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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Priest Camp near Summerland was created in 1845

Agreement formed between Grand Chief Nicola (1793-1859) and Father Giovanni Nobili (1812-1856)

Princeton snow removal costs top $40k in December

Costs of snow removal to the Town of Princeton skyrocketed in December.… Continue reading

Province says it is monitoring AIM’s road maintenance

The provincial transportation ministry is working closely with new road contractor AIM,… Continue reading

Princeton – a Prince Town in waiting?

The Town of Princeton has been waiting 160 years for a Royal… Continue reading

RCMP release photos of man wanted in Princeton armed robbery

RCMP have released photos and a description of the man suspected of… Continue reading

Huawei exec’s extradition hearing begins in Canada

China’s foreign ministry complained the United States and Canada were violating Meng’s rights

Prince Harry: ‘Powerful media’ is why he’s stepping away

Prince Harry and Megan have stepped away from their royal commitments

How to beat Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year

Multiple factors can play a role in seasonal depression, says Fraser Health psychiatrist

B.C. VIEWS: Few clouds on Horgan’s horizon

Horgan’s biggest challenge in the remainder of his term will be to keep the economy humming along

Kelowna’s Tess Critchlow gears up for World Cup at Big White

Critchlow is a professional snowboarder competing for Team Canada in the boardercross competition

Victoria family focuses on ‘letting go, enjoying time together’ after dad gets dementia

Walter Strauss has developed an interest in music and now takes line dancing classes

Most Read