two for the nightly newscasts or a couple quotes for print media.

Yet there’s something about these two leaders, at least going by their first trio of matches, which makes the stakes seem higher.

Poilievre does not recite questions from a piece of paper. He hurls them into the prime minister’s face, rubs in the political salt and levels a sneering sidebar or two, usually involving Trudeau’s use of government jets which, to be fair, is the only way he’s allowed to fly.

Trudeau for his part has upped his usual going-through-the-motions performance, which was noticeable on Wednesday when he stickhandled every question fairly well without reading his cheat sheets or sliding into a stammer.

Now for my media friends rolling their eyes at this attempt to build drama out of dogma, let us concede that the duelling themes between these two leaders are fairly repetitious.

Poilievre sounds the alarm about a future where the tripling of carbon taxation prices pumpkin pie out of the Thanksgiving food budget.

Trudeau retorts how the hurricane, flooding and wildfire climate catastrophes he has seen are grounds for a hefty pricing of pollution.

Poilievre snarks that boosting the carbon price is a tax plan, not a climate change plan, which has yet to meet lower emission targets.

Trudeau insists average Canadians get all the carbon tax they pay back and more.

And so it goes, blah, blah and more blah, but there’s a noticeable uptake in intensity between these two leaders.

(Unfortunately, there’s no corresponding improvement from Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who continues to excel at irritating, arm-waving, talk-down double-speak – pleading with the Conservatives to support her government’s social programs in one sentence and ridiculing them for doing so in the next. The more you watch her, the harder it is to see her as future prime ministerial material.)

Trudeau seems to be rising to take on Poilievre as if he’s in a boxing match with a pugilistic senator or something.

This combat arena is not just political, it’s personal. It’s Pierre’s whine versus Justin’s woke; spontaneity versus scripting; the rising cost of potatoes versus the catastrophe of Fiona; bad hair versus good.

It will never win a ratings battle against any afternoon soap opera, but this fall’s editions of Question Period, after a long run as a theatrical bomb begging for the curtain to come down, is now a semi-entertaining clash of leadership styles, beliefs, personalities and policy.

That’s the bottom line.

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Redemption: Danielle Smith aims to be ‘force of unity’ as new Alberta premier

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CALGARY — The political story of Danielle Smith is one of triumph then defeat, followed by betrayal, banishment and, now, redemption.

Smith, a 51-year-old Alberta-born journalist and restaurant owner won the leadership of the United Conservative Party on Thursday to become its new leader and the next premier of Alberta.

It’s a stunning comeback for Smith, who eight years ago was a reviled outcast in the conservative movement after she engineered a floor crossing for the ages.

“(It’s) unfinished business for me,” Smith said in an interview earlier this week when asked why she decided to re-enter politics.

“After everything I’ve done in the past to divide the movement, then try to bring it together the wrong way, I feel like I owe it to the conservative movement to do what I can to be a force of unity.”

Smith was born in Calgary and got into politics in junior high school, after she told her dad that her teacher was lauding the virtues of communism. Her father had roots in Ukraine, where millions died under Josef Stalin, and gave the teacher an earful. He then ensured politics was discussed around the dinner table.

Smith attended the University of Calgary and found herself entranced by soapbox lectures of conservatives like Ezra Levant and Rob Anders.

She joined the campus Progressive Conservative club and soaked in teachings of the “Calgary School” of economists and political scientists advocating for free markets and small government.

She devoured the works of John Locke and Ayn Rand and got tongue-tied when she met her idol, former U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She took leadership courses and attended Toastmasters meetings to hone her debating skills and smooth out a public speaking style now considered to be her strongest political attribute.

In 1998, at 27, she won was elected a trustee for the Calgary Board of Education.

It was a short, rocky ride. Smith clashed with the liberal majority on the board and the panel was so fraught with acrimony and dysfunction that the province fired them within a year.

She then moved to media and business advocacy. She wrote newspaper editorials, hosted the current affairs TV show “Global Sunday” and was the Alberta boss for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

By 2009, politics was calling again. A rift was widening in Alberta’s conservative movement.

The Wildrose Alliance, later the Wildrose Party, was hiving off members and money from the governing Progressive Conservatives, under then premier Ed Stelmach.

The PCs, they said, had forgotten their roots, delivered top-down decisions and indulged in profligate spending that delivered multibillion-dollar deficits as oil and gas prices hit the skids.

Smith agreed change was needed and won the Wildrose leadership, telling cheering supporters in her maiden speech: “Ed Stelmach, you haven’t begun to imagine what’s going to hit you!”

The Wildrose grew under Smith and poached floor crossers from the PCs, who in turn kicked Stelmach to the curb and installed Alison Redford as premier.

In the 2012 election, Smith and the Wildrose appeared primed to end the PC dynasty.

But there were late-stage mistakes. Smith questioned the science of climate change and refused to sanction two candidates for past remarks deemed homophobic and racist.

When the votes were counted, Smith and the Wildrose lost to the PCs but captured 17 seats to become the Opposition.

Smith began trying to rebuild the party brand and reached out to marginalized groups.

The Tories, meanwhile, continued their descent into infighting and disarray. Redford quit in 2014 amid scandal and was replaced by former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice.

As Prentice took over, the Wildrose began to fray. The party lost four byelections to the PCs, then Wildrose rank-and-file voted to roll back a policy to respect all Albertans regardless of differences, such as sexual orientation.

Some of Smith’s caucus began bolting to Prentice and eventually Smith agreed: if the goal was to keep the conservative movement strong and Prentice would give them what they wanted, let’s roll.

A week before Christmas, Smith led eight more members across the floor, leaving five shell-shocked Wildrosers and staffers getting pink slips for the holidays.

“Tighty Righties” was one cheeky tabloid headline at the time that appeared beneath a photo of a beaming Prentice and Smith.

The fallout was swift and merciless. Smith and the other crossers either didn’t win their PC nominations or their seats in the 2015 election.

The Wildrose rebounded under new leader Brian Jean to retain Opposition status. Jean called Smith a “betrayer of family.”

Rachel Notley and her NDP won government for the first time ever, taking advantage of vote splitting between the Wildrose and PCs in key Calgary constituencies.

Smith began a six-year stint as a daily current affairs radio talk show host in Calgary.

“It was not easy deciding to stay in the public eye after what I’d done and the visceral reaction people had,” said Smith.

“It was unpleasant the first three months I was on the air — the texts and the emails that came in and the people who were so furious at me.”

It was three years before she began attending conservative meetings again, after a friend told her: “you can’t keep hiding.”

“I had dear friends from my Wildrose days that I’d go in for the hug and they’d give me the hand, or they’d walk away,” Smith recalled of the first few events.

“It was a seven-year process of trying to get people to forgive me. Not everyone has, but a lot of people have.”

Smith said she never discounted running again for premier, but figured Jason Kenney had a long-term lock on the job after he united the PCs and Wildrose in 2017 to form the new United Conservative Party.

Kenney won the UCP leadership, then made Notley’s NDP a one-and-done government in 2019.

When Kenney quit over caucus and party discontent in May, Smith said she decided to run by courting the UCP base — rural members frustrated with Ottawa, mainly over health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She was an agent of chaos and confrontation, promising to pass a law allowing Alberta to ignore federal laws deemed offside with its constitutional prerogatives. She pledged no more health restrictions or COVID-19 lockdowns and promised to fire health board members en masse.

As premier, she must now pivot to make the UCP palatable to the broader population, quell a divided, angry caucus and answer the question of whether politician Danielle Smith 3.0 can break her pattern of splashy political entrances and even crazier exits.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2022.

 

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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Quebec elects record number of women, but will they be named to key cabinet roles?

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MONTREAL — Quebecers made history Monday when they elected a record number of women to the province’s legislature, but political observers say more is needed to ensure equality between men and women in politics.

Of the legislature’s 125 seats, 58 are represented by women, including 41 of the 90 seats won by the Coalition Avenir Québec led by Premier François Legault. That number broke the previous record of 52 women elected during the 2018 general election.

Esther Lapointe, executive director of Groupe Femmes, Politique et Démocratie, a Quebec organization that advocates for more women in politics, said the increase is good news. But for real equality to be achieved, she said, women need to be represented in the places where decisions are made, including the premier’s cabinet and among his political advisers.

“I believe that things will really change when not only in the forefront, but in the background, behind the scenes we also have more female political advisers, with their ideas, their experience, their expertise,” she said. “We don’t want to replace the guys, we want to share the decisions, discussions; we want to be at the table where the decisions are made.”

Lapointe is also calling for Legault to appoint a gender-balanced cabinet — and to maintain parity throughout the next mandate. The women named to cabinet, she said, should have important portfolios.

In 2018, Legault appointed 13 men and 13 women to his cabinet, but after three months, then-environment minister MarieChantal Chassé resigned and was replaced by a man: Benoit Charette. When the 2022 election was called, Legault’s cabinet consisted of 16 men and 11 women.

“We saw that there were women who were penalized while men who were not always exemplary in their files remained in cabinet,” she said. “I have a question about that: is there a double standard?”

Legault has said his new cabinet will consist of between 40 per cent and 60 per cent women.

Pascale Navarro, author of “Women and Power: The Case for Parity,” a 2015 book that explored how gender parity could be achieved in politics, said the results of the Quebec election are “excellent” — but she said women need more support in politics.

“It’s an excellent result in terms of the number — you can’t argue with that. You have to recognize that the parties have made efforts to recruit female candidates, so it’s an excellent thing.”

However, she said it’s not yet clear that with more women in politics comes more female-related issues on the top of the agenda. Prioritizing issues that affect women is important, Navarro said, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a major effect on female-dominated fields such as health care and education.

Navarro said that while the parties are doing a better job at recruiting female candidates, they need to ensure they retain them after they are elected — around a quarter of the women who were elected in 2018 didn’t run four years later.

“It’s not just about finding women, you also have to support them. And in this regard, I have not found that Coalition Avenir Québec has done a lot to ensure its capacity to retain women,” she said, using the example of former environment minister Chassé.

Shortly after the 2018 election, Chassé didn’t perform well during a few news events. Legault initially supported her, but then said it was “mutually agreed” she should leave that position.

“I think (Chassé) started to understand her file well — she’s an engineer, a businesswoman — but communicating with journalists was difficult,” Legault told reporters at the time.

Navarro suggested Chassé would have been treated differently if she was a man.

“Why wasn’t she supported when there are plenty of other ministers who made gaffes? Men who made a lot of gaffes remained in office, and they had a team around them, to help them, to support them, to equip them. I would expect the same for women.”

Danielle Pilette, a political science professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, said there are still barriers to women entering politics. Labour shortages in daycares, for instance, have contributed to a reduction in spaces, making it more challenging for women — especially for those who don’t live in the provincial capital and need to travel to the legislature.

As well, female politicians are often targeted on social media more hatefully than men are, Pilette said in an interview Wednesday.

But despite the increase in women holding elected office in Quebec, power remains centralized in the premier’s office, a growing phenomenon across the country. Whether members are men or women, Pilette said, they all have to toe the party line.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2022.

 

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

 

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