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'If you show up, I win': Inside Patrick Brown's drive for Conservative leadership

OTTAWA — An apology to the Tamil community, improving cricket infrastructure and putting a visa office in Kathmandu are just some of the promises Patrick Brown has made in hopes of becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Patrick Brown announces his candidacy for the federal Conservative Leadership at a rally in Brampton, Ont., on Sunday, March 13, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

OTTAWA — An apology to the Tamil community, improving cricket infrastructure and putting a visa office in Kathmandu are just some of the promises Patrick Brown has made in hopes of becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. 

But a search for these pledges on the campaign website and social media accounts of the Brampton, Ont., mayor comes up empty.

They appear only to exist in pitches Brown has delivered to leaders and members of the country's Tamil and Nepalese communities. He is courting them, along with other immigrant and racialized Canadians, to buy party memberships as the clock ticks down to a June 3 deadline for leadership candidates to sign up new members. 

His main rival, Pierre Poilievre, is drawing crowds by the thousands. Meanwhile Brown, a former MP and leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives, has been criss-crossing the country, making his case to rooms of sometimes as few as 20. 

A glimpse into his strategy can be found in videos shared on Facebook by those who attended such events, including a meeting Brown had with Muslim community members in British Columbia. Seventeen minutes of the event were livestreamed April 1. 

"In the existing Conservative membership, Pierre is more popular. The existing Conservative membership wants someone who is more hard-right," says Brown, seated on a couch as others appear in nearby chairs and listen to him answer their questions.

"My path to victory is not winning the party membership," he says. "My path to victory is bringing new people in and having a decent level of support within the party."

He says his team has a large campaign in the Sikh, Muslim, Tamil and Chinese communities "that have all felt mistreated by the party.”

After a brief pause, Brown says: "If we pull this off, this is part of Canadian history." 

Since entering the race, Brown has fashioned himself as a fighter for religious freedoms, pointing to his vocal opposition of the controversial secularism law in Quebec known by its legislative title of Bill 21. Passed in 2019, it prohibits public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, including hijabs, turbans and kippahs, on the job. 

Yet Brown goes further in his meetings with members of minority communities. He bills the leadership contest as a chance for them to see their interests better reflected in federal policy and a way to put both a friend and ally in the Prime Minister's Office — where he believes the next Conservative leader is headed, after three terms of Liberal rule.

Among those he's targeting are Nepalese Canadians. His campaign includes a co-ordinator dedicated to signing up at least 5,000 from the community. 

In a roughly 36-minute Facebook video shared April 3, Brown tells a room of Nepalese Canadians in Mississauga, Ont., that as a group, they have "never played a significant role in a Conservative party leadership."

Getting involved will open the door to seeing community members represented in the country's institutions of power, he says, noting the lack of Nepalese faces within government. 

"If you're not part of the process, it's easy to get forgotten," Brown says.

Near the end of the video, he requests their help by adding, "I never forget those that are part of my journey. We support each other. We create opportunities for each other." 

That speech followed one livestreamed on March 13, the day the Brampton mayor launched his leadership bid at a rally in the Greater Toronto Area city.

In the video, he promises a room of Nepalese community members that as prime minister, he would station a visa office in the country's capital of Kathmandu and invest in cricket infrastructure. 

With regard to the Tamils, an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, Brown has credited their community leaders and members for signing up in record numbers during Ontario's 2015 Progressive Conservative leadership race. He won the contest and reported selling a whopping 40,000 memberships. 

Speaking to Tamil Canadians at an event in Quebec last month, Brown expressed support for putting a consular office in the Sri Lankan city of Jaffna and pledged to deliver Tamils an apology as prime minister.

"In the years leading up to 2009, Canada was on the wrong side of history," said Brown. 

That year, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which Public Safety Canada lists as a Sri Lankan-based terrorist organization, was defeated. Ottawa says in its listing the group, formed in 1976 to advocate for the creation of a homeland for the Tamils, has waged terror against civilians and assassinated Indian and Sri Lankan leaders. 

At a different Tamil event, a roughly three-minute clip posted to Facebook shows Brown seated at a table promising to "lift the ban" on the organization, saying he feels that Tamil Tigers were "acting in self-defence."  

In a statement to The Canadian Press, campaign spokesman Jeff Silverstein said Brown stands by his policy announcements. They will appear on his website in due course, as the campaign’s immediate focus is on selling memberships, he said. 

Silverstein added Brown believes it's time to remove the terrorist designation for the Tamil Tigers because of the stigma community members face. 

He also said Brown's relationship with the Nepalese Canadian community goes back 15 years and that his campaign team reflects the country's diversity. 

By April 8, the campaign said, Brown had attended about 200 events over the previous three weeks. 

Brown's campaign said he’s trying to rebuild bridges the party burned during its re-election campaign in 2015. Back then, the Tories, led by former prime minister Stephen Harper, promised to establish a tip line for so-called barbaric cultural practices and pushed a bill banning the wearing of face coverings, such as niqabs, during citizenship ceremonies.

A report into the Conservatives’ 2021 election loss acknowledged the party is still dealing with long-term damage to its image within some ethnic communities.

Brown is campaigning on the fact that, in 2015, Poilievre was in government and his campaign aide Jenni Byrne was the party's national campaign manager.

In a 20-minute video of a meeting with Muslim leaders in Calgary in mid-April, Brown points to this history. He says he doesn't want to see the political polarization created in the U.S. under former president Donald Trump imported into Canada.

At one point, he tells his audience he doesn't know how "Pierre votes against condemning Islamophobia." In 2017, both Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs voted against a motion brought forward by a Liberal MP in the House of Commons to condemn it.

"This Conservative leadership's a battle for the soul of the party," Brown told the room.

"If you show up, I win." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2022.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press