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It's coming on two years since the Conservative Party of Canada was reduced from majority government to leaderless opposition party. Two years since former prime minister Stephen Harper opted to play the Islamophobe card during the dying days of a doomed election. Two years since the overconfident Tories got whupped by the son of Pierre Trudeau.

As of this week, the rubble from that debacle has finally been reconstituted into a viable Official Opposition. On Wednesday, after a busy season of glad-handing across the country, rookie Leader Andrew Scheer unveiled his shadow cabinet.

In the dying days of summer and more than two years from the next election, the announcement may have generated less public excitement than the naming of alternates to the Olympic men's badminton team. But pay attention. Mr. Scheer has made interesting choices and provided hints about the direction in which he is pointing his party, or at least wants to be seen to be pointing it.

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The most remarked upon move was Mr. Scheer's decision banishing Kellie Leitch to the back benches. As a candidate for the Conservative Party leadership, and a former minister in the Harper government, she normally would have been a shoo-in for a spot in the shadow cabinet.

But Ms. Leitch is the ideological heir to the worst impulses of the Harper government. Her leadership campaign was a virtuoso performance on the only instrument she knew how to play – the dog whistle. By calling for a Canadian values test for immigrants and tweeting that Donald Trump's election victory was an "exciting message" for Canada, the uncharismatic Ms. Leitch sought the support of voters who had heard what they needed to in Mr. Harper's infamous "barbaric cultural practices" election gambit.

Mr. Scheer has sidelined Ms. Leitch, but the question remains whether he did it because he wanted to, or had to. He had only just found himself in trouble for vacillating about his support for Rebel Media, the far-right website that appeared to legitimize white supremacists – and which he and a number of Conservative MPs had frequently appeared on.

After four days of silence in the wake of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., Mr. Scheer finally said he would not appear on the website again until "the editorial direction of the Rebel Media changes."

His decision to sideline Ms. Leitch may have to be viewed in that light. Maybe she, and her greatest hits, will be back. Maybe they won't.

All of this to say that it still can't be known with any certainty whether or not this is Mr. Scheer's party, or still that of the last days of Mr. Harper. The new Leader's message is that, for the moment, the party's worst impulses are being relegated to the background.

Mr. Scheer had another message in his shadow cabinet choices, this one for his former leadership rivals: Don't mess with me.

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Maxime Bernier, the runner-up by a hair in the leadership campaign, challenged the outcome, then accepted it but said he would run again for the leadership one day, and stated publicly that he wanted to be the finance critic.

He's not the finance critic. Instead, Mr. Scheer rather mischievously named his rival the critic for innovation, science and economic development – a role that includes responsibility for the aerospace industry.

Canada's aerospace sector is dominated by Bombardier, a pillar of the Quebec economy that also happens to be notorious for its frequent demands for more and bigger government handouts. Giving Mr. Bernier, an MP whose every economic impulse is libertarian, responsibility for the aerospace sector is like forcing a vegan to run the Ministry of Beef. It's going to be tricky.

The job of finance critic goes to Pierre Poilievre, the message there being that blind loyalty is an asset. Mr. Poilievre, the one-time minister of democratic reform, proved himself in cabinet with his unquestioning defence of the Fair Elections Act, one of the worst pieces of legislation presented by the Harper government.

Michael Chong, an economic reformer whose positions on identity politics were the polar opposite of Ms. Leitch, is the infrastructure critic. He will be a strong voice in opposition to the government's plans to launch its infrastructure bank – something that has boondoggle written all over it.

Overall, though, Mr. Scheer's direction is still mysterious. The self-defeating divisiveness of the party's past could well be lying dormant, and could easily revive itself in the crucible of the election campaign in two years.

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If that happens, it will be disastrous for Conservatives and for Canada. Mr. Scheer needs to choose another route. He also has to remember the ironclad rule in politics that, if a leader doesn't define his party and himself, someone else will do it for him.

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