11/17/2018 15:16 EST | Updated 11/17/2018 16:20 EST

Doug Ford’s Cuts Already Pose A Hurdle For Andrew Scheer’s Ambitions

At some point, the federal Conservative leader will need to distance himself from Ontario's populist premier.

It was over in less than 25 seconds but the damage might have been done.

Standing on stage, at the Toronto Congress Centre, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer held his left arm up, hand in hand with Ontario Premier Doug Ford's extended right arm, in a victorious sign as the two smiled. Ford gave a thumbs up to the crowd of Tory delegates.

Scheer had carefully, until then, avoided saying Ford's name in French during his bilingual speech at the PC convention Saturday.

The Canadian Press
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, left, is joined on stage by Ontario Premier Doug Ford after addressing the Ontario PC Convention in Toronto on Nov. 17, 2018.

In English, he had twice referred to "my friend, Doug Ford." In English, he had praised Ford's government saying: "This is truly a government for the people." In English, Scheer had commented on "what great leadership [Ford] is providing."

"The sense of optimism in the province of Ontario thanks to Premier Ford's leadership is exhilarating," he declared.

"It's fun to watch," he added, noting Ford's recent actions of cutting taxes and moving towards balanced budgets.

But Ford is also cutting services. And, for Scheer, there lies the problem.

Franco-Ontarians were stunned this week when Ford reneged on an election promise to fund a francophone university in Toronto and announced that the office of the French-language commissioner would be scrapped — giving the province's ombudsman the option to hear complaints and issue reports, if he so desires.

For Scheer, the lesson is that the closer he aligns himself with Ford, the more he will be called to answer for that government's policies.

The response in the francophone community was swift. "Black Day For Francos," read the headline attached to Ford's picture in the eastern Ontario daily, Le Droit.

Radio-Canada offered wall-to-wall coverage. Former provincial Liberal cabinet minister and French-language advocate, Madeleine Meilleur, described how this betrayal of the community brought back the outrage from the 1997 decision of the Mike Harris government to close the francophone Montfort Hospital. (The community mobilized, launched a court challenge, and the Ottawa hospital was later saved.)

An adviser to former PC leader Patrick Brown commented that Ford's decision would cost the party support in the francophone community and five seats in the legislature.

TFO, the province's publicly funded French-language educational channel, went so far as to publish Ford's cellphone number (which he hands out liberally), somewhat encouraging Franco-Ontarians to give the premier a piece of their mind (which they did).

The bigger problem for Scheer, though, is the immediate and strong response Ford's cuts received in Quebec, where the federal Conservative Party is trying to rebuild former prime minister Brian Mulroney's coalition of centre-right nationalist/independentist voters.

Chris Young/CP
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer addresses the Ontario PC Convention in Toronto on Nov. 17, 2018.

Francophone Quebecers care passionately about language rights — including those outside their province. It's an issue of language and community survival, and it makes them question their own place in the Canadian federation.

This week, the Montreal Gazette, the Journal de Montréal, and Le Devoir all published columns denouncing Ford's decision.

The mayor of Quebec, Régis Labeaume, judged the move "mean" and suggested Ford might be trying to create a little "linguistic crisis" to please anglophones. Franco-Ontarians who are fighting to preserve their culture didn't deserve this, he told reporters.

Quebec Premier François Legault was also pressed on the issue and pledged to raise the issue during a meeting with Ford scheduled for Monday.

In New Brunswick, the issue reverberated with media reports suggesting the Ford cuts might signal bad news for the francophone minority in that officially bilingual province.

Scheer avoided the media Saturday and so far hasn't commented on Ford's decision. But at some point he will be forced to distance himself — something, right now, he doesn't want to do.

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The Conservative leader, by his own admission, faces an uphill battle in the lead-up to the federal election next fall.

As he told the crowd Saturday: "We need every dollar you can spare, every hour of extra time you have, every drop of sweat that you can give. It's going to take all of that and probably then some" in order to be victorious in 2019.

Scheer is trying to tap into the same populist "common sense" anti-"elite" tide the Tories think Ford won on — a tide than can be seen in other countries around the world.

While populist anti-establishment parties are often very good at tapping into people's sense of frustration that they aren't getting ahead — they don't always govern with those interests in mind.

While Ford talks about being "for the people," in his fiscal update this week, he appears to be governing for only some people.

Chris Young/CP
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his chief of staff Dean French share a joke as they wait to hear federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speak at the Ontario PC Convention in Toronto on Nov. 17, 2018.

It's hard to see how getting rid of rent control helps those who struggle to make ends meet, or how scrapping a tax on high-income earners helps pay down the deficit.

It's easy, though, to see why Ford would want to silence his likely critics — by getting rid of three independent watchdogs: the environment commissioner, the linguistic commissioner and the child advocate who had been raising concerns about Indigenous children in foster care, for example.

For Scheer, the lesson is that the closer he aligns himself with Ford, the more he will be called to answer for that government's policies.

The federal Liberals have tried for two years to paint Scheer as prime minister Stephen Harper 2.0., but it may be Ford who offers voters in Ontario, and across Canada, a better view of where Scheer's priorities lie.

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