OTTAWA—Pierre Poilievre may be the front-runner in the Conservative party’s leadership race. But when it comes to one of the main themes of this contest, there’s another contender who has walked ahead of him — and in one case, literally.
In mid-June, former Ontario MPP Roman Baber walked for 15 kilometres on the shoulder of an Ontario highway alongside James Topp, a leading figure of the anti-vaccination-mandate movement.
Topp’s cross-Canada march was set to culminate in Ottawa for Canada Day, amid fears his supporters would seek to occupy the capital in a manner similar to the so-called “Freedom Convoy” earlier this year.
Concerns were also raised that some of Topp’s allies had nefarious aims to undermine or overthrow the government, as well as racist views.
None of this stopped Baber, who billed his march alongside Topp as one of the best days of his campaign, and turned it into a promotional video highlighting his promises to restore democratic freedoms to Canada.
Poilievre’s campaign also circles around those themes, and he’s drawn support from that same protest movement — one of the trucks camped out in downtown Ottawa had a banner calling for Poilievre to become prime minister.
Initially, Topp told his supporters Poilievre had declined to join him, a move some viewed as a bit of a slap, and criticism emerged that Poilievre was snubbing the protesters as being potentially politically toxic.
Yet, as Topp arrived in Ottawa for the final days of his walk, Poilievre appeared for a two-kilometre stretch near a suburban shopping plaza.
It was a few steps for Poilievre but another leap for his campaign’s alliance with the forces that led to the convoy protest earlier this year. It also drew national attention and renewed criticism from those within the party and outside who want Tories to divorce themselves from the convoy crowd.
Baber’s own walk, however, went largely unnoticed, a far cry from the days when Baber himself was the focus of attention on the “freedom” file.
In January 2021, another vicious wave of the pandemic was gripping the province, vaccine delivery was in its infancy, and most scientific guidance was pointing to isolation as being crucial to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Yet Baber claimed at the time that lockdowns weren’t working, and blamed them for an avalanche of other social problems.
“Lockdowns are deadlier than COVID,” he wrote in an open letter to Premier Doug Ford, arguing that while the virus was real, it was not as deadly as first believed and Ontario’s hospital capacity was stronger than ever before.
At the time, the province was actively warning hospitals to prepare to transfer patients to other cities due to capacity pressures, and intensive care doctors were also being told they were on the cusp of having to triage patients to determine who would get care in the event there simply weren’t enough resources to go around.
Health-care professionals, scientists and mental health organizations all jumped on Baber’s claims as misinformation or mischaracterization of the facts. So did Ford, who responded to Baber’s criticism by ejecting him from the Progressive Conservative caucus.
The move turned Baber into one of the earliest political casualties of the pandemic, but he didn’t let up.
Although he was vaccinated against COVID-19, Baber was also an early opponent of mandatory vaccination, trying to get the Ontario legislature to pass a private member’s bill that would bar people from losing their jobs over their vaccination status.
All of this was well before the issue would surface as a key one during the 2021 federal election campaign and afterwards, leading to the massive protest movement that occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks earlier this year and briefly paralyzed border points, leading to the historic invocation of the Emergencies Act.
That has become a key flashpoint in the Conservatives’ leadership race, with all six candidates jockeying to prove their political credentials on the freedom fight file.
One of them, Patrick Brown, has since been disqualified over alleged financial improprieties, although he is exploring an appeal.
Yet when Baber is asked whether he sees his rivals as stealing his thunder, he pauses, takes a deep breath and answers with a politician’s circumspection.
It’s a sign, he said, he’s managed to achieve something of substance in the party’s third leadership contest in five years — getting the party back to being what it should be, a fighter for Canadians and what matters.
“Even if we don’t win, we’ve changed the conversation,” he told the Star in a recent interview.
But he also insists he’s not running solely on the back of his record on COVID-19 restrictions.
What’s propelled him into politics is where he was born: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
One of his earliest memories is of his grandfather and father reading a Jewish prayer book and warning him if anyone found out they owned it, the family would be sent to a labour camp.
It’s a fear of living under a dictator’s thumb, and also knowing the havoc politics could wreak on a family’s life, that motivates his own political passions.
“I’ve always felt that there was a profound difference that government can make on people’s lives,” he said.
“And so rather than just yelling at the TV, I’ve always felt that I could bring some of my skills and my love towards people, my love for people, to politics.”
His family fled in 1989 for Israel, where he learned English thanks to watching a lot of American TV and to his mother, a teacher.
They landed in Toronto several years later.
He made the leap first into campus politics, and then the provincial world, also dabbling in federal efforts, including helping Peter MacKay run for the federal Conservative leadership in 2020.
Yet, he says he sees politics as one of the problems with democracy today.
“Politics is the cancer on government, because it always gets in the way,” he said, citing politicians’ personal ambitions to get re-elected or appease stakeholders as creating friction with the creation of public policy.
Between that and what he sees as a lack of accountability within the public service, the system as it is doesn’t work, he said.
Yet, he still wants to run it.
“I guess I’m still idealistic and optimistic,” he said.
“Despite witnessing what I believe to be a public policy catastrophe in the last two and a half years, I feel that we can solve some of the issues that Canadians are facing.”
His ideas include ending the government-managed supply of certain agricultural sectors, ripping up the equalization payment systems for provinces in favour of a tax cut, and rolling out a national autism plan.
How much traction those ideas have gained within the party is hard to measure.
He wouldn’t disclose how much money his campaign has raised, nor how many of the estimated 675,000 members who have signed up did so directly for him.
But he said the recent tours he’s been doing around the country have been replete with people excited and interested by his message and he feels good about his prospects.
What he’ll do if he doesn’t win — he’s considered a long shot — is an open question. Some have suggested he’ll easily get the nod to run for the party in the next election, but he won’t commit.
“I don’t want to speculate about the future,” he said.
“I’m committed to this race and to winning this race. I’m committed to the tens of thousands of Canadians that have been supportive of me.”