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Kellie Leitch: Xenophobia doesn’t have to be a conservative value

In the exceptionally demanding medical field for which she trained, Dr. Kellie Leitch is one of this country's best and brightest. Describing her as well educated is a bit of an understatement. She's a physician, with a specialization in pediatric orthopedic surgery. She also has an MBA. For this, she deserves enormous respect.

But in politics, the less-edified profession that some tic of character drove her to abandon medicine for, it's a different story. Last year, the Harper government made her – young, female, educated – the message-bearer for its "barbaric cultural practices" hotline. Was she an unwilling accomplice, the PMO's Patty Hearst? Apparently not. Last week, seeking the Conservative Party leadership, she was blowing the dog whistle again, trying to win over supporters by talking about screening immigrants for "anti-Canadian values."

As a physician, Dr. Leitch has the power to save a life. But as a politician, she and people like her will be the death of the Conservative Party.

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Canada's modern conservative movement has consistently looked to the United States for ideas and inspiration, but Canadian conservatism was always different, because Canada is. In the years after 2008, as U.S. conservatism was being pulled ever further to the loony right by the Tea Party movement, obsessed with proving that their country's black President was a secret Muslim born in Kenya, Canada was being run by a geek in a sweater vest. He mostly wanted to talk about pocketbook issues that transcended religion or race.

Canada's Conservatives under Stephen Harper repeatedly targeted minority voters – but in Canada, unlike the U.S., that meant Conservatives winning over minorities, not building on the fear of them. Canada was an unusual place where conservatism and nativism were not the same thing, and where flying the national flag, and pride in the country and its history, were things that could and did transcend race.

But something snapped during the last election, and the Harper government, desperate to stave off defeat, tried to push the fear of Muslim head coverings to the top of the agenda. It was surprising, but maybe it shouldn't have been. It grew out of a cancer that had been expanding within Harper's party.

The Conservatives had once sworn that they wouldn't be relegated to the position of the perpetual also-ran party, the NDP of the right. Instead, they would focus on what had to be done to win and keep power. Once upon a time, their fear was of fringe candidates spewing embarrassing or hateful ideas; yahoo eruptions that would cost the entire party at the ballot box. But in 2015, the eruption was carefully considered, and came straight from the top.

It happened because polls said a large number of Canadians, maybe a winning number, would be swayed by a campaign against the niqab. And so, a party that had once championed religious freedom set about attacking it. By all appearances, Mr. Harper and his team had reached the point where taking and holding power had become the guiding principle. It was of a piece for a party that had every year grown less interested in forming policy based on evidence, other than evidence of voter attitudes and biases identified in polls.

Back when in the 1970s, conservatives thought of themselves as the people without power but with ideas. Unlike leftists, who often preferred illusions and faith-based slogans, conservatives believed they were the people willing to open their eyes, and see the world honestly and without ideology or wishful thinking.

That was a very long time ago. These days, Conservative slogans – taxes should always be lower, deficits are always bad, we need to get tough on crime, yada yada yada – sit in place of principles or empiricism. Slogans are a box, and they spell the end of thought. Many conservatives cannot even talk about solutions to issues like economic inequality or climate change, because they start out being ideologically incapable of acknowledging the problem. It does not have to be this way.

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Dr. Leitch's candidacy, and her dive into the least savoury part of the electoral gutter, feels like a late chapter in the descent of conservatism. Yes, other candidates and party grandees have condemned her. Then again, she's borrowing from Donald Trump's playbook because it's how he won the Republican nomination, and her polling suggests it could work here, too.

A party that tackles Canada's real issues the way a good doctor considers a patient's health has a bright future. One that simply wants to survey the population, the better to sell them drugs they don't need for illnesses they don't have, not so much.

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