Michael Chong, who wants to be the new leader of Canada’s Conservative Party and the country’s first ethnic Chinese prime minister, says his story starts in Hong Kong.
At a conference in February, Chong illustrated the point to a roomful of conservatives by showing two photos. He was sketching a vision for the party that would later see him launch his bid to replace ex-prime-minister Stephen Harper, who stepped down after losing last year’s federal election.
One photo showed Chong with wife Carrie and their three boys on their farm outside Fergus, Ontario. The second, a black and white 1929 portrait, showed his grandparents and their children, stiffly posing in Chinese silks in a Hong Kong studio. Chong’s grandmother was pregnant at the time with his father, Paul.
Twelve years after that photo was taken, Chong told his audience, his “Canadian story” began with the Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941, when the Royal Rifles of Canada tried in vain to defend the city against Japanese invaders. Impressed and touched, Paul Chong would set sail in 1952 to become a Canadian himself.
“My father never forgot the battle or the fact that Canadian soldiers came to the defence of him and his family,” Chong told This Week in Asia this month. “I remember him telling us about a poignant time between the end of the battle and before the prisoners were taken away to POW camps… He never forgot the sight of those Canadian soldiers sitting on the kerbstones.”
When Conservative Party members vote for a new leader in May 2017, they face two main considerations. Who among them is best placed to challenge Justin Trudeau, the new prime minister whose dashing persona stood in such contrast to the austere Harper?
The second question goes deeper: what does it mean to be a conservative in Canada?
If they decide Michael Chong is the answer to those questions, the Tories will be electing a mixed-race moderate, who supported the Kyoto climate-change accord in defiance of his party and who quit the cabinet on principle in 2006, when he disagreed with Harper’s recognition of Quebecois nationhood. He never returned to cabinet. Instead, the exile built on his wild card reputation with a singular achievement – authoring a private member’s bill known as the Reform Act that took power away from party leaders and handed it to MPs.
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They would also be getting an unsparing critic of the party’s focus on what he sees as “divisive social issues”, including the Tory election pledge to create a police hotline to report “barbaric cultural practices”. Opponents saw the hotline as fuel for Islamophobia.
“The ‘barbaric cultural practices’ hotline was a mistake,” Chong said on a trip to Vancouver. “It’s one of the reasons I’m in this leadership race. That doesn’t represent my Conservative Party, or my view of the country.”
Chong squarely blamed such policies for the loss of government last October. “It’s why people left the party. It’s why we lost the last election… We need a more inclusive party,” he said.
But the underlying issue just won’t go away. The day before Chong spoke to This Week in Asia, the Tory race was rattled by news that candidate Kellie Leitch was at it again, asking constituents if they supported screening immigrants for “anti-Canadian” values. The proposal rankles Chong but it is a popular one, backed by two-thirds of Canadians and a whopping 87 per cent of Conservatives, according to a recent Forum Research poll conducted for the Toronto Star.
In addition to Leitch, the former minister of labour and the status of women, Chong’s leadership rivals so far include the likes of former foreign minister Maxime Bernier and former health minister Tony Clement. The race opened up on Monday with the announcement by ex-ministerial heavyweight Peter MacKay – a former attorney general, defence minister and foreign minister – that he was not running.
Chong argued that the party needed to unite around a fiscally Conservative agenda, “and not focus on issues that pit one Canadian against the other”.
Trudeau has made diversity a key plank of his government’s image, but Chong said his side of politics has plenty to be proud of, rattling off a list including the first Canadian of Chinese descent in the House of Commons, Douglas Jung, and the first African Canadian MP, Lincoln Alexander.
Is his own ethnicity relevant to the leadership race? “I think the country is rapidly changing and we need leadership that reflects this diversity.”
Chong’s personal story may be one of diversity, but it’s as Canadian as maple syrup, too: his father worked as a lumberjack in British Columbia, before going to medical school and becoming one of Canada’s first ethnic Chinese doctors.
Michael Chong grew up in rural Ontario playing ice hockey on frozen ponds (and would go on to work for the NHL Players’ Association as chief information officer), but the tale isn’t simply one of small-town idyll.
There is tragedy, too.
When he was six, Chong’s Dutch-born mother, Cornelia, was killed in a traffic accident at a rural intersection outside Fergus.
A little over 20 years later, in 1999, Chong’s father was killed in a crash at the exact same intersection.
Chong has cited the losses, and the bizarre coincidence linking them, as formative events in his personal development. “Death is something that is always at the back of my mind,” he told the Toronto Star earlier this year.
As a mixed-race child in rural Ontario, Chong said he “went through the typical schoolyard bullying ... but that went away”. He spoke some Cantonese and went to weekend Chinese school “but it didn’t stick”, he added with a smile.
“As a kid, you don’t realise you are different until someone points it out. But it gave me a perspective on this country. It has given me a sense of the duality.”
Duality, but not division: that distinction would inform another key moment in Chong’s story, this time political.
Chong entered parliament in 2004. Two years later, at the ripe old age of 34 and virtually unknown, he was appointed by Harper to his cabinet with two portfolios, intergovernmental affairs and sport. In a stellar rise, he had become the second ethnic Chinese cabinet minister in Canadian history.
It didn’t last.
Just nine months later, Chong stunned colleagues and pundits by quitting cabinet over Harper’s parliamentary motion stating that “the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada”. “While I am loyal to my party and to my leader, my first loyalty is to this nation we call Canada,” Chong said at the time.
Reflecting on his subsequent decade-long backbench exile, Chong said: “I didn’t think about my career when I did that. I didn’t go to Ottawa to have a political career. I did it because I believe in certain things.”
The concept of a nation within a nation represented a red line for Chong, mindful of Canada’s “increasingly diverse society”. “In that context, we cannot build a society that is based on recognising and giving special status to groups of people based on their race, based on their ethnic origin. I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Chong’s image went from star-in-the-making to principled maverick. He cemented that with his Reform Act. Negotiating it into law last year in the face of intransigence within and outside his party was no mean feat.
The act gave MPs greater power to oust party leaders and expel fellow members from their caucuses. Too much power, Chong argued, resided in the Prime Minister’s Office. “The prime minister and other party leaders would still be immensely powerful under the proposals in the Reform Act. It’s just that they wouldn’t be all powerful,” he said at the time.
Parliamentary reform may seem arcane stuff, but Chong sees it as the very essence of democracy.
“There are many societies around the world that aren’t democratic, that have made huge advances in recent years,” he said. “But I believe that in the long run those societies will stumble and falter because they don’t have these democratic checks and balances.”
He agreed when asked if he was referring to China, adding “every society has to evolve at its own pace”.
Turning to Canada’s relationship with Beijing, Chong said Canada’s emphasis should be on ratification of the US-championed Trans-Pacific Partnership, and not the free-trade agreement with China that Trudeau has sought. He likewise said he would not have signed up to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. While applauding the rise of China, “not just for Canada but the world”, Chong said that for the foreseeable future Canada would rely on trade with the United States.
Chong still keeps a close watch on Hong Kong, where he regularly visits his aunts and “two dozen cousins”. He said he wants closer relations with China “in respect of Hong Kong, for one simple reason: there’s 300,000 Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong”.
Asked whether he sympathised with the rise of Hong Kong localism and a push for stronger local self-determination, Chong said Canada’s experience of federalism presented an opportunity to strengthen its relationship with China. “We [in Canada] are a federation, with diverse regions, two official languages…we can show how federalism works, that accommodates diverse points of view while maintaining the unity of a country,” he said.
And what message did Chong have to those 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong?
“Come home,” he said with a laugh.