OTTAWA — Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner walked away from running for leadership of Alberta’s United Conservative Party on Thursday, citing the inhospitable internal political environment she’d inherit and a lack of time to fix it.
But the high-profile MP is not returning to an overly hospitable federal political environment either.
The Star has learned some of her fellow Conservative MPs have repeatedly threatened to kick her out of caucus in recent months over how she’s handled everything from her advocacy of LGBTQ rights to the party’s ongoing leadership campaign.
In turn, she’s raised formal questions about why the conduct of members of Parliament toward one another isn’t covered by workplace harassment laws, and whether the law that allows MPs to kick one of their own out of caucus actually violates those laws.
And while the internal battle has become increasingly personal, it’s also a skirmish in the broader war over the Conservative party’s future as it enters the final stage of a leadership race that’s circling a key question: in which direction do the Tories actually want to go?
Rempel Garner’s name has long been in the mix as a potential leader, of either the federal or Alberta conservative parties, thanks to a profile she’s steadily built up over social media and elsewhere of being a voice pushing for a more inclusive conservative movement — and more power for Alberta.
But although she’s publicly considered the jobs in the past, she’s always ultimately walked away.
In the current federal leadership race, she became co-chair of Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown’s campaign, citing his ability to make inroads in the multicultural and multi-faith communities the Conservatives have had a hard time reaching.
That decision, however, was seen as a direct criticism of his main rival, Pierre Poilievre, a longtime caucus colleague of hers who has the lion’s share of support from Conservative MPs.
Some also saw a longer play — she’d be helping Brown build up grassroots support in Alberta that she could later harness for her own bid to lead the province’s United Conservative Party.
Except the opportunity for that bid came faster than expected. After Alberta Premier Jason Kenney barely survived a leadership review last month, he announced he would step down as soon as a new leader was chosen. His announcement followed months of brutal infighting within the UCP over his leadership style, and how he governed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That prompted Rempel Garner to walk out on Brown — taking campaign staff with her — to focus on her UCP leader prospects. Two other Conservative MPs had just withdrawn their support from Brown as well, leading to questions about whether her departure signalled a lack of confidence in the Brampton mayor’s prospects.
In a statement Thursday, Brown said he’s not taking Rempel Garner back.
“The campaign has adjusted and reset in the wake of her departure and we have the team in place that will take us to Sept. 10 and we’re not going to make any further formal changes to that,” he said.
“But I’m pleased we will be able to continue to call on her experience and insight as we go forward.”
In a lengthy essay laying out the reasons for her decision not to run for UCP leadership, Rempel Garner made no mention of the federal leadership race — but she did allude to the toxic nature of provincial and federal politics.
“In both parties there have also been squabbles that have erupted in the pages of national media, public meltdowns, nearly missed physical fights, coups, smear jobs, leaked recordings and confidential emails, lack of consensus on critical issues, caucus turfings, people harassed to the point where they resign roles, and hours long meetings where members have been subjected to hours of public castigation,” she wrote.
“There have been heated exchanges to get basic concerns addressed, unjustified insularity in decision making, shunnings, exclusionary cliques and more.”
That kind of workplace conduct crosses a line, she said.
“In virtually every other workplace, much of the stuff that has happened would be treated as a violation of labour codes, but in politics it’s considered Human Resources 101,” she wrote.
It’s not the first time she’s made that comparison.
Earlier this month, Rempel Garner quietly placed a question on the order paper, a House of Commons procedure that allows MPs to submit written questions to obtain more detailed answers than they’d get during the daily question period.
In it, she asked the government whether, in recent changes to labour laws to beef up workplace harassment regulations, it had considered whether the Reform Act was potentially a violation.
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The act, passed in 2014, gives MPs the right — if they choose — to vote out their own leader, as well as any member of their caucus.
In her question, Rempel Garner asked if any analysis had been done “to review if processes used during the application of any provision of the Reform Act, 2014, particularly the provision regarding expulsion of caucus members, could contradict the act, the House of Commons harassment policy, or any other piece of federal or provincial legislation regarding workplace harassment.”
The government is supposed to respond within 45 days.
The act was the tool Conservative MPs used to remove Erin O’Toole as party leader earlier this year, a process Rempel Garner disagreed with at the time. She said she believed party members ought to be able to make the call on whether O’Toole should stay or go — although she also spoke up in support of his staying on.
It wasn’t long after that the debate began about whether the Reform Act should be used to kick her out of the Tory caucus.
In early May, 10 people were shot to death in Buffalo, N.Y by a man who allegedly believed in a racist conspiracy theory that white people are deliberately being replaced by people who are not white.
Rempel Garner denounced the so-called “white replacement theory” swiftly, and Brown did as well. But Brown went further, pointing out that one of the adherents of the theory in Canada was one of the leaders of the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” and criticized Poilievre for appearing to align with him.
Poilievre had condemned the racism which emerged during the convoy protests, although he also backed the demonstrators’ more general call for the end of COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Rempel Garner went on to write an op-ed in the National Post warning that more must be done to combat racist theories permeating Canadian politics.
“This is particularly true for leaders in right leaning political movements where this sentiment may be more pervasive, and the temptation to mainstream it for political gain is greater,” she wrote.
“Promoting it or being silent when it occurs in the ranks amounts to the same thing.”
That same day, she called out a racist email sent by a Poilievre supporter to the Brown campaign.
Within the Tory caucus, where Poilievre has widespread support, her actions were interpreted as effectively calling him and other MPs racist, multiple sources told the Star — and that was seen as going too far.
Efforts to find the minimum number of MPs required to trigger a Reform Act vote spooled up — and Rempel Garner was made aware of it.
She did not return repeated requests for comment from the Star.
Though the heat applied by the leadership campaign may have been the catalyst, Rempel Garner has had a rocky ride within caucus for years.
Her call for more independence for Alberta in what was known as the “Buffalo Declaration” without having total caucus buy-in, her championing of a surprise motion to push a bill banning the practice of forcing people questioning their gender or sexuality into therapy, and her butting heads with COVID-19 skeptics in caucus have all been sources of tensions for months. She also drew criticism for spending the early months of the pandemic lockdowns with her husband and his family in Oklahoma, and not in her riding.
After she was shuffled off the party’s front benches when O’Toole was ousted, she turned down a spot on a committee of MPs tasked with reviewing national security concerns.
Taken altogether, “people are just done” with Rempel Garner, one long-time Tory MP told the Star, granted anonymity to discuss confidential caucus discussions.
Whether there are enough of them to resume a Reform Act discussion remains to be seen.
For her part, Rempel Garner said she intends to continue her work representing the citizens of Calgary Nose Hill.
“I love what I do — in spite of the internal party ups and downs of the last few years and whatever may come in the future,” she wrote.
“I will serve as long as I continue to earn the trust of my community, and to be abundantly clear, I’m not going anywhere and intend to re-offer as MP.”
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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