Brad Trost does not believe that climate change threatens the planet, despite sweeping scientific consensus to the contrary.
He can’t get behind same-sex marriage, although it’s been legal in Canada for more than a decade and even his own party has moved on.
He’s vehemently anti-abortion. He opposes transgender rights. He was recently the only member of Parliament to vote against a bill declaring “gender equality week.”
And he’s running to be the next leader of the federal Conservatives with a campaign that not only won’t shy away from those views but parks them front and centre, discomfort be damned.
The veteran Saskatchewan MP drives himself to lunch at downtown Toronto’s Peter Pan Bistro in mid-March, a social conservative behind the wheel of a blue Honda in a neighbourhood with at least one marijuana dispensary and sex shop.
Trost is wearing a blue suit, light blue shirt, and red, striped tie. He’s also sporting cufflinks paying tribute to Hockey Night In Canada, the marquee show from the very Canadian Broadcasting Corporation he hopes to de-fund and shutter.
He has to head to an event in London, Ont. in a few hours, so he laments that the “burger and pint special” is out of the question. Trost says he’s been eating a lot of burgers these days as he criss-crosses the country preaching the gospel of “100 per cent” conservatism.
“Put it this way, (Maxime) Bernier’s campaign has raised more bucks than we do, so he can afford finer dining,” Trost says. “My guys don’t let me submit my meal tickets — or rather I haven’t been.”
He orders fish and chips — beer-battered cod with fries and mushy peas. He drinks only water.
First elected in 2004, the 42-year-old Saskatoon-University MP suggests he’s no fringe voice in a coalition that delivered a majority Conservative government, not so long ago. Yet, he also denies that he is running merely to carry the flag for the so-con wing of the party.
During a nearly two-hour conversation, Trost suggests more than once that he is giving voice to views other Tory MPs possess but are reluctant to publicly express. And, in one revealing moment, he concedes something else most politicians are loathe to admit.
He wants attention. Lots of it.
“I’m a politician. I don’t talk to anyone without seeking attention,” he says. “I’m hoping you get a million readers for this article. If you only get one, I’ll be more upset than you.”
He describes himself as an “eastern Saskatchewan farm kid,” who grew up between the “two great metropolitan zones of Springside and Willowbrook.” The first town has a population of almost 600 people, he says, while he thinks the latter has fewer than 100.
He considers Melville, with its under-5,000 population, his hometown. His mother was a librarian in the city for decades while his dad worked the family farm.
The Trosts grew “what everyone else in downtown Toronto grows,” he jokes: oats, barley, and canola.
His father had been a teacher, mostly in junior high, but quit before Trost was born because he clashed with the teachers union. “The politics of the operation wasn’t good so he went back to farming,” he says.
The veteran MP, who stands a lanky 6’3”, is the middle of three brothers. He was home-schooled by his parents.
"I’m a politician. I don’t talk to anyone without seeking attention."
“I was Sam Oosterhoff before there was Sam Oosterhoff,” Trost says, referencing the youngest-ever member of the Ontario legislature who, shortly after his byelection victory at just 19, faced questions over his views on homosexuality.
Trost says he hadn’t discussed his childhood education in public much, but his campaign convinced him it made for an interesting talking point.
“You never put your high school down,” he says. “At my high school, I just happened to be the tallest and shortest guy in my class.”
Religion was a big part of his life growing up and remains so. He describes his family as a German Baptist-Mennonite mixture.
In addition to helping out on the farm, Trost worked at a bakery the year before he went to the University of Saskatchewan, starting at 4 a.m. The experience convinced him of the merits of a “regular job.”
He obtained bachelor’s degrees in geophysics and economics, spending his free time at the campus Reform Party club. After graduation, Trost worked as an exploration geophysicist — essentially a prospector — on mining projects in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, using electromagnetic tools to help identify where to drill.
“You talk about mining… boring, boring, boring to women,” Trost says. “And then all of a sudden you say, ‘Oh, I explored for diamonds’ and it’s amazing. I always got more interest when I said that than anything else. Copper? Boring. Gold? Boring.”
He became interested in running for public office because of a populist impulse that is almost unique to the Prairies. It’s a cultural thing among people who work for themselves, especially on farms, to be free about your views and stand up for what you believe in, he says.
It’s a culture where “literally anyone can get involved in the political system and anyone can be premier of Saskatchewan,” Trost says. Politics is not just for lawyers from Toronto or professors from Vancouver, but for everyone.
“That’s the populist message that Prairie politicians have had.”
Trost says people who grow up in Saskatchewan tend to either “be with the socialists or against them.” His family was clearly in the second camp.
He volunteered with his parents for various conservatives taking on New Democrats at the provincial and federal levels — the Progressive Conservatives, Saskatchewan Party, Reformers, and the Canadian Alliance.
Trost also worked on Stockwell Day’s Alliance leadership campaign in 2002 and soon began thinking seriously about taking his own shot at the House of Commons.
By the time the 2004 federal campaign came around, things were complicated in his then-riding of Saskatoon-Humboldt. The local Independent MP Jim Pankiw, who earlier left the Alliance in protest of Day’s leadership, was denied membership in the nascent Conservative Party of Canada because of allegations of belligerence towards an indigenous man in a bar.
Won first race by just 417 votes
Former Saskatoon mayor Henry Dayday, who five years earlier had ran for the Liberals in a byelection, was seeking the Tory nomination. That didn’t sit well with Trost.
“So, I stood up as the loyal Conservative in the race. The loyal, life-long right-winger who party loyalists were comfortable with. And I hustled and I won the nomination.”
Trost remembers feeling irked that the headlines of the day were all about the ex-mayor who lost the nomination bid, and not him.
The 2004 election result was razor-thin, largely because Pankiw ran again as an Independent and nabbed 20 per cent of the vote. Trost narrowly won, besting an NDP candidate by just 417 votes.
Two years later, Trost captured almost 50 per cent of the vote and has won by easy margins ever since.
Trost says that while his main interest in Ottawa has dealt with mining and energy policy — his first private member’s bill focused on foreign investment in uranium mines — he is best known nationally for pushing social conservative principles.
During his years as a backbencher, Trost spurred headlines — and headaches — by publicly slamming the Stephen Harper government for providing funds to the International Planned Parenthood Federation and to Pride festivals in Canada.
Trost claims he even gave Harper a tongue-lashing. Once.
It was in 2012, Trost says, when he was called into the prime minister’s office because a rumour was circulating that he was recruiting candidates to run against Tory incumbents who were backing an NDP bill on transgender rights.
“I have no idea where they got that but they called me in to read me the riot act, and I sort of told Harper off. The first time I’d ever seen him sort of lean back in his chair,” he says.
Trost says then-chief government whip Gordon O’Connor also warned him in that meeting not to bring forth an anti-abortion private member’s bill.
“And I told them that if I’m threatened with that again by the whip, I will guarantee you I will put the most pro-life private member’s bill out there that you have ever seen,” he says.
The episode was all the more confusing because Trost thought he was being called into the boss’ office to receive congratulations about his pending marriage.
Trost met his wife, Gerelt, when she introduced herself on election night in May 2011. A former political staffer in her native Mongolia, she had volunteered on Trost’s campaign. They started to date that summer.
“And roughly a year later, the boy-meets-girl thing worked, and we were married.”
The pair have a two-year-old daughter, Isabel.
“We’re from Saskatchewan but my family looks like it’s from downtown Toronto,” he says, a line he likes to use.
They share their home in Saskatoon with Gerelt’s 60-year-old mother.
“She loves me. Asian mothers-in-law think that their son-in-law is always correct, so who are we to argue the point?” Trost says. “I love her. Her English isn’t the greatest and my Mongolian is worse but she’s a lady of wisdom and integrity.”
A line in the sand
Trost became motivated to run for leader in part because of his opposition to Conservatives formally recognizing the rights of gay Canadians to marry the person they love, just as he did.
He led the charge to defend the “traditional definition of marriage” at the Tory policy convention in Vancouver last May, but delegates voted to scrap a formal policy opposing gay marriage.
In one memorable moment that weekend, Trost even compared the language of marriage equality to that of socialism on live television, yielding a look of disbelief from colleague Michelle Rempel, who was firmly on the other side of the debate.
“I would say… it drew a line in the sand,” Trost says, adding that many people reached out to him in the weeks that followed to say they were close to quitting the party.
“Same-sex marriage seemed to have been the trigger for a lot of people.”
Trost says he received a lot of letters calling out former minister Jason Kenney, who once opposed gay marriage but conceded that weekend that the earlier Tory position was “obsolete.”
“People will go to the wall if you stand for something,” Trost says. “And when you don’t stand for something, people are going to stand back and they’re just going to quit politics.”
Trost says keeping the traditional definition of marriage in the policy document would have sent a signal to voters that this “is an ideal which we think is good for society.” While political platforms are largely about what can be done practically, policy handbooks speak to ideals, “even if the ideals might be difficult.”
"I’ve been called a Nazi three or four times on Twitter. I mean, this is life. It’s no big deal. If it happens, it happens. People call you names in politics."
Trost also concedes it’s “very, very unlikely” the same-sex marriage issue will ever return for a third vote in the House of Commons.
He is unconcerned that many have concluded his advocacy on the issue means he has a problem with gay people.
“This may surprise people, but there are gay Conservatives who oppose gay marriage,” he says, laughing. “I suppose someone would say they are just self-loathing people but let’s be serious, you can have intellectual arguments and different positions regardless of where your background is.”
Trost suggests he isn’t overly bothered when people call him a bigot.
“I’ve been called a Nazi three or four times on Twitter. I mean, this is life. It’s no big deal. If it happens, it happens. People call you names in politics.”
Opposes Liberals’ transgender rights legislation
He also says there are “good, intelligent people” who have different views than his own. “And that’s the way we need to do it in a democracy.”
Trost is also a vocal opponent of Bill C-16, the Liberal government’s transgender rights legislation that has split the Conservative caucus. All 40 votes against the bill at second reading came from Conservatives, but a number of Tory leadership hopefuls — Michael Chong, Deepak Obhrai, Erin O’Toole, Lisa Raitt, and Steven Blaney — voted in its favour.
Trost and Andrew Scheer — a fellow MP from Saskatchewan — were the only Tory leadership candidates to vote against the bill in October. Maxime Bernier voted for C-16 but has since reversed himself and dubbed the bill a threat to free speech.
Trost finds Bernier’s about-face interesting.
“I have no idea if this is true or not but the joke is, ‘Jeesh, Bernier’s worried Trost is beginning to bite into his support,’” he says.
'The politically correct, make-believe world’
Trost doesn’t believe Bernier’s conversion is about a religious perspective —“I think he’s a Christmas and Easter Catholic” — but that he is coming at it from the libertarian side of things.
When asked why he opposes C-16, which would make it illegal under the Canadian Human Rights Act to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression, Trost says he doesn’t think it is a “major societal issue” that needs to be tackled at the highest level.
He says he’s worried about free speech and the notion that Canadians could find themselves in hot water for not using the preferred pronouns when addressing transgender people.
But Trost has been far more provocative about this topic online.
In a video he released on Twitter in February, Trost explained that he did not support a gender equality bill, in part, because he was irked by its references to individuals of minority gender identity and expression.
“I don’t fall into the politically correct, make-believe world that there’s more than two genders. There’s hims and there’s hers and that’s it, folks. We know that,” Trost said to the camera. “As a social conservative, arguing for multiple genders just ... undercuts the centrality of the family.”
Though Trost does not mention it during our lunchtime interview, he has also publicly derided C-16 as a “bathroom bill” and released materials online suggesting that its passage will somehow expose children to predators in public restrooms.
“Someone goes into the public restroom of a different gender, that can be a little unnerving for children and so-forth who are in that situation.”
But wouldn’t forcing transgender women into public restrooms for men increase their risk of facing assault?
Trost says no one wants to see violence, which is why many public places have private washrooms designed for one person to use at a time.
“You just try to find local ways to deal with it because if you legislate everything, someone is going to have a problem.”
Trost says he’s had a respectful exchange with a transgender constituent about this topic.
In the weeks since our interview, Trost released a fundraising pitch questioning why Conservative politicians would participate in Pride parades.
His campaign manager also took to Twitter with a video in which he states: “In case you haven’t noticed, Brad's not entirely comfortable with the whole gay thing.” Trost retweeted it.
Trost’s attack was featured in a Liberal fundraising pitch touting how Justin Trudeau was the first sitting prime minister to march in a Pride parade last summer. Braeden Caley, senior director of communications for the Liberal Party, urged supporters to chip in money to “stop Conservatives like Brad Trost from rolling back our progress.”
It’s worth noting that Liberals were holding their own convention in Winnipeg the same weekend that Trost watched his party change in front of his eyes. Trudeau addressed delegates and scored big laughs by pointing out out how Tories were debating the “merits of marriage equality.” In 2016.
“Better late than never,” Trudeau said to applause. “Who knows, 10 years from now, they might finally be willing to admit that climate change is real.”
Trost is clearly proud to be the “climate skeptic” in the Tory leadership race and has scored applause at events for downplaying the threat of global warming.
Trost, cutting into his fish with his fork, tells HuffPost he believes climate change is happening but the “man-made issues are minor and not of a major consequence.”
He concedes that the “majority opinion” is that human activity is causing climate change, a view shared by the Canadian Geophysicists Union. However, Trost says those who believe there is full consensus can go argue with Brian Pratt, his old sedimentology prof at the University of Saskatchewan.
“That’s the thing. When you are actually trained by someone who is… (an) anthropogenic climate change skeptic, it’s a little bit different. It’s funny, you get more respect as a climate change skeptic in the geology departments than you do in the liberal arts departments.”
He argues that major policy adjustments to tackle climate change are not needed because the case made for its threat hasn’t been overwhelming.
“Frankly, it’s bad environmental policy to concentrate on this one issue to basically the almost exclusion of others,” he says, pointing to the raw sewage dumped into the St. Lawrence River as an area worthy of more attention.
’Let’s be honest’
Trost says he is just being more truthful on this topic than other politicians, including the prime minister.
“Justin Trudeau is not going to make the Paris climate accord targets. The other candidates in the leadership race, with the exception of Michael Chong, aren’t planning on making it,” he says. “So, let’s be honest.”
When asked how many Tory MPs feel the same as him on this issue, Trost guesses that by the mid-mark of the Harper administration or roughly 2010, “half our caucus leaned to the skeptical side.” He suspects that’s down a little bit these days.
“I’m not the only one. I know that.”
In fact, Trost says another leadership candidate took a survey of caucus five or six years ago — he won’t “rat him out” — and was surprised to find that “half the guys in caucus actually believe climate change is real.”
“At the time, he was a skeptic. Now, let’s just say he’s not answering questions on that issue.”
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Trost laughs when he’s asked if he thinks some in the party would like him to clam up about this topic.
“The rank and file are way closer to my position than poor Michael Chong,” he says, referring to his rival who is proposing a carbon tax, coupled with income tax cuts. Earlier, Trost touted Chong as an example of an MP who is a “compass,” instead of a “weathervane.” He just disagrees on the direction Chong hopes to take the party.
But isn’t it dangerous for a public figure to state, in 2017, that climate change isn’t putting the Earth in peril?
“Prove it,” Trost responds, demolishing his fish in big gulps. “The climate models that have been arguing that point for years haven’t worked. Everyone always pulls out their favourite anecdote for why the climate is changing but climate changed forever.”
Trost also touted his work as a geophysicist when he spoke at an anti-carbon tax rally in Calgary last December, hosted by the incendiary right-wing Rebel Media website.
“This whole climate change agenda is not science, fact-based. It’s based on the government … wanting to take away our prosperity and to take away our freedoms,” he said at the time.
The room erupted in a standing ovation.
Trost pledged the “war” on oil, gas, and coal would be over if he becomes prime minister.
The Rebel has played something of an outsized role in the leadership race with its aggressive lobbying against anti-Islamophobia Motion 103 and attacks on leaders who dare to tax carbon emissions.
Trost tells the server clearing away his empty plate that the food was “very good.”
His ‘sort of people’
He was not at the infamous Rebel rally in Edmonton, where participants chanted to “lock up” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Leadership hopeful Chris Alexander spoke at the event and appeared to egg on the crowd, but later said he was mortified and tried to change the mantra.
As Alexander faced barbs for his performance, Trost added fuel to the fire. He tweeted that if he had been at the rally, he would have shouted “lock her up,” right along with the protesters. He also criticized interim Tory Leader Rona Ambrose for saying the rally-goers were behaving like idiots.
Lock her up? A democratically elected Alberta premier? Really?
Trost admits he was fishing for headlines, but says he was trying to make a point about how the media focused on a moment that was funny and silly, ignoring the legitimate opposition to the Alberta NDP government’s carbon tax. Conservatives, he says, piled on.
“My viewpoint was they’re de-legitimizing what these people are saying. They’re de-legitimizing their stand against the carbon tax and they’re not just saying, ‘They’re wrong,’ they’re saying, ‘They are bad people,’” Trost says. “And these are my sort of people.”
Trost thinks there was a whiff of classism in some of the coverage of that rally.
“These are just a bunch of working class slobs, they talk this. Let’s all scold them and say, ‘Bad, bad, bad,’” he says.
His campaign sought to push back in the most “provocative, newsworthy” way they could, but Trost disagrees that his tweets lowered the discourse.
“The argument of putting the story out that these people are brutish and rude and not polite, that was the lowering of the discourse in my opinion.”
Trost has spoken to other audiences some Conservatives avoid, including a rally outside Ontario’s Queen’s Park, where he compared changes to the province’s sexual education curriculum to the residential school system.
He’s also a regular fixture at the annual March for Life anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill.
But Trost admits a government bill restricting abortion rights would go down in defeat, even with a Tory majority. As a “pro-life prime minister,” however, he would support a backbencher’s bill on the issue.
Trost is focusing on two promises he thinks he can get through. He’d champion a push against sex-selective abortion and bring forth a bill for “unborn victims of crime,” such as the defeated “Cassie and Molly’s Law,” which he says can be seen as “pro-life or justice” legislation.
Trost also wants Canada to become the most “pro-adoption country in the Western world” by making it financially beneficial for people to adopt. Many details of that plan need to be worked out.
“You often get a little bit further with the carrot than the stick,” Trost says. “So, I would put a very heavy emphasis on the carrot.
“And here’s the thing: you talk to people who are not of my viewpoint on this issue, and you tell them we’re going to do what we can to be as positive and pro-adoption as any country in the world … the average Canadian’s not going to get upset at me.”
Trost says his views are “mainstream” among Saskatchewan MPs and most are not shy about them. He seems to be taking a dig at Scheer, the long-time MP from Regina—Qu'Appelle who has attracted the support of many social conservatives and is considered a top tier candidate in the race to replace Harper.
“I have not run from my social conservative roots. I’ve embraced them,” Trost says. “You can ask Andrew what his position is.”
‘We’re going to go all the way’
He isn’t sure how big the so-con wing of the party is but says “the group in our party who are hostile to it are by far the smallest group.”
Trost takes a gander at the dessert menu. He is disappointed to learn there’s no cheesecake.
“You know what, I think I’ll try the sticky toffee pudding,” he says.
The conversation shifts to his path to victory. Trost insists there is one.
“We’re going to go all the way.”
He just can’t explain how, citing a five-minute lecture from his team that thou shalt not talk strategy.
“I’m dying to explain to you how we could win,” he says. “I would love to go through how we have a shot at this.”
When it comes to beating Trudeau in 2019, Trost turns to numbers.
Thirty-three. That’s the number of ridings that he says are “majority visible-minority … where cultural conservatives can make a pitch.”
Two. That’s the number of ridings Trost says Tories currently hold — Markham-Unionville and Richmond, B.C. — with large Chinese-Canadian populations.
Fifteen or 20. That’s the number of seats, Trost says, that can make the difference between opposition and a minority government, or minority and majority.
“The Liberals are who the Liberals are. They’re entitled people who like to raise your taxes,” he says. “And that’s going to be the heart of the Conservative message.”
But it’s those “little pieces on the sides of the coalition” that will put Tories over the top, he says. The coalition that won Tories a majority in 2011 doesn’t need to be reinvented.
Trost is asked if he feels social conservatives get the respect they deserve in the party, in that coalition.
“They are in this leadership race,” he says.
Perhaps it’s instructive then to go back to that clip of Trost on the day Tory delegates finally voted to turn the page on opposing same-sex marriage.
It was the day that evidently set him on the path to taking his message to a larger microphone.
“This is my party, too,” Trost said at the time. “I’m not going to be shoved out.”
HuffPost Canada is profiling each of the 2017 Conservative leadership candidates, leading up to the May decision:HuffPost Canada is profiling each of the 2017 Conservative leadership candidates, leading up to the May decision:
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