“Energetic millennial” is not exactly what pops to mind when most people think of the Conservative Party of Canada. The Tories have always been known as the party of greying, sweater-vested, white dudes hyper-focused on tax cuts and paying down the deficit. (To be fair, Stephen Harper comfortably embodied that cliché for his entire decade in power.) That perception persists now, as the Conservatives gear up to choose their next leader on May 27.
The 18 to 25 set was key to electing Justin Trudeau back in 2015, according to one survey conducted by Abacus Data. This past February, Abacus checked back in with millennials and found 42 percent of them still favour the Liberals, versus 24 percent who like the Conservatives. Even more stark: another poll by Mission Research concluded that right-leaning political parties are among the least trusted government institutions in the eyes of Canadians aged 15 to 34.
So it makes sense that many of the race’s 14 candidates are aiming straight for the youth vote. Front-runner Kevin O’Leary has been hosting packed campus pub nights, telling students, who face crippling debt and dying dreams of home ownership, that he’s the guy to make Canada affordable again, especially for those looking to launch businesses.
Lisa Raitt, meanwhile, has emphasized that her jobs plan will lower taxes on small businesses, so they can afford to hire young people, and double apprenticeship incentives to get more under-30s into the trades. And Maxime Bernier has been playing the meme game on social media, to varying levels of success, like the time he Photoshopped himself into a Mad Max movie poster with the Instagram caption, “some people like to call me Mad Max like in the movie. They may believe it’s an insult. But let me tell you something: It’s true. I am mad! I’m mad about government waste!”
But Canada’s young Conservative party members can’t be baited with memes or easily typecast as Alex P. Keatons and Tracy Flicks. Talk to them, as we did, and you’ll find few traces of the traditional Tory stodginess: They’re a diverse group who cares about the environment, gay marriage, free speech on campus, women’s issues, jobs and, yes, even “Canadian values” in the Leitchian sense. Overall, they’re stoked to shake up the party this May and find a new leader for their generation. Here, meet nine of them.
Paige Black, 24
Hometown: Oxford, NS
Voting for: “99 percent sure” Michael Chong
Status: International development student at Dalhousie University in Halifax
Political Idol(s): Barack and Michelle Obama
I first got into politics as a page in the legislature—“Paige the Page.” I was raised with the idea that we shouldn’t be wasteful, and I like the Conservatives’ practical approach to things. I have some family members who call me Madame Prime Minister, but it might be hard to get there as I constantly disagree with what’s going on in the party—I’d rather push the boundaries than try to be agreeable.
For a long time, Kellie Leitch was a role model of mine. The first time I met her, I was really impressed. She can accomplish more in 24 hours than anyone I’ve ever met. I felt like she could become the first elected woman Prime Minister. But then she started saying things that made me nervous. The day Donald Trump was elected and she released an email saying that his win was exciting news, I was out. That was the end. The conversation about screening immigrants is dangerous because we’re letting groups of people, mainly white Canadians, think it’s OK to believe people from other places are inherently dangerous. “Heartbreaking” is really the only word to describe how I feel about it.
Patrick Schertzer, 24
Hometown: Kitchener, Ont.
Status: Law student, political volunteer
Voting for: Lisa Raitt
Political idol: Margaret Thatcher
I came out the day the Conservative party voted to remove the traditional definition of marriage from the policy handbook. To see the party I volunteer for—and will possibly run for one day—fully accept me as a person regardless of my sexual orientation really motivated me. I came out to my family, my friends and then on Facebook as well because I wanted others to know I’m here to support them if they’re not quite ready yet.
The Liberals and the NDP don’t have a monopoly on the LGBT community; there are a lot of gay conservatives out there like me—and it’s time we came out of the shadows. I’m a Conservative because I’ve always felt an allegiance to the hard work ethic they champion, and I’ve seen these politics make a real difference. With the policy book change and moves to be more progressive, like Rona Ambrose’s championing of women in politics, we are building towards being a more modern and inclusive party.
Katherine Creelman, 23
Status: First-year law student and president of the University of Alberta Conservatives
Voting for: Maxime Bernier
Political idol: Rona Ambrose
Rona Ambrose is one of the big reasons I went full CPC. She’s the vision of an empowered, strong woman leader. That’s so important to me. People say the CPC is an old boys’ club, and for me she is steady and strong and doesn’t back down. My two siblings and I were raised by a single mother, and she worked multiple jobs and started a business to make ends meet. She has good morals, works hard and deserves everything she has, and that’s where my conservatism comes from.
Some people feel strongly about defending marijuana legalization or recognition of minority rights—these things should be a non-issue in this day and age. I just think everyone should have access to everything; they should have freedom. I didn’t realize that was a libertarian view. I thought I must be left-wing. I would never have described myself as “libertarian” five years ago because what I knew of them was scary and anarchist and awful. But there are people like me out there who have these views and don’t know where they fit. The Conservative party needs to let them know they belong.
Zack Goldford, 20
Hometown: Thornhill, Ont.
Status: National youth chair for the Kellie Leitch leadership campaign
Voting for: Kellie Leitch
Political idol: Sir John A. Macdonald
At the age of 11, most kids don’t watch the news, but I certainly did. Part of what got me into politics was a belief in Canadian values: tolerance, equality, freedom and democracy. The rate at which young people are joining Kellie’s campaign is some of the fastest growth I’ve ever seen on a youth project because Kellie is the only candidate talking about these things.
My generation is going to inherit this country, and we want to protect the values that have always been with us. The criticisms of Kellie’s focus on Canadian values—some people say that it’s racist or xenophobic—are absolutely baseless. The screening test would apply to everyone entering the country and actually help keep out xenophobia and racism. Frankly, if someone wanted to come to this country and said “I don’t like certain groups” or “I think that violence against these people is justified because of their race or their ethnicity or their religion” I would have a problem with that.
Ksenia Choly, 23
Hometown: St. Catharines, Ont.
Status: Working at an accounting firm, with some political volunteering on the side
Voting for: Pierre Lemieux
Political idol: Jason Kenney
I’ve had a Conservative party membership before and let it lapse, but I definitely got one this time around because I want to be a part of this. I’m excited to see some leadership candidates speaking out against abortion. One of the things politicians do well is opening up conversations, and Canadians haven’t been allowed to have one about abortion. I can’t express my pro-life opinions in most social settings—I’m often characterized as a bigot who has no logical reasoning, that I hate women, that I think everyone’s going to hell.
I would support a pro-life candidate but, should one become Prime Minister, I’m not sure he would abolish abortion based on the current political climate. But perhaps that would allow us to revisit issues like partial-birth abortion, and look at the scientific evidence for when life begins, when the heartbeat begins. I wouldn’t support a pro-choice candidate. I’ve heard it explained this way: If someone supported slavery, you wouldn’t support them. I can’t compromise on my beliefs.
Jane Spitz, 22
Hometown: Coquitlam, B.C.
Status: Political science student and President of the UBC Conservatives
Voting for: Michael Chong
Political idol: Her (small c) conservative dad
I call myself a Green Tory and everyone always makes fun of me. There’s such strong division on the environment: those on the right who don’t believe in climate change, and those on the left who say “keep the oil in the ground.” I admire the left for their optimism, but I also admire the right for their practical responses. I feel like I’m constantly being attacked by both sides when I’m just trying to build a bridge.
I’m a feminist, I’m an environmentalist and I’m most of all Conservative. It’s hard to have people judging you because you’re Conservative. That’s why our campus club at UBC started Humans of the Blue, a Humans of New York–style Facebook photo series to change people’s perception of us. There’s a picture of me there, and I recount when a guy told me “You’d make a better First Lady than Prime Minister,” which showed how hard it is to be a woman and a Conservative. It wasn’t so much what he said that hurt, but that for a second I actually believed it. My dad always told me, “It’s up to you: you put in the time, you put in the hard work.” Those are strong Conservative values to me.
James Hawkes, 24
Hometown: Watrous, Sask.
Status: Constituency assistant in the Saskatchewan legislature, co-founder of the University of Saskatchewan Campus Conservatives
Voting for: Andrew Scheer
Political idol: John Diefenbaker
I’m from a farming family—cattle and grains—and grew up under the NDP provincial government and federal Liberal government in a period of decline in rural Saskatchewan. When I was a kid, from the late 1990s to 2006 or 2007, it felt like everything was closing. It made me think about how long rural communities and Western Canada have been ignored by the federal government. The family farm is a unique way of life that may not survive if people don’t work to preserve it.
I bought a Conservative party membership in second or third year of university, and I’ve worked to support Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, who has always been strong on defending our rural traditions in this province, and defending the family as a unit. He also talks about the Dominion of Canada in his speeches, which I think is important, especially now. I’ve always been a strong supporter of the monarchy because it helps keep our national identity in focus. Americans are really hardcore on their constitution and the principles their country was founded on, and it can feel like the Canadian Liberal government is trying to erase this part of who we are. Andrew Scheer has put out a strong Commonwealth position, and I believe that, post-Brexit, the Commonwealth will return to holding a central place in the Conservative party’s vision for Canada on the global stage.
Ettore Fiorani, 21
Hometown: Vaughan, Ont.
Status: Criminology and political science student at the University of Toronto
Voting for: Kevin O’Leary
Political idols: Stephen Harper and Nelson Mandela
When you’re in college it’s more fun, in some ways, to be a conservative. It has always felt like a counterculture—with the free speech debates on campus now, especially. There’s obviously still free speech in this country, but some people develop an attitude of “if you don’t agree with me, you’re a racist, a bigot, a transphobe.”
I’m not a Trump guy, but his alternative conservativism has made being on the right more entertaining—sometimes for bad reasons, but Trump has clicked with young people online. I find the fact that Kevin O’Leary is an outsider appealing, and any outsider in politics right now is unfairly labelled the next Donald Trump. Yes, there’s the reality TV thing, but on immigration he’s done a very good job of focusing on economic needs in Canada. He says “If it wasn’t for immigration, I wouldn’t be here”—he’s half Lebanese, half Irish. (I was born in Peru and my family there was very political.)
He’s very rich, but he’s self-made. People like to question his experience, but are we pretending Justin Trudeau had a great political résumé before becoming Prime Minister? It’s hard to know if he might generate the buzz of someone like Trudeau, but unquestionably he’ll have a better time bringing around young people than other Conservative candidates.
Zahra Sultani, 26
Status: Sales associate
Voting for: Maxime Bernier
Political idol: Wilfrid Laurier
I was briefly involved with the Liberals in 2012, about five years after I moved to Canada from Iran. I met a lot of good people, but I didn’t feel like there was anything there for me in terms of principles. The most important issues for me are economic, and the ideal leader for most Canadians is someone who is fiscally conservative and socially progressive.
The Conservative Party recently removed the traditional definition of marriage, and I find it refreshing to finally have someone like Maxime Bernier take the lead on economic issues, but also on people’s liberty in their social lives. I saw one interview with Bernier that really did it for me: He had a genuine way of talking; the authenticity really gets you. I like what he had to say about knocking down inter-provincial trade barriers—I know how those barriers hurt the average person—and about privatization of airports and allowing for competition to happen, which relieves the cost of airfare. The average person benefits from that.