Though Erin O’Toole was elected head of Canada’s Conservative Party last week, the star of the race was contender Leslyn Lewis. The obscure Toronto lawyer with no experience in elected office has overnight become one of the country’s most intriguing political phenomena.

Canadian party leadership elections often feature private citizens mounting long-shot campaigns, but never has one caught fire like Lewis’s bid. Her campaign to lead the Conservatives raised nearly 2 million Canadian dollars (about $1.5 million in U.S. money), and her election night performance was astonishing. In the initial round of voting, she placed first in dozens of districts across the country, and first in the popular vote during the election’s second round (the Conservative Party uses a multi-round, ranked-ballot electoral system to pick its leader).

Lewis’s success came despite many traditional deficiencies. Though calm and well-spoken, Lewis isn’t particularly charismatic. Her debate performances were weak. Given the pandemic conditions of the campaign, she can’t be credited with filling auditoriums or delivering electrifying speeches. Much of her communication with the public occurred through blog entries and Facebook posts. It’s hard to think of any viral moments she enjoyed.

But her campaign excelled anyway, in part because of its symbolism.

Lewis is a Black woman, yet her primary appeal wasn’t to other minorities. According to Maclean’s, she “didn’t win a single riding where the majority of residents identified as visible minority.” She did, however, find eager embrace from white conservatives exasperated by what they perceive as endless accusations of racism and sexism from the left. I cannot count how many times I saw Lewis boosters on social media fantasize about forcing a sanctimonious white liberal such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to run against a woman who supposedly defies every stereotype he holds about the right.

It’s a phenomenon common in the United States, where no shortage of high-profile Black women have emerged as conservative media stars, from Candace Owens to Diamond and Silk — who often explicitly argue against the idea that politics is an extension of race. Like them, Lewis is ideologically firm and unapologetically Christian, salving any concern that embracing diversity requires philosophical compromise.

To some degree, this narrative about Lewis seems to have become the dominant one in the aftermath of the election. Though Canadian conservatives might be loath to admit it, the “Conservatives aren’t racists after all” line actually plays well among Canada’s smugly patriotic press, whose pundits are eager to push storylines that emphasize Canada as a beacon of multicultural harmony. More importantly, making the Lewis story all about race and gender, or some other abstract “appeal,” prevents another, probably more accurate storyline from emerging: that it was all about abortion.

Though Lewis is often euphemistically referred to as a “social conservative,” her main cause was abortion. After getting pregnant during law school, Lewis claims she faced “immense social pressures” to abort, and in resisting, came to appreciate the importance of the issue. Popular in the pro-life activist community, her threadbare campaign piggybacked on the infrastructure of Canadian antiabortion groups such as RightNow, the Campaign Life Coalition and the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, which provided her with strategists and manpower. Lewis solicited help on devising a pro-life platform with broad voter appeal, and accordingly campaigned on “four specific pro-life policies” that activists often argue most resemble Canadian mainstream opinion: bans on coerced and sex-selective abortions, more funding for pregnancy care, and no funding for abortions abroad.

The activists were delighted. Lewis proves “you can easily have a successful pro-life candidate, even one who is unknown to the majority, with messaging that resonates and appeals to the average voter,” Alissa Golob, co-founder of RightNow, told me.

In his first days as party leader, O’Toole has expressed nothing but warmth and support for Lewis, and Lewis has announced her intention to run for Parliament under his leadership. This is standard magnanimity, but it also makes the Conservative Party’s status as an awkward coalition of abortion supporters and foes quite explicit. O’Toole is the first Conservative leader to explicitly proclaim himself “pro-choice.” Yet he has linked arms with a woman who is now Canada’s most famous pro-life politician — as he had to, given her popularity.

Pundits have already framed this as a problem, since the Canadian media insist on framing abortion as a “closed debate” with no business in the country’s political discourse. The sophisticated antiabortion networks that made Lewis an overnight political celebrity, however, stand as proof that — despite decades of insistence to the contrary — abortion remains a powerful rallying force in Canadian politics.

Pro-choicers in all parties should take this as an opportunity to reflect on Canada’s abortion status quo — almost entirely unregulated and among the most permissive on Earth — and ponder if there perhaps exists any valid reason this divisive debate refuses to go away.

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