Rick Peterson pronounces the words filet mignon the way they are meant to sound.
It’s late afternoon on a Monday in early March and the Conservative leadership hopeful is hungry.
“We’re on Vancouver time right now,” he says with a hearty laugh while sitting down at the Houston Avenue Bar & Grill in the heart of Toronto’s financial district. With his blue suit, red power-tie and crisp white shirt, the venture capitalist looks right at home.
He orders his steak medium well, with grilled veggies on the side and some mustard for dipping. He wants Dijon but makes clear to the waitress he’s not fussy.
His wife, Irish, has tagged along. She has joined him full-time on the campaign trail these past few months, helping Peterson sell himself as the credible outsider among a slew of better-known politicians. She orders a prime rib sandwich with sweet potato fries.
Peterson, 62, raises the glass of Rickard’s Red ale he was denied minutes ago at a pub down the street, its doors closed for some kind of event. Irish went with a glass of red Cabernet.
Like so many conversations over beers, this one begins with hockey.
Asked about his childhood, Peterson explains how his father Roy, a former RCMP officer, helped found the minor hockey league in his hometown of Grande Prairie, Alta.
When you live in a small town, he says, hockey is “all you do.”
Peterson says that if growing up in Grande Prairie taught him not to tolerate bullshit, hockey taught him all about leadership.
As a centreman — small but a “really good skater” — Peterson played up to Grade 12 and made the University of Alberta Golden Bears team in Edmonton as he pursued an undergraduate degree in history, with a minor in political science.
It’s a storied franchise where the jersey symbolizes winning, he explains, not so unlike the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.
“And you’re scared to death that you won’t live up to meet it,” he says.
Coached by the legendary Clare Drake, Peterson’s team won a national championship in 1975.
He says Drake coached according to a simple credo: “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.” The words were painted on the dressing room wall and they have stayed with him all these years.
“That is something that is burned into the heart of every single Golden Bear,” Peterson says. “The team comes first.”
But hockey also provided an unlikely path to something else that Peterson believes sets him apart in the crowded Tory race — the ability to fluently speak French.
After university, Peterson jumped at an offer to play professional hockey in Bad Nauheim, Germany. He went over in May of 1976 but soon learned fate had other plans.
An Alberta boy in Paris
His team played an exhibition game against a touring French club and Peterson lit the lamp four times. He received an offer to play in Gap, France where the hockey wasn’t as good but he would have a chance to learn the language and immerse himself in the culture.
“I landed in September in this little town of Gap, 30,000 people, and I was the only English-speaking person in this little town,” Peterson says. “So, I learned French immersion very, very quickly.”
Peterson recalls that he was the leading scorer in the league and his team won two championships.
He thought knowing French would help him become a better journalist, his career goal at the time. Peterson says he wrote for the Edmonton Journal during his summer breaks in university but had aspirations of covering federal politics someday.
Peterson married a French national and was granted citizenship. He eventually started working as a freelance reporter for Southam News out of Paris. What he envisioned as a two-year adventure turned into 10, with plans to raise a family overseas.
He’s quiet about his family, saying only that he and his ex-wife split in 2008 but remain on good terms. Together, they have a 31-year-old son and 28-year-old daughter who both live in Montreal, and another 21-year-old daughter who lives Calgary. Peterson also has a stepson in Grade 12 in Vancouver.
He politely asks that their names be kept out of the story. Throughout the interview, Peterson frequently glances at what is being written down.
Peterson earned a graduate degree from the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, again in political science in 1985. He financed his studies by playing hockey for two French pro teams.
'I'm very competitive'
“I’m very competitive and I came out in the top three of 185 students,” he says. “It all comes back to being competitive.”
He landed a job at a Paris courier company, organizing the circulation of the Wall Street Journal throughout the city and other regions. He found himself becoming increasingly interested in the business side of the newspaper industry and dreamed of becoming a publisher.
Pretty soon, he was paying more and more attention to the financial markets.
He decided to move to Vancouver, a city his then-wife loved, in 1986. He had big plans to work in the financial sector for a few years and make some money before heading back to France. Peterson ended up staying.
“I’m going to win a majority,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m the only leader who can really encompass both Quebec and English Canada.”
For good measure, Peterson adds that he doesn’t want to be prime minister of a minority government because then he’d be beholden to Liberals and New Democrats and unable to do all the things that need doing.
It is an eyebrow-raising, perhaps even hubristic series of remarks from a man who concedes he has a “visibility problem” in a contest that includes 12 former or current Tory MPs and a celebrity businessman.
Peterson suggests that any candidate pledging to learn French by 2019 — be it veteran Lisa Raitt or novice Kevin O’Leary — can’t expect to compete against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“You’ve gotta be able to speak French today. You’ve gotta be able to debate Justin Trudeau today. You’ve got to be able to make the people in Quebec feel and know that you get them, that you understand them,” he says.
“The election doesn’t start in 2019. The election is on right now.”
Peterson says Maxime Bernier, Steven Blaney, and Chris Alexander are the only other true, fluent candidates. And he’s convinced he will beat all three former ministers.
At the debate in Edmonton, Peterson targeted another candidate seen to be bilingual, former House Speaker Andrew Scheer. First elected in 2004 at the age of 25, Scheer is now seen by many as a top tier contender.
Peterson dismissed him that night as a career politician on the “gravy train,” and criticized him for missing “two-thirds of the votes in the House of Commons.”
Scheer took advantage of one awkward part of attack — where Peterson slipped to say Scheer missed votes “as Speaker” — to hit back that his rival did not understand that the Speaker actually presides over votes.
Scheer’s lesson on “parliamentary procedure” ended up scoring applause.
Putting squeeze on 'career politicians'
“There’s nothing wrong with career politicians but Andrew Scheer is 37, he’s never had a full-time job in the private sector and he’s running for the leadership,” Peterson says. “Good for him. But unless you’ve met payroll and paid taxes, do you really understand how the private sector works?”
Peterson’s campaign sent a release in February calling on nine sitting Tory MPs running for leader to reimburse taxpayers for “the time they have spent campaigning instead of doing their jobs.” The release calculated the missed votes of each since December 2015.
While people in Ottawa may have rolled their eyes, Peterson says it all makes perfect sense to those in the private sector, be it a cashier at Costco or “someone running a backhoe up in Grande Prairie.”
“These guys are taking taxpayer money for a job that they’re not doing,” he says, carving into his steak. “They’re not showing up. They’re not voting.”
Scheer charged in Edmonton that Peterson tried to get on the gravy train himself but “couldn’t find anyone to elect him.”
One of the biggest knocks against Peterson is that he’s never held elected office. He doesn’t think that’s disqualifying.
“Donald Trump. Brian Mulroney. That’s all I say to that,” he says, pointing to two other businessmen who successfully made the leap into politics.
“I ain’t flipping around. A lot of full-time politicians should have some private sector experience. Nobody seemed to mind that Justin Trudeau was a drama teacher and he’s prime minister of a majority government.”
30 years at the grassroots
Peterson says that, unlike O’Leary, he has rolled up his sleeves for Progressive Conservatives and members of the modern Conservative Party.
“The only reason that I’m a credible candidate in this race is because I spent 30 years at the grassroots,” he says. “You could not come into this race without that background, without that experience and just decide, ‘Hey, I want to run.’ Unless you’ve got a platform like Kevin O’Leary does.”
It all comes back to the Golden Bears, he says.
“Before you put that jersey on, you had to do the work.”
"I ain’t flipping around. A lot of full-time politicians should have some private sector experience. Nobody seemed to mind that Justin Trudeau was a drama teacher and he’s prime minister of a majority government."
— Rick Peterson
In the 30 years since returning to Canada, Peterson has worked as an investment advisor, investment banker, and executive in Vancouver with Midland Walwyn Capital, Merrill Lynch, Yorkton Securities, and HSBC Securities.
In 2003, he broke out on his own with Peterson Capital, an investment firm now with four staff, including himself, in Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, and Geneva, Switzerland.
He became a Progressive Conservative in 1986, when Mulroney was in power, and helped raise money for the party. He backed the eventual merger of the PCs and Canadian Alliance and was a delegate at the modern Tory party’s founding convention in 2005.
“I was one of the few Red Tories who defended the merger. My friend Scott Brison defected to the Liberals,” Peterson says of the current Liberal Treasury Board president.
He got more involved in provincial politics in 2008, supporting then-British Columbia Liberal premier Gordon Campbell. Once Christy Clark replaced Campbell as premier, Peterson was among those who felt the province needed needed a “real conservative voice.”
He backed former Tory MP John Cummins’ attempt to revive the B.C. Conservative Party. Cummins stepped down after a disappointing election in 2013 — in which B.C. Conservatives failed to win a seat — and Peterson decided to take the plunge.
He ran for the leadership of the provincial party in 2014. Things got ugly between Peterson and eventual winner Dan Brooks, a hunting guide from the B.C. Interior. After losing, Peterson filed a lawsuit alleging Brooks and a campaign manager were involved in disseminating anonymous letters taking aim at his professional reputation, The Globe and Mail reports.
According to The Tyee, the letters wrongly accused Peterson of “investment regulatory violations.” The lawsuit is still pending
A learning experience
Peterson says that the party he once hoped to lead is now “almost defunct” because the people who took over the leadership didn’t know what they were doing. He plans to vote for Clark’s Liberals this May because the province “cannot have the NDP.”
Peterson says many of the people he met while running for B.C. Conservative leader pushed him to go federal.
“I learned so much,” he says of that bid. “So many things that have prepared me for this leadership run.”
* * *
Peterson has a few things to get off his chest about the only other Tory leadership candidate never to have set foot in the House of Commons. And the media, for that matter.
“Kevin O’Leary is playing you guys like a fiddle,” he says. “If he wasn’t on ‘Shark Tank,’ he wouldn’t even be in the race.”
Peterson is evidently steamed that O’Leary was able to skip out on the bilingual debate in Edmonton, at the 11th hour, and still receive coverage.
“Kevin O’Leary is showing zero respect for the grassroots. And I don’t like that,” he says. “I don’t like that. I’m old-fashioned but if you’re going to play on the Conservative team and the Conservatives set up a debate in Edmonton, if the rules aren’t perfect, suck it up and play.”
Between bites, he says the other businessman in the race is a “brand.”
Though O’Leary is being advised by former Ontario premier Mike Harris, Peterson boasts one of the architects of the so-called “Common Sense Revolution” which swept Ontario PCs to power in 1995. Mark Mullins, former executive director of the Fraser Institute and an ex-Harris adviser, has written Peterson’s tax plan.
The signature proposal is to drive the corporate income tax rate down to zero, something he concedes is radical.
“If I’m going to be the prime minister of Canada, it’s to do big things,” he says.
It’s an idea he thinks will help Canada compete now that new U.S. President Donald Trump is planning to slash corporate rates
'Radical’ tax proposals
“That big sucking sound you hear is ... investments going into the U.S. and out of Canada,” he says. “If we don’t make Canada competitive, we’re going to miss out on that.”
In an editorial for The Financial Post in November, Peterson derided the corporate income tax as a “$40-billion annual burden” on creating jobs and wealth.
Peterson says removing such a “burden” will mean corporations will keep investing, hiring new people, and not spiriting money offshore —creating more “taxable” events.
And to those who say it’s only fair for corporations making lots of dough to pay income taxes?
“Corporations don’t pay income tax. They pass it on to consumers through prices, they scrimp on wages and salaries,” he says.
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He is also proposing a flat tax of 15 per cent for all Canadians, a rate that currently applies only to those making less than $45,916. The biggest break would be for those earning more than $202,000 — currently taxed at 33 per cent — who would see their rate cut by more than half.
He doesn’t think it’s unfair for poorer Canadians to pay the same rate as the wealthy.
“You know what? Who do you think pays most of the income tax in Canada today?” he says.
To help make up for the hit to government coffers, Peterson would raise the GST from five to nine per cent — a total reversal from the approach taken under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
“Economics 101. You don’t tax investment, you tax consumption,” he says.
Peterson admits the GST cut was popular for Tories, but doesn’t think he’d have trouble making his case before voters.
“If I’m going to be the prime minister of Canada, it’s to do big things.”
“Government is not about being popular, it’s about doing the right things,” he says. “That’s why I have the best chance of implementing stuff like this.”
Political capital is made to be spent, he says.
“If you leave government at the end of four years or eight years and you’re still 40 per cent popular, you haven’t tried hard enough.”
Peterson’s banking on a jolt of economic growth from eliminating corporate income tax — and spending restraint — to balance the budget in two years.
And, unlike some of his rivals, Peterson is bullish on immigration.
* * *
In another key moment from the Edmonton event, Peterson bluntly told Kellie Leitch that her campaign — largely known for her controversial call to screen newcomers for so-called anti-Canadian values — was a “trainwreck.”
But Peterson suggested then it was because Leitch “allowed the media” to mangle her message and a good idea of screening, “which takes place now.”
Over lunch, Peterson elaborates that Leitch is “wrong” but says he’s not bothered by the attention she seems to receive.
“Her focus is misplaced,” Peterson says. “Kellie’s campaign is a trainwreck and and it’s become a sideshow. And it’s tainted the Conservative brand.”
With Tories already shut out of Canada’s three major cities — Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal — Leitch seems intent on “catering to a narrow strip of the population.”
Asked if he would run under Leitch, Peterson replies, with a smile: “How do you like your beer?”
Peterson is bothered by the way some in the party talk about newcomers, including Blaney and, of late, Bernier. Earlier that morning, he announced what he says is a staunchly pro-immigration policy.
While the Liberal government set a target of 300,000 immigrants for 2017 — 172,000 of which are economic immigrants such as skilled workers and caregivers — Peterson would seek to welcome 500,000 newcomers by the end of his first term. Four-hundred thousand would be economic immigrants he says will be needed to fill jobs.
Bullish on immigration
“I’m standing up against this wave of populist, anti-immigrant sentiment because it’s the right thing for Canada,” he says. “We’ve had people come up to us in meetings who say, ‘I want zero immigrants in Canada.’ Really? Really?”
But he does not support Motion 103, which calls on the government to condemn Islamophobia and racial discrimination that can be directed at new Canadians. He is among those Tories who believes the non-binding motion could be a first step to constraining free speech.
“Free speech means you can say idiotic things,” Peterson says.
The debate over M-103 has become more polarized in the wake of a terror attack on a Quebec City mosque in which six men were gunned down while praying and another 19 were injured.
Peterson says he attended the funeral for three victims held at a Quebec City convention centre last month, something he describes as intensely moving.
He says there was also a clear message for Tories delivered that day.
“The speeches that we heard in Quebec City that day referred to political parties in Canada who were preaching intolerance, who were preaching lack of openness,” he says. “Well, who were they preaching to? It was us. And that’s not the Conservative Party that I know. That’s not the Canada that I know.”
* * *
Peterson urges his wife to order another glass of wine. He’s passing on coffee and dessert, but the steak is long gone.
The pair met through friends in Vancouver, have known each other for two years, and tied the knot last November.
Irish says she is proud of her husband for “putting himself out there for what he believes in, showing his passion, and living and breathing and standing up for the country.”
In January, Irish left her job as a lifestyle consultant at a Coquitlam, B.C. retirement community to join him on the campaign trail. They say they are both all in.
“This is the experience of a lifetime. How could you not do it together?” Peterson asks.
He tells the server clearing the table that Irish will have another small glass.
He insists there’s a path to victory and that he’s “very confident” it will happen, even if various polls put him at or very near the basement. Those numbers don’t reflect what he is hearing from members, he says.
While his economic ideas might be bold, Peterson says he is “pro-choice, pro-LGBT… and in favour of assisted suicide.”
'I am going to win and be the next prime minister'
Peterson says the money he’s raised has come from individuals who are new to the party — small businessmen and women pitching in a few hundred bucks — but he hasn’t started bombarding party members yet.
Peterson insists he would not have put his business on hold and had his wife join him if he didn’t know he was in a great spot to win.
“This is too hard a grind to be doing it just for ego,” he says. “I’m not angling to be a minister in the next cabinet. I’m not angling to get my name in the papers. I don’t need another job.
“I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do and I am going to win and be the next prime minister. No other reason to do it.”
One of the toughest things, they both agree, is being away from their two golden retrievers, Beau and Smooch. Peterson says there are few things he loves more than pheasant hunting with the two dogs in Alberta.
On the road, they spend a lot of time looking at pictures or videos of the dogs. He’s promised Irish that, when this is all over, he’ll get her a new puppy — a Bernese mountain dog he hopes to call Bernie.
“You know what, there will be room for them in Sussex Drive and we’ll also make room for them in Stornoway as well, too,” he says.
“We’ll be there in May.”
HuffPost Canada is profiling each of the 2017 Conservative leadership candidates, leading up to the May decision:
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