Immaculata High School’s 1998 yearbook contains the typical gallery of teenage archetypes: jocks, nerds, class clowns. But amid the photos of gleeful graduates in their track suits and polos, one stands out. Wearing a loose-fitting suit and broad patterned tie, he is the very picture of a young conservative. To anyone who has followed Canadian politics in recent years, it’s the dimpled smirk that gives him away.
As is customary, the yearbook editors made predictions about where each of the Ottawa school’s graduates would end up — most likely to win an Oscar, most likely to discover a cure for cancer, most likely to get a job at the Elgin Street Diner and so on. Doubtless most didn’t come true. But this one is downright prophetic: “Most likely to lead the Reform party.”
In some ways, Andrew James Scheer’s entire life has been building to this moment.
An Ottawa boy, raised on newspapers and politics; a self-professed “nerd” who reportedly skipped the occasional class to watch the House of Commons question period.
A conservative partisan since high school who has spent most of his adult life in politics — first as a volunteer and junior staffer, then as a young MP for his adopted city of Regina.
A compromise candidate in the Conservative leadership race, avoiding extreme positions to appeal to a broader grassroots constituency. The second leader the modern Conservative party has ever known, after a come-from-behind victory on the final ballot.
In other ways, none of this seems to have come easily to him.
A mild-mannered 40-year-old who spent much of his political career in the non-partisan Speaker’s chair, above the rough-and-tumble daily life of politics.
A man quick to smile and slow to work up indignation, even when standing in front of television cameras to call for the prime minister’s resignation.
A leader charting a moderate course even as provinces like Ontario and Alberta elect more aggressively conservative governments under Doug Ford and Jason Kenney. An advocate for a return to Harper-era policies, rather than forging ahead with his own agenda.
Scheer was not made available to speak with the Star for this story. But by now, his own version of his origin story is well documented.
As a kid with a newspaper route, he would read the paper cover to cover before carefully refolding it and delivering it to his customers. It was around that time — aged nine — that Scheer developed an abiding interest in politics.
His father, James, a devout Roman Catholic, worked in the Ottawa Citizen newsroom. His mother, Mary, was a nurse and active in politics. Both had well-paying unionized jobs, but Scheer highlights the tough decisions his middle-class family had to make: What sports could their kids play? Spend money on vacations or save it for a rainy day? Conversations around the kitchen table about difficult but necessary trade-offs.
After Immaculata, the young Scheer attended the University of Ottawa, studying history and politics. In the early 2000s, Scheer worked on Preston Manning’s failed bid to lead the Canadian Alliance, and was later hired by Stockwell Day in the Opposition leader’s office. It was around this time that he met and became friends with Hamish Marshall, another young intern, who would later run Scheer’s successful leadership bid and this year’s Conservative campaign.
Over the course of the next two years, Scheer would watch as Reform transformed into the Canadian Alliance and saw a series of leaders come and go — first Manning, then Deborah Grey, Stockwell Day, John Reynolds and ultimately Stephen Harper.
The infighting and defections that characterized those years for the Alliance left an impression on him.
“Anybody who got involved with conservative politics in the late ’90s, early 2000s, that is an abiding memory, right? Of when the parties were split and there was turmoil,” recalled Marshall in a recent interview.
“You can have the best ideas and the best policy in the world, even the best candidates, but if you’re fighting with yourselves, voters aren’t going to reward that.”
A far more significant event for Scheer in these years, however, was meeting Jill Ryan in Ottawa. When Jill headed back to Regina, Scheer followed. They married in 2003 and would go on to have five children.
In Regina, Scheer was briefly employed at an insurance office, working towards accreditation as an insurance broker. (He would later claim to have worked as a broker, but that claim was disproven over the course of this election campaign).
But he didn’t stay away from politics long. Scheer started working in Canadian Alliance MP Larry Spencer’s constituency office. Spencer was forced to resign as Stephen Harper’s “family values” critic after suggesting homosexuals were “infiltrating” North American institutions and saying he’d support a bill to criminalize homosexuality.
The Scheer campaign recently told HuffPost Canada that Scheer disagreed with Spencer’s views, but stayed on in the office to “finish working on important case files for constituents.”
But a short time later, in 2004, the 25-year old Scheer pulled off an improbable win as the candidate for the newly united Conservative party in Regina-Qu’Appelle, defeating long-serving New Democrat MP Lorne Nystrom. Nystrom bitterly recalled the race in a 2017 interview with the National Post, saying that beneath Scheer’s aw-shucks smile “lies a pretty nasty and mean streak.” Nystrom blamed vote splitting and a dirty campaign — Scheer accused Nystrom of being “soft on child pornography” — for his loss.
Regardless, it was the first of a string of unlikely wins that have characterized Scheer’s political career to date. After being in Saskatchewan only a couple of years, he was now heading back to Ottawa.
By his own admission, Scheer was extremely partisan when he first landed in the Conservative backbenches. He showed a penchant for both social-conservative politics and limiting government programs.
In a 2005 speech to the House of Commons — publicized by the Liberal war room in August — Scheer strongly opposed same-sex marriage, suggesting gay couples could not truly be married because they could not “naturally” reproduce. He also sharply criticized Liberal promises of a national child-care program and the long-gun registry, and showed a degree of fiscal hawkishness in those early years.
Partisanship took a back seat when he pursued the Speaker’s chair. The Speaker, who presides over the House of Commons, must remain a neutral and non-partisan referee of the daily action in the lower chamber. In 2011, Scheer became the youngest MP in Canadian history to be elected to the office.
“The day he was elected Speaker it was like a switch shut off, and he was instantly non-partisan,” said Kenzie Potter, Scheer’s principal secretary, who served as his chief of staff between 2011 and 2015.
“The only way I can explain it is a total respect for Parliament. He took the job so seriously.”
When the Conservatives went down in defeat in 2015, Scheer returned to the political fray as House leader under interim party chief Rona Ambrose. The position was short-lived: in September 2016, Scheer announced he was stepping down from that role to pursue the party leadership.
Scheer was not exactly seen as a front-runner. But, quietly and methodically, his team — led by Marshall, Potter and a few other staffers — crafted a strategy to appeal to enough grassroots members that Scheer would be, as they put it, “everybody’s second choice” in the Conservatives’ ranked-ballot system.
It worked. Scheer won a nail biter — elected on the 13th and final ballot, less than two percentage points ahead of front-runner Maxime Bernier.
“To all Conservatives, those who have been members for decades and those who may have just recently joined our movement: every single kind of conservative is welcome in this party, and this party belongs to all of you,” Scheer said in May 2017.
“We all know what it looks like when Conservatives are divided. We will not let that happen again. We win when we’re united.”
Conservative MPs say Scheer put a serious emphasis on keeping the caucus united in the early months, elevating former leadership rivals to senior roles — Lisa Raitt as deputy leader, Erin O’Toole as foreign affairs critic, Bernier as industry critic. He even tolerated repeated provocations from Bernier, who occasionally offered Scheer free advice through the media.
When Bernier left the Conservatives in August 2018 to found the rival People’s Party of Canada, not a single MP followed him. The Conservatives, at least for the time being, remained united.
Scheer followed a unique path to assume the Conservative leadership, but his pitch to voters has been resoundingly familiar. Most of what he’s proposing is drawn straight from Stephen Harper’s playbook for the Tories’ most recent decade in office.
Broad-based tax cut? Harper did that in 2006. Public transit tax credit? Harper again, the same year. Boutique tax credits for children’s fitness activities (2006) and art lessons (2008). A tax credit for home retrofits to improve energy efficiency (Harper in 2007).
These tax cuts and credits come with a sizable price tag. Scheer’s platform, released just 10 days before election day, includes some $53 billion in cuts and deferred infrastructure spending to cover the tab. Like his predecessor, Scheer maintains he can protect core public services while finding $35.4 billion in spending cuts and pushing back $18 billion in infrastructure funding — something the Liberals dismiss as a fiction.
Scheer’s play is hoping that Canadians didn’t mind the Conservatives’ policies between 2006 and 2015 — they just tired of Stephen Harper.
Whether that’s a sound bet or not remains to be seen. Privately, Conservative veterans admit Scheer is facing long odds — taking down a majority government after one term while Canada’s economic outlook remains relatively strong. Justin Trudeau aside, such a feat would be historic.
But so was the Liberals’ rise from third place to majority government in 2015. And Scheer’s career has been punctuated by improbable wins.
Scheer has already fulfilled his high school yearbook’s prophecy — he is the leader of Canada’s conservative movement. Whether he’s destined to be more than that will be up to voters on Oct. 21.
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier
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