​We Went to Kellie Leitch’s Campaign Launch to Hear Her Immigrant Screening Pitch

Simple messaging and warnings about immigrants. This seems a tad familiar.

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Oct 17 2016, 7:52pm

Kellie Leitch wants to be the new Stephen Harper. Photo via CP.

"It's not racist or xenophobic—it's common sense."

Kellie Leitch, standing onstage at the Gayley Theatre in Collingwood, Ontario, just a few kilometres past the aptly-named town of Nottawa, launched her campaign this weekend on the back of a promise to "stand up for the values that make this country great."

It was impossible to miss parallels with the increasingly unhinged Trump campaign south of the border.

From Leitch's warning that the record levels of immigration fuelled by armed conflicts worldwide are a top-tier threat to the Canadian homeland, to the cry of "Canadians first!" from a campaign supporter, as she extolled the virtues of welfare support for laid-off workers in Alberta's oilsands.

But Leitch, running to helm a Conservative Party still searching for its soul, rebuked anyone drawing that comparison.

On a list of talking points that Leitch leaned on in a post-speech media scrum—sheets of paper easily legible from a nosy journalist's eyeline—several lines spell out how Leitch would respond to allegations that her proposals amount to racism.

"Isn't screening for anti-Canadian values intolerant?" the lines predict as a question.

"No. It's common sense," was the prepared response, underlined in blue pen.

"You talk about the number of immigrants coming to Canada being too many. Just admit you're anti-immigration—quote-unquote 'racist,'" reads another hypothetical question Leitch's campaign thought she might've been asked.

"I'm not anti-immigration," her prepared lines read. "I'm pro-screening. That includes screening for anti-Canadian values and face-to-face interviews with trained immigration officers."

VICE asked Leitch repeatedly to give details about what questions she is hoping to ask would-be Canadian citizens, but she refused to provide any.

Read More: The Conservative Leadership Race Is Totally Sick, but Not in the Ironic Sense

The policy, which originally popped up in a questionnaire sent by to the campaign to supporters, and the rhetoric around it, was perhaps an accident, or an afterthought. But Saturday's launch was a clear sign that Leitch—so far the most talked about and polarizing candidate in the race for Stephen Harper's successor—intends to take this policy and run with it.

Her entire career has led up to this. Leitch rocketed from being a back-bench Member of Parliament for small-town Ontario to becoming Minister of Labour and Minister for the Status of Women under Harper's administration.

Leitch was bullish in both roles. She introduced legislation to pre-emptively force rail workers back on the job before they even voted to strike ("extraordinary," one lawyer called it) and played defense when her government flatly refused to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Regardless of her job performance, Leitch's hasn't endeared herself to her colleagues. Not a single current member of the Conservative caucus is backing Leitch. Many Conservative politicians, strategists, and staffers have privately and publicly expressed dismay at her campaign, which has been criticized in the press—a Globe and Mail editorial called her proposal "frightening."

But Leitch seems convinced that support for her values test will propel her to the leadership role, into Stornoway—the official residence for the leader of the opposition—and, eventually, 24 Sussex.

"The majority of Canadians, as I have said, are individuals who have said they want screening on Canadian values," Leitch said on Saturday. "So I'm going to continue to talk about it."

Thus far, she's still a ways off. Despite a large pot of money collected from Bay Street types early in her campaign, Leitch has only pulled in roughly $350,000, as of June, a ways off from the $5 million spending cap for the race. Many of her donors have already contributed the maximum allowed. And, as a crowded field gets more crowded—with the campaign announcement from potential frontrunner Lisa Raitt expected within weeks—Leitch might need to broaden her appeal.

The only other idea Leitch brought forward on Saturday was a seemingly-impossible to implement limit on how much money Ottawa can spend each year. Even that idea, mentioned midway through her 45-minute speech, was not intended to distract from her central pitch. "A cap on government spending is directly related to my discussion of Canadian values," reads Leitch's talking points.

Indeed, the term "Canadian values" was emblazoned on the podium she stood at to deliver her speech. As a slogan, it was undoubtedly meticulously chosen—and almost certainly comes from Nick Kouvalis, her campaign manager.

A brochure for his company, Campaign Research, offers focus groups that "can be used to test campaign messages, and often provide those 'language gems' that encapsulate your party's or candidate's key message." He's done it before, as the mastermind behind the tag lines that propelled the late former mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, into office.

Kouvalis isn't just Leitch's campaign manager. He has a hand in virtually every key aspect of her leadership bid. Along with his services, Kouvalis' companies Campaign Research and Campaign Support specialize in market research, focus groups, opinion polling, and voter identification. Leitch's campaign runs on Track & Field, Kouvalis' proprietary voter-tracking program.

According to two long-time conservative strategists, Leitch supposedly agreed to pay Kouvalis $1 million for his work on the campaign. A caucus colleague of Leitch heard the same figure. A fourth source with knowledge of Kouvalis' business said that the figure was believable, but stressed that contingencies might be included—that the full amount would only be paid if she won the leadership, for example.

Requests sent to Kouvalis and the Leitch campaign about the $1 million figure went unanswered.

Kouvalis may well be worth the money. Canadian-born, but of Greek descent, his strategy appears to be targeted at winning over exactly the group that talking heads say it should be alienating: Immigrants.

At the Collingwood theatre, the crowd was hardly homogeneous. A variety of ethnic backgrounds, some young, some older. Leitch was introduced to the stage by Ehab Masad, a supporter and a Jordanian immigrant who trumpeted Leitch's values rhetoric to warm up the crowd.

On a conference call with campaign workers in September, volunteers implored Leitch to hold events in their various cultural communities.

Two campaign organizers walked volunteers through how they should go about signing up memberships. Both workers had been well-placed staff in the leadership campaign for Patrick Brown, the former backbench Member of Parliament who came from behind to win the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership race, thanks to a formidable amount of support in Ontario's immigrant communities.

The 17 people on the call—VICE included—were then treated to a message from Leitch herself, who was in Drummondville, Quebec "learning the language and getting to know our members." A Conservative source provided VICE the access number to the call.

"We know things are going extremely well for us," Leitch said on that call. "I'm delighted with the direction we've taken."

Leitch's paradoxical, but perhaps ingenious, strategy needs both immigrants and anti-immigration Canadians to propel her to the leadership.

The candidate spent much of September in rural Quebec, hoping to convert members to her cause.

Because of the rules of the leadership race, which awards 100 points to each of Canada's 338 ridings, to be distributed proportionally based on how the Conservative Party membership in that riding votes, ridings with fewer members, like Quebec, are strategically important.

If she can gain support in Quebec and tap into the undercurrent of nativist politics, akin to that which propelled Donald Trump to become the Republican nominee, she might just have a shot.

But Leitch's tactic isn't just to appeal to soft nationalism. She appears to be actively courting Canada's burgeoning alt-right movement.

Leitch appeared on The Rebel, the online-only commentary outlet started by Ezra Levant that is unabashedly pro-Trump, and brazenly Islamophobic. In the episode that features Leitch's interview, Levant warns that many Syrian refugees coming to Canada would pursue a "life of crime," added that "we're importing Jew-hating, America-hating radicals who like the Islamic State" and told listeners to "get ready to hear 'Allah Akbar' shouted a lot more in Canada."

"The elites and the media have had a certain reaction, they want it to go down a certain path, but the fact is that the supermajority of Canadians want to talk about this," Leitch told Levant. An excerpt from the interview, posted to Youtube, has been viewed just over 3,000 times.

Leitch told the controversial host that the reaction has not just been positive. It's encouraged others to speak up about their desire to block these "anti-Canadian values."

"I've been delighted to have, you know, women come up to me on the street and say, you know: 'Thank you, you know, I was afraid to talk about these issues. I was feeling that I was being judged, and now, I feel I have a voice,'" Leitch said. "And I think that's spectacular, because this is what Canadians want to talk about."

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.

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