Scheer’s resignation tips party into internal war over school tuition payments

The Conservatives have a Toronto convention already scheduled for April

Signs began to emerge Friday that the coming race to replace outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will be an acid test for whether social conservatives have a place in the Conservative Party of Canada.

But difficult as that discussion could be for the party, an even nastier, more personal fight is threatening to unravel the party’s governance structure. At the centre of it is executive director Dustin Van Vugt, whose status as the party’s chief operating officer was in limbo Friday night.

For weeks since the October election, Scheer has been hammered by progressives in the party who say his unclear positions on social issues like abortion and his refusal to fully stand up for LGBTQ rights contributed heavily to the party’s defeat in October.

Many demanded his resignation, insisting the Conservatives will not win in Ontario and Quebec if they can’t put up a leader who will march comfortably, and be welcome, in Pride parades.

But Scheer’s reluctance, and many times refusal, to explain his position on abortion or why he won’t attend events to stand up for LGBTQ rights, was not what finally pushed him out the door. It was instead, an agreement between him and Van Vugt to have the party pay to send Scheer’s kids to a private Ottawa Catholic school.

It was less than 24 hours from when information about the deal was slipped to some media outlets that Scheer informed the Conservative caucus he was going to step down.

Van Vugt confirmed in a statement Thursday that the payments had been approved by the party.

ALSO READ: Race to replace Andrew Scheer could be a crowded one

But according to some Conservatives, who were not authorized to speak publicly about internal matters, the news was a surprise to directors of the Conservative Fund, a separate entity that raises money for the party. Its directors include former prime minister Stephen Harper, former senator Irving Gerstein, and current senator Linda Frum, according to public listings.

The Fund’s directors held a conference call Friday, after which an email was circulated to employees at Ottawa headquarters saying Van Vugt was no longer employed there.

But under the party’s constitution, the Conservative Fund doesn’t have the authority to fire the executive director.

The constitution says the leader, who is still Andrew Scheer, gets to hire that person, upon approval of the national council, a body elected by the party membership to represent every province. It’s not clear who has the authority to dismiss him.

The Fund, however, holds the purse strings and can decide simply to stop supplying the money to pay him.

The party’s officials did not reply to questions about Van Vugt’s status Friday.

Van Vugt would ordinarily be the person in charge of organizing the Conservative leadership contest.

Tories have shown an ability to be quick about choosing a leader. In 2018, Ontario leader Patrick Brown resigned in the midst of allegations of sexual impropriety. Forty-five days later, Doug Ford was elected as the new Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, and three months after that he was elected premier.

“It can be done,” said Jamie Ellerton, a Toronto-based public-affairs specialist who was a key member of Scheer’s campaign communications team in the fall campaign.

The Conservatives have a Toronto convention already scheduled for April, which is an obvious opportunity to choose a new leader.

Ellerton has been one of Scheer’s most vocal critics since the election over his refusal to stand up clearly for LGBTQ rights. He said Friday the leadership race has to be about “electability.”

“If you look at anything relating to LGBTQ issues and LGBTQ people the party needs to be unequivocal in respecting all Canadians and welcoming them into the fold. I would expect any successful leadership candidate would have no qualms about expressing just that.”

Joseph Ben-Ami, an Ottawa-based strategist who ran former MP Brad Trost’s leadership campaign in 2017, said he thinks it is unfair to say social conservative viewpoints are unwelcome. Trost was one of the firm social-conservative candidates in the last race, and finished fourth. His backers largely went to Scheer, allowing Scheer to slip ahead of Maxime Bernier and win the leadership on the 13th and final ballot.

Ben-Ami argues the facts that Scheer is anti-abortion and won’t march in a Pride parade are not themselves problematic, “it’s that he treated them as if they were a problem.”

“The people who are talking about this and are fixated on it are deceiving themselves as conservatives if they think that if only we had a leader that marches in the gay-pride parade then everything is going to be fine.”

Having the party pay for Scheer’s kids to go to private school — he has four school-aged kids, and tuition is about $15,000 a year — did not sit well with many Conservatives.

Former Conservative senator Jean-Guy Dagenais, who left the Conservative caucus this fall because of Scheer’s socially conservative views, said Thursday Scheer should have to pay the money back.

Kory Teneycke, a conservative organizer and one-time director of communications to prime minister Stephen Harper, said Thursday the private school funding should force Scheer to resign immediately.

Teneycke, who ran Bernier’s leadership campaign three years ago, has also been among Scheer’s fiercest critics since October.

— with files from Stephanie Levitz

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

University of Victoria tells stories of Holocaust survivors with graphic novels

International storytelling initiative launched first meetings this winter

Vancouver Island artist’s mask heading to prestigious U.S. museum

John and Peggy Varnedoe purchased the piece and have donated it to the Burke Museum in Seattle.

Island astronomer discusses search for life in oceans of moons of Jupiter and Saturn

University of Victoria’s Jon Willis says where there’s salt water, there could be life

Untrending: Maybe it’s time to define success on your own terms

Take a closer look at how to set and achieve your goals

Morris Moss: ‘One of the most colourful figures this coast has ever seen’

So one historian termed the handsome Jewish pioneer whose life was more exciting than fiction

Officials reaching out to those in contact with Canada’s first coronavirus patient

The illness has sickened at least 1,975 people and killed 56 in China

Kobe Bryant killed in California helicopter crash: reports

NBA star was reportedly in his private helicopter at the time of the crash

Investigation launched after six dead puppies dumped in Richmond hotel parking lot

RAPS reminds people they can always give up puppies they can’t take care of

Risk of coronavirus low in B.C. as first case emerges in Toronto: officials

There have been no confirmed cases of the virus in B.C.

‘Presumptive case’ of coronavirus in Canada confirmed by Ontario doctors

Man in his 50s felt ill on his return to Canada from Wuhan, China

VIDEO: Drone footage shows extent of damage in Highway 4 rockslide

Tofino, Ucluelet still cut off from rest of the island, as crews work to repair roadway

People knowingly take fentanyl so make policy changes to reduce harm: B.C. study

Dr. Jane Buxton, an epidemiologist at the centre, says drug users need more resources,

‘My heart is going to bleed’: Bodies brought back to Canada following Iran plane crash

Remains of Sahar Haghjoo, 37, and her eight-year-old daughter, Elsa Jadidi, were identified last weekend

Most Read