Kellie Leitch wants you to know she's not a racist. She's not mean, either.
She is intelligent, compassionate, generous, and hard-working. Those are the words she uses to describe herself when asked.
Over the course of a 90-minute lunch with The Huffington Post Canada, it is also clear Leitch is ambitious, strategic, protective of those close to her, and has a quick temper.
Leitch arrives for lunch a few minutes late with her assistant, Nicole. The Conservative MP for Simcoe—Grey has a packed schedule. So much so that she’s preparing to take a leave from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, where she volunteered as an on-call pediatric orthopedic surgeon once a week for the past six years.
It’s 1:30 p.m. and she’s hungry. “I’m having a steak salad, just so we are clear,” she declares. She takes a sip of water and fires off a few emails before looking up from her smartphone.
Nicole orders a hot-chicken poutine. Leitch tells her that sounds “very chi-chi.”
There is no steak salad on the Metropolitain Brasserie’s menu, so Leitch orders a garden salad with a side of grilled beef. “Medium rare, please. Thank you very much.”
She grabs a piece of baguette, spreads it generously with butter, and takes a big bite.
“I’m running because I think that we have a shared Canadian identity and one that we as Canadians should be extremely proud of,” Leitch says. “It’s founded in a shared set of values that have built the country and I think that those are values worth protecting and I’ve been talking about that since September.”
Leitch, 46, was the first leadership contender to file her papers last April. At the time, she said she was looking forward to sharing her ideas about what the Conservatives need to do “to grow our movement” and win in 2019.
In late August, she sent an email to party members saying she was campaigning on the need to engage Canadians, to demonstrate strong fiscal discipline in government spending, and to oppose federal carbon taxes as well as the legalization of marijuana. She asked her supporters to weigh-in on some of the other “most important” issues being raised on the campaign trail, like electoral reform and corporate tax cuts.
One question, however, became the rallying cry for her campaign: “Should the Canadian government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening for refugees and landed immigrants?”
At the time, Leitch did not explain what she meant by “anti-Canadian values.” Since then, she has defined “Canadian values” as hard work, generosity, freedom, tolerance and equality of opportunity. They roll off her tongue like a child singing the alphabet.
Accused of ‘dog-whistle politics’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “doesn’t believe that we have shared values. He says we have no core identity as a people. I fundamentally disagree,” she says, between bites of bread.
That’s partly true. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, shortly after the 2015 election, Trudeau is quoted saying: "There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada."
Canada is the world’s “first post-national state,” the prime minister said, a country defined by “shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.”
Trudeau’s shared values sound a lot like the ones later trumpeted by Leitch.
Her message, however, has been twisted or promoted — depending on who you ask — to reflect white nationalist views, anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-Muslim sentiment, and, what rival Michael Chong has called “dog-whistle politics.”
"People wanted to talk about these things — and talk about who we are as Canadians."
Her opponents accuse her setting the Conservatives’ effort to court new Canadians back by more than a decade. Still others suggest she’s created an anti-immigrant climate that has contributed to hate crimes, such as January’s shooting at a mosque in Quebec that left six dead.
During the past seven months, Leitch has remained defiant. She’s courted support in forums where anti-Muslim views are expressed, but maintains those stances don’t reflect her or her campaign.
She won’t be bullied, she says. Canadians want their values protected and public opinion polls suggest more people than ever agree with her, she maintains.
“People wanted to talk about these things — and talk about who we are as Canadians,” she adds, still munching on bread. With Canada’s 150th birthday around the corner, Leitch suggests there is no better time to have the conversation.
“A great celebratory time for our nation. What a better time to talk about what it means to be Canadian?”
* * *
Kellie Leitch was born Khristinn Kellie Leitch on July 30, 1970, in Winnipeg. The first grandchild on both sides of the family, she was named after her grandfathers: Khristinn comes from Christinn Gunnar Johnston, and Kellie is derived from Peter Kelburne Leitch’s nickname. Her paternal grandmother insisted on putting Roman numbers after her name: Kellie II.
“It drove me crazy. It was cute when I was a kid but not so cute when I was in my 20s.”
Leitch started going by Kellie because “everyone always butchers” her Icelandic first name. She tried using Khristinn in high school, and again during her first year of university, without success. “Nobody mispronounces Kellie.”
Both her parents were raised near Brandon, Man. Her father’s family were Scottish immigrants from Glasgow who arrived in the 1800s and established a farm in the village of Alexandria.
After earning an engineering degree, her father, Kelburne McNabb Leitch (known as Kit), headed to Fort McMurray, Alta. to establish a construction business, and then moved his wife, Eleanor Lynne Conway, and four-year-old Leitch there.
Leitch remembers Fort McMurray in the early ‘70s as a town of young people.
According to her mother, Lynne, young Leitch stepped off the plane in Vancouver once for a family visit and declared: “There are grandparents here!” She had never seen so many old people.
That trip was also her first introduction to taxes, when she went to the aquarium with her mother and Melanie, her new baby sister.
"I wanted to buy Melanie, this plush turtle, that she calls ‘Tommy’ that I think she still has,” Leitch recalls. She brought the toy to the counter, laid out her carefully counted money, and distinctly remembers the woman telling her it wasn’t enough.
“I said: ‘No!’ And I showed her the tag, this is the amount. And I know that is the right amount. And she’s like: ‘That’s not enough’ and my mother then said, “There is sales tax.”
As a young Albertan, Leitch had no knowledge of sales tax. “I was about six. And I was angry. I was not impressed … I wanted this for my sister. It was very important to me and I was being denied this. Because of provincial sales tax.”
Leitch was a bright and athletic child. She played so much basketball that her father built her a full court in the backyard. “Most kids have an ice arena, I had a basketball court. Cement slab with ends, not just like on your garage, like ends, a full basketball court in the backyard. I played a lot.”
Leitch skipped Grade 6. “The teachers just thought that it would be better if I was more challenged.”
Leitch remembers being petrified that she would be too little and too young to play on the basketball team.
Lost her mom when she was 18
But she wasn’t. She also played volleyball and badminton. Whatever sport the school offered, she tried it — “except for like wrestling, I didn’t do that.” She won “Athlete of the Year” twice in high school.
In Grade 7, she picked up the saxophone, an instrument she still plays. She was part of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, served as the drum major in the marching band, and played in a jazz ensemble through university.
As the drum major Leitch was the boss. She stood in front of the band and led. “I can walk backwards. I can wave my arms around, but you have to know the whole score so you can direct folks. It was neat.”
The salad and poutine are served. Leitch notes that Nicole orders the same thing every time. “So do I,” she adds.
When she was in Grade 10, Leitch’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She learned the news while she was in an exchange program with her French class, living on a dairy farm in Quebec.
Lynne’s health deteriorated during Leitch’s second year of university. She passed away in May of 1989. Leitch was 18.
Leitch doesn’t talk about her mother much. “I think about her every day. It is hard.”
Lynne was a stay-at-home mom, with a Grade 10 education who taught her children the value of community service, Leitch once told her riding’s local paper. Her mother worked as a kindergarten teacher when she discovered there wasn’t one at the school, Leitch told The Connection.
When Leitch headed off to Queen’s University at 17, she thought she’d follow her dad’s footsteps in business. The guidance counselor recommended she take statistics and psychology along with other bachelor of arts prerequisites.
She quickly realized she loved math and disliked writing essays. She switched over to life sciences.
A frank conversation with her father about choosing a life path led her to apply to the medical faculty at the University of Toronto — because she thought it was the best school.
Because her father felt it was important that his kids know how to run a business, Leitch started a moving campaign called Student Express in Fort McMurray. She ran it for two years and used the funds to put herself through school.
Her close friends used to call her “Doogie,” after Dr. Doogie Howser from the early ‘90s TV show about a teenage medical prodigy, she told The Connection.
In her third year of med school, Leitch had to pick a specialty. She had taken obstetrics and gynecology and loved being around kids. So she joined the orthopedic clinic at Toronto’s Sick Kids hospital where she was assigned to Dr. Robert Salter. He was chief of surgery and a pioneer in the field of pediatric orthopedic.
“He taught me a love of what I do,” she says.
“I am very privileged. I have a profession where I take kids who can’t play on the playground and they get to play again.”
Leitch graduated with a doctorate in medicine at 23. A string of impressive academic and professional achievements followed. While she pursued her residency in orthopedic surgery, she asked if she could do her required year of research on physician compensation rather than lab work studying petri dishes. Her research lead to an MBA with Dalhousie University in 1998.
After graduating from the residency program in 2001, she completed a fellowship at the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles with the University of Southern California in 2002.
At 34, Leitch became the chief of pediatric surgery at the Children's Hospital of Western Ontario. And in 2009, Leitch became the founding chair of the Centre for Health Innovation at the Richard Ivey School of Business, after the Conservative government invested $5 million into the school.
Three years earlier, Leitch had chaired the Tories’ expert panel on the development of the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit upon request by Jim Flaherty, the finance minister at the time. He had known Leitch since 1993 when she helped put up a tent on his lawn to support Jean Charest’s Progressive Conservative leadership bid.
A lifelong Conservative, Leitch joined the party when she was 14. One of her dad’s closest friends was running for office and her father joined the PC riding association. They wanted to create a youth group and encouraged their children to join. She attended her first party convention, in Montreal, when she was 15.
During medical school, she spent summers working for Ontario PC MPP David Turnbull, and later federal cabinet minister Barbara McDougall.
After her work on the expert panel, the Conservatives appointed her advisor on healthy children and youth. In 2008, she issued a report calling for the development of a national injury prevention strategy, improved mental health services, and a centre for excellence on childhood obesity. The following year, Leitch founded the Kids Health Foundation, a now defunct not-for-profit, with the goal of making “Canada the healthiest place on earth for children to grow up.”
The Centre for Health Innovation is one of her proudest accomplishments. Provincial budgets are being gobbled up by health-care dollars and by 2030, such costs are expected to account for 80 per cent of their total spending, she notes. At the centre, Leitch focused on ensuring governments could be ahead of the curve by encouraging students to start companies that increase efficiencies in the system, such as telemedicine, and to provide better quality care.
With her interest and expertise, it’s odd Leitch hasn’t released any health policy. Will she? She shrugs. “Potentially,” she responds.
Leitch’s campaign, so far, seems more focused on sound bites. Her policy stances — legalizing mace and pepper spray for self-defense purposes, for example — generate headlines, but aren’t the type of proposals you might expect from a former associate dean of medical school.
Leitch has 14 policy statements on her website.
Among the highlights, she wants to cap federal spending but she won’t say by how much because she doesn’t know how big the Liberals’ deficit will be. She promises to balance the books within two years — a commitment many of her colleagues have also made under pressure by the lobby group, Generation Screwed.
Leitch pledges to cut departmental spending by five per cent, per year “minimum,” she says, over lunch. Then, she clarifies. “We’re going to start at five per cent and then we’ll decide where we go from there.”
She wants to renegotiate public sector contracts to ensure salaries and benefits are in line with the private sector. She plans to lower the political donation tax credit so it matches the one for charitable contributions.
She wants to dismantle the CBC and Radio-Canada but keep some form of radio channel operating in rural and northern areas — in both French and English — to inform residents of severe weather warnings.
On firearms, Leitch says she’s in the process of getting her own licence and will treat guns as personal property. There is too much subjectivity in the classification system currently undertaken by the RCMP, she says. She would ensure decisions on what guns can and cannot enter the country are made by a group of farmers, sport shooters, hunters and law enforcement officers.
One of her more controversial ideas is a five-point plan to discourage civil disobedience against pipelines and other natural resource projects. She plans to increase penalties and create a new law-enforcement body that could investigate, freeze bank accounts and lay charges against those who illegally disrupt construction sites. She also wants to classify environmental lobbying as a political activity.
On climate, Leitch has no plan. Between bites of her salad, Leitch explains she’ll encourage green technology development but won’t say whether she envisions subsidies or tax incentives, or how Canada would meet its climate commitments or lower its greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’m not going to give you specifics… I’m not the prime minister of Canada yet, that’s a long way away,” she says, the first sign of frustration ringing in her voice.
And there’s still the matter of her French skills. Despite being in training since 2012, Leitch still butchers the language. She lists it as one of her regrets.
Unprompted, Leitch says she knows there are people in the party who have “preconceived notions” about her ambition.
“You’ll talk to people, parliamentarians, and friends of mine and others and they’ll say, ‘This is what she always wanted to do,’ but I was a very dedicated volunteer [and] I can tell you that being a pediatric orthopedic surgeon is pretty meaningful.”
Running to be prime minister wasn’t in her game plan, Leitch suggests.
“I ended up running a little bit by happenstance, because of what happened in my own riding,” she explains.
In 2010, then Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper kicked out junior minister and Simcoe—Grey MP Helena Guergis from the Tory caucus over unnamed allegations of improper conduct.
Leitch lived in the riding. She had built a home on a former apple orchard, just outside Creemore, Ont.
In 2011, she told reporter John Edwards that she didn’t like condo living in Toronto, because it lacked a sense of community.
Old ‘cup of sugar’ remarks lit firestorm
"I know it's fine if I walk next door and ask for a cup of sugar, they are going to give me a cup of sugar. It's the neighbourly thing to do. Living in downtown Toronto as a resident I would never go next door and ask my neighbour for a cup of sugar. It just wouldn't happen."
Those comments lit a firestorm of response earlier this year with the Toronto Star running column after column about the city’s generous spirit.
Back then, the Tories were looking for a candidate in Simcoe—Grey, and Flaherty thought of Leitch. In a moving tribute in the Commons, after his unexpected death in 2014, Leitch recalled how her mentor and champion called her saying: “I hear you’re running for office.”
Ah no, she thought, well maybe, in the future, perhaps. But Flaherty pressed the case and called her every couple of days for five months.
Running wasn’t an easy decision, she says. But several of her mentors in the medical field encouraged her; they believed having someone at the decision-making table with her medical experience could help more people.
After winning the riding (and defeating Guergis who ran as an Independent) in the 2011 election, Leitch was appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister of human resources and skills development. Two years later, she was promoted to minister of labour as well as minister of status of women.
Among her accomplishments, she lists two things that would not have happened without her — none are related to health care. First, she says the Accountability Act wouldn’t have been amended to allow parliamentarians to practice their profession as volunteers. Second, the women entrepreneur mentorship program, “It Starts With One,” would not have gotten off the ground.
“I don’t think anyone else was focused on that. But I can’t really speak for anything else.”
Her phone goes off. She looks at it and then back up. Did she help shape the conversation, she asks rhetorically. “For sure. Do I think that I am a unique individual and I was the only person who could do certain things? No. I think there are a lot of people who are parliamentarians and a lot of Canadians have great ideas and can help shape the direction of government and parliamentary policy.”
One of her former colleagues, new Alberta Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney, has suggested that Leitch’s desire to screen newcomers for so-called Canadian values is an ill-informed move designed to create populist support.
“I don’t take her position seriously; she’s never articulated it before,” the former federal immigration minister said in a speech last fall.
“She’s never said a word about this in Parliament, caucus or cabinet. I don’t think she understands the nuance around these issues. You have to be very careful in the way you articulate questions about integration,” Kenney told a crowd in Calgary.
Leitch won’t comment. “A: Cabinet confidentiality is important and B: I was never minister of immigration last I checked.”
“Stephen Harper had a very firm view of what he wanted to do on immigration policy, and as I say, my decisions are based on a Senate standing committee [report] that came out in 2015. Last time I checked in July 2015, we were standing in an election campaign. We weren’t sitting at the cabinet table,” she retorts.
Moreover, she adds: “If I had commented on immigration, how do you think those ministers would have reacted? … Politics is a team sport and you are given your role.”
Leitch has not shied away from attacking colleagues who have criticized her policy stances. She’s suggested they are out-of-touch and weak. During a debate in Moncton, leadership challenger Maxime Bernier derided Leitch as a “karaoke version of Donald Trump.”
On the night of Trump’s presidential victory, Leitch did try to latch onto the businessman’s successful campaign strategy.
“Tonight, our American cousins threw out the elites and elected Donald Trump as their next president. It’s an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well. It’s the message I’m bringing with my campaign to be the next Prime Minister of Canada,” she wrote in a fundraising note sent right after the U.S. election results.
Leitch’s “words are hollow,” Bernier would later write in his own fundraising note, painting her campaign as an effort to garner headlines and raise her name recognition.
“A few months back, she was on CBC crying because she wished she could take back her words about ending barbaric cultural practices in Canada,” Bernier wrote, referring to the Conservative 2015 campaign announcement Leitch made about a proposed RCMP tip line.
Leitch fired back, saying: “Many of my colleagues ... are intimidated by the media.
"Just because the media and the elites don’t want to have this discussion, doesn’t mean we should be afraid of it,” she said.
Despite Leitch’s achievements and her status as a six-figure earner, Leitch frequently attacks the “elites” in her fundraising notes and in the public square.
She boasts about having 18 letters after her name: The Hon. Dr. K. Kellie Leitch, P.C., O.Ont., M.D., M.B.A., F.R.C.S.(C) — where “P.C.” refers to being a privy councillor, “O.Ont.” represents her Order of Ontario, F.R.C.S.(C) means she is a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada and the two other letters, she references, may refer to her bachelor's’ degree or being a member of Parliament — but she says that doesn’t make her an elite.
“I’m not. I have a great education, don’t get me wrong, and I worked really hard for it, like many other young Canadians did. But I grew up in a middle-income class family. My mom didn’t even have a high school education. And I worked hard,” she says, still picking at her salad.
Says she isn’t member of the ‘elite’
“I think that someone who is an elite thinks they can impose their views on other people. That is an elitist, that’s what I’m talking about.”
The people of Fort McMurray, where she grew up or in Collingwood, Ont., where she resides, have a completely different view than those “elites.”
She’s referring to immigration again. She really wants to talk about immigration.
Her plan has been roundly criticized as unworkable. Some anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage activists have raised concerns that her “Canadian values” test would ban people like them from entering the country.
Leitch, a Roman Catholic and self-described "pro-lifer,” disagrees. When pressed, her plan is actually less obtrusive than she lets on.
As the conversation continues, it becomes clear Leitch doesn’t want to subject all visitors to face-to-face interviews. What she means is only that visitors will be asked questions by Canadian border guards when they arrive in Canada — in other words, the status quo.
She concedes that imposing face-to-face interviews on all Canadian immigrants “will slow things down.” But she insists her plan’s goal is not to lower immigration numbers.
“The purpose is to protect Canadian values and to ensure that we meet the people who want to come here and that the people we welcome are people who agree with our shared values.”
Does it bother her that some Conservatives believe her campaign is hurting the party?
“I don’t believe it is,” she responds. “I’m out talking about Canadian values in a very positive and constructive way.” She repeats that phrase several times during the interview.
Critics point out white nationalist groups, such as the Council of European Canadians, have endorsed Leitch. She says she hasn’t sought nor wants their support.
“I can’t control or police every Canadian. Like, I can’t. I think that is an unrealistic expectation. What I can do, is what I have done when extremists from the right or white supremacists want to join my campaign, I deny them joining and I deny them joining the party.”
Her plan isn’t racist or anti-immigrant, she says. “We are a pro-immigration country. Immigrants have built our nation.”
Immigrants have also chosen to come to Canada because of its values and they don’t want to see the country change, she adds. They don’t want Canada to become a place where fundamentalist Muslims are preaching violence on park corners? “Exactly,” she responds.
“There is a reason why my family chose to come to this country decades ago, I think it’s the reason why immigrants come to this country…
“In this country, men and women are equal. Little boys in class think little girls in class should be and can be better than them.… You can practice whatever religion you like. You can express your cultural views like you know, celebrations as you want. And we don’t impose views on other people. I think that is the Canada that people want to protect and want to maintain.”
So are Canadian values under threat then?
“I don’t think saying that I want to protect them means I think they are under threat,” Leitch responds. “Lots of people try to imply that, but it is just not the case. You protect the people you love every day whether you think they are threatened or not.… It’s not about that … I think safeguarding is good, I think protecting is good.”
If values are not being threatened, why is she focused on protecting them?
Leitch begins her answer by saying she doesn’t think those values are challenged and then she raises the stakes. “If you’re asking me if there is some huge big threat to myself, my family or anything like that... I don’t claim that I’m protecting my sister or making sure that my sister is safe and secure just because every minute of the day she isn’t threatened by something, I think it is a false association.”
After the deadly Quebec City mosque shooting, a banner was hung from Leitch’s constituency office asking her to resign. It said, “Hate puts us all at risk,” and listed the victims: Azzeddine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry.
"People call me a racist and that’s just not the case. It’s just not the case. You know, I’m a pediatric surgeon. I’m a pretty compassionate person."
Did the banner give her pause?
Leitch doesn’t like the question.
What upset her was that people were trying to intimidate her staff, she says. It didn’t make her reflect on doing anything differently, but rather led her to focus on those behind the banner who should consider how their “bullying tactics” made a young woman feel unsafe, she says.
“We didn’t choose to have that sign put up.”
She flatly dismisses any questions about regrets she might have about her campaign’s language or even the Conservatives’ focus on identity politics.
“I think it is a bit of a stretch, in fact, an enormous stretch to say that I had anything to do with that incident. Be serious. Be serious,” she suddenly responds, looking up defiantly in response to an inference that was not made. “That is what you are saying they were suggesting. Both their actions and your inference is wholly and totally inappropriate.”
Controversial campaign manager quit
The outburst over, Leitch says one of the biggest misconceptions about her is that she’s mean and has “certain views on immigration.”
“People call me a racist and that’s just not the case. It’s just not the case. You know, I’m a pediatric surgeon. I’m a pretty compassionate person. I volunteer my time at the children’s hospital. I don’t get paid there…
“I think it’s unfortunate that people want to portray me that way, but hey, as I said before on other things, I don’t get to pick.”
Leitch does get to pick who she associates with. Many Conservatives link her anti-Canadian values drive to successful Tory strategist Nick Kouvalis. He recently quit as her campaign manager, after calling a constitutional expert who disagreed with Leitch’s policies a “cuck” — short for cuckold, a term used by white nationalists and the alt-right — on Twitter.
Kouvalis still volunteers on her campaign.
“My dad says he’s an artist,” Leitch says of Kouvalis.
'I’ve had a number of boyfriends but it just hasn’t stuck'
The closest figure in Leitch’s life right now seems to be her soon-to-be 74-year-old father. She calls him her “best friend.”
Leitch, who once dated fellow Conservative MP Peter Van Loan, told Toronto Life magazine last fall that there was a new man in her life. She declined to elaborate on her love life with HuffPost. But she did tell the magazine that one day she would love to have kids.
“I’ve had a number of boyfriends but it just hasn’t stuck. Hopefully in the future that will happen, and I’ll be blessed with a family, too.”
For now, there’s the trip that she takes with her dad every year since her graduation from med school. They’ve been to Italy, Australia, Japan, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. This year, they plan to go to Peru.
If she doesn’t win this leadership contest, Leitch says, she plans to stick around and run again in 2019. “I feel very strongly that if you make commitments, you should fulfill them.”
HuffPost Canada is profiling each of the 2017 Conservative leadership candidates, leading up to the May decision:
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