There’s an intersection just outside of town that Michael Chong can’t avoid. It’s where he lost both parents in separate car accidents, two decades apart.
Sitting down for lunch at the Brew House on the Grand in Fergus, Ont., Chong explains that the spot is not far from here.
It’s down the road from his house as well as the home in which he grew up. Naturally, his mind goes back to that gut-punch coincidence each time he drives through. Only for a moment.
“You don’t dwell on it,” the 45-year-old says, a slight cold detectable in his voice on this the first day of spring.
The story of Chong’s parents — chiefly, their experiences coming to Canada as immigrants — is key to understanding his campaign for the federal Conservative leadership at a time of rocky renewal. So too is the tragic way they left him at very different stages of his life.
“This is the greatest country in the world,” Chong says. “I literally would not be in front of you here today if it wasn’t for Canada.”
A member of Parliament for Wellington-Halton Hills since 2004, Chong says he is largely in public life because of what he sees as an unpaid debt. The sacrifices of Canadian troops are intricately connected to the stories of both his father and mother.
His dad, Paul, was born in Hong Kong. At age 12, he witnessed Canadian soldiers defend the then-British colony from the Japanese. The Battle of Hong Kong is often forgotten, Chong says, because it happened at roughly the same time as the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But hundreds of Canadians died in battle and are buried at the Sai Wan Cemetery, “one of the most poignant pieces of Canada on the face of the Earth,” Chong says. “My father never forgot that sacrifice.”
Chong’s father came to Canada in 1952. He worked odd jobs, including a stint as a lumberjack in British Columbia, before earning a medical degree. Chong’s website notes his dad was one of the first Canadians of Chinese descent to be accepted into a medical school in this country.
Paul Chong married a nurse, Cornelia de Haan, who had immigrated from the Netherlands in the 1960s. Her family was also liberated by Canadian troops in the spring of 1945, after what the Dutch call the “winter of hunger.”
They settled down in Wellington County and Chong’s mother eventually gave up nursing to raise their four children. In 1978, she was killed in a crash while heading out to buy groceries. Chong, the oldest of the kids, was just six.
“It grows you up really quickly when you lose a parent at such a young age,” he says, pausing as the server comes to take his order.
Chong asks for a cheeseburger and side salad.
“You realize that you have to take every day, one at a time. And put everything into what you do. You face your mortality pretty young.”
Two years later, Chong’s father remarried another Dutch-born woman named Adriana, who helped raise Chong, his sister, and two younger brothers. He practiced medicine in Wellington County and Guelph for decades.
Chong was 27 when his father was killed in that familiar place in 1999, with the same local police officer investigating.
When asked about coming to terms with that twist of fate, Chong explains that car accidents are a “fact of rural life,” where there’s often a lot more driving at high speeds and over long distances.
As a young man going to school in Toronto, about 90 minutes away by car, Chong was struck one day by the realization that he had gone whole years without losing someone close in a crash.
The leadership hopeful has made a point of referencing his parents in his campaign materials, including a video produced by his team. He says it provides context for why he’s running and the kind of leader he aspires to become.
“I think politics is about your story,” he says. “It’s about who you are, where you come from, what experiences inform you.”
Chong projects pride in his roots, noting he “grew up on a dirt side road” and is the only leadership contender who lives on a farm. His childhood was one of pond hockey and playing in the bush. As a teen, he worked as a farmhand for his neighbour’s cattle operation.
He also speaks of “small-town values,” which includes looking out for neighbours. It’s perhaps risky ground to cover with a visiting Toronto journalist, considering how rival Kellie Leitch was lampooned for inferring big-city folks aren’t the kind you can ask for a cup of sugar.
“Frankly, I think my belief in the need to conserve our environment for future generations comes from the fact that I grew up in this area,” he says. “It’s a beautiful landscape and I think we have a responsibility of protecting it for future generations.”
But Chong suggests he’s familiar with another aspect of rural life — the urge to leave. At least for a while.
“When I was 18, like any small-town boy in rural Ontario, I couldn’t get out of her fast enough.”
He ended up at the University of Toronto, where he studied philosophy and first set eyes on his future wife, Carrie.
“We met in frosh week,” he says, laughing.
They became friends but didn’t start dating seriously until their late 20s because each headed on different paths, which for her meant returning to her native British Columbia and some time in Japan. They’ve been married for almost 15 years and have three sons: William, 12, Alistair, 9, and Cameron, 7.
A passion for politics was ingrained in Chong after his local MP, Perrin Beatty, spoke at his high school. Though he joined the U of T’s campus Progressive Conservative club and was a delegate at an Ontario PC convention in 1990, he never mulled a life as a political staffer.
At 26, Chong co-founded the Dominion Institute, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness about Canadian democracy and civics. The group has since merged with Historica Canada, makers of the much-loved “Heritage Minute” commercials.
Chong spent a decade working in Toronto’s financial services sector with Barclay’s Bank and Research Capital Corporation. He also served as chief information officer for the NHL Players’ Association, something he describes as a “great job in an intense environment.”
He envisioned running for office in his 50s or 60s, after he’d retired and raised his kids. A friend pulled him aside to warn against waiting for a door to open.
“Sometimes you can’t pick your opportunity, your opportunity picks you,” Chong recalls being told.
It was never a question where he would run. Chong wanted to go home.
“This is the community that I know and that I grew up in, so this is the community I wanted to represent,” he says. “The community I wanted to fight for.”
Chong says he wasn’t seen as a johnny-come-lately when he returned to these country roads to launch his political career. He had kept in touch and was home frequently.
His first shot at a seat in the House of Commons did not go well. As the Progressive Conservative standard-bearer in the now defunct riding of Waterloo-Wellington in 2000, Chong finished a distant third behind the Liberal incumbent and Canadian Alliance candidate.
Four years later, with the right newly united, Chong ran as a Conservative and won by 2,300 votes. Chong has captured more than 50 per cent of the vote in every election since.
Lunch arrives. Chong is greeted with a Philly cheesesteak sandwich on a pretzel bun.
“Oh, it looks good,” he says. “Thank you.”
He dumps some balsamic dressing on his salad, takes a big bite of the sandwich, and keeps talking.
Wait. Isn’t that the wrong order?
“I ordered a burger but that’s fine,” he says, chuckling. “I’m not fussy.”
After the Tories won a minority government in 2006, Chong — then 34 — was named to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s first cabinet as minister for intergovernmental affairs and sport. It was an overwhelming feeling, he says, with a tinge of sadness.
“My parents weren’t around to see me elected to Parliament and they weren’t around to see me appointed to the federal cabinet. They would have been very proud.”
He ended up lasting less than a year in Harper’s inner circle.
Chong famously quit cabinet on a point of principle, refusing to support a motion from Harper recognizing that the “Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." The motion was interpreted by some as an attempt to divide Liberals in the middle of a competitive leadership race.
Chong told reporters in Ottawa at the time that “recognizing Quebecers as a nation, even inside a united Canada, implies the recognition of ethnicity, and I cannot support that.
"I do not believe in an ethnic nationalism. I believe in a civic nationalism."
Chong says his decision was about reflecting how Canadians share something “pretty special”: common rights and responsibilities.
“I think that whole common bond is based on that common citizenship. And the reason why I didn’t support the motion is because I felt it ran contrary to that idea of Canada.”
But he says that he has no interest in reopening the issue, calling it an “old debate from over 10 years ago.”
Those were the same words Chong used last July after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that yes, Quebec is a nation. It was in response to sovereignists irked by Trudeau’s Canada Day message.
Chong said at the time that his view on the matter had not changed.
"I don't stick my finger in the wind to figure out which way the wind is blowing and to figure out my principles, which is what the prime minister — who once opposed this motion — is appearing to do," Chong said last summer.
He called HuffPost back shortly after that interview to reiterate that he wasn’t going to reopen old wounds on the matter.
Quitting on Harper made him an outsider for two years or so, Chong concedes, but he has had good relations with his fellow Tory MPs. And he has no regrets, despite there being no telling how much higher up the food chain he might have climbed during a near-decade of Tory governance.
“The primary reason why you go to Ottawa is not to get into cabinet. The primary reason you go to Ottawa is to be a member of Parliament, to represent a particular group of Canadians and your constituency on Parliament Hill.”
The move cemented his reputation as a maverick and freed him to push to lessen the power of party leaders, including the prime minister. The very notion of responsible government, Chong says, relies on an executive that is accountable to the legislature.
“Over the years, I became more and more convinced that we needed to reform the system,” Chong says.
“If we don’t do that, then we risk alienating millions of Canadians who feel that their voices aren’t being heard in their political system. We risk the same kind of populist uprisings that we’ve seen in places around the world.”
Chong introduced the so-called Reform Act in late 2013 and did yeoman’s work to see it passed into law in 2015, albeit a watered-down version. The law gives MPs the right to vote at the start of a parliamentary session to determine if they want to be able to trigger a leadership review and have the ultimate say over expelling or re-admitting members of caucus.
The most contentious part of the Reform Act — which would have stripped leaders of their veto over who can run as candidates — was ultimately dropped.
Chong says one of the main reasons he’s in the race is to fight for those abandoned pieces of the bill and to strengthen the voice of grassroots party members.
But he denies that the Reform Act was about Harper. In fact, accusations that Trudeau played favourites in recent byelections — most notably in Markham-Thornhill where his former aide Mary Ng was elected weeks later — is further proof for Chong of how leaders can meddle.
“As I said when Mr. Harper was prime minister, this isn’t a problem created by any one prime minister or any one party,” he says. “This has been a problem decades in the making and it needs to be fixed.”
The server makes his way to Chong as he chomps on bites of salad.
“Did I give you a Philly cheesesteak instead of a burger?” the man asks.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Chong says with a smile. The sandwich is already well on its way to gone.
Democratic reform is a pillar of Chong’s campaign. He’s calling for party memberships to be free, something he believes would make institutions that benefit from tax credits and subsidies much more accountable.
“Right now, political parties operate largely as private clubs, as they did in the 19th century.”
Chong wants Canadians to have the option of registering support for one federal party each year by checking a box on their income tax form. Those party lists would form the basis of future leadership contests and nomination races.
His proposal became further food for thought after allegations of vote-buying were bandied about between former rivals Maxime Bernier and Kevin O’Leary, something Chong says bubbles up in every hotly contested battle.
“We desperately need to reform political parties in Canada. Going to free memberships and public registration of party membership eliminates all the voter fraud because you no longer have the game of people improperly paying for party memberships," he says.
It’s not such a novel idea. Conservatives pledged in their 2004 election platform to create a “voluntary voter registration for Canadians to register their party affiliation.”
Yet Chong is proposing something else that sharply deviates from Conservative party doctrine — a carbon tax. Or, as he is careful to describe it each time, a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
Chong has sparked jeers at leadership events with the mere mention of the T-word, including at a debate in Edmonton where he compared the fight to price carbon emissions to the free trade battles of the 1980s. Tories used to oppose free trade, Chong reminded the crowd, but former prime minister Brian Mulroney did what was needed.
“Listen to this… listen to this,” he said to those booing his signature environmental policy. “It is the cheapest way to reduce emissions. Any other approach leads to bigger government, more government bureaucracy, more green programs, more green subsidies and more green regulations.”
Not even the dangling carrot of “one of the largest income tax cuts in Canadian history” could calm the more hostile hecklers that night.
Chong maintains his plan is the most conservative way to reduce emissions because it shrinks the size of government and harnesses the power of the free markets. And he does not think any Tory leader can beat Trudeau without a credible plan to tackle climate change. Full stop.
Chong would leave in place the Trudeau government’s plan for a pan-Canadian carbon price of $10 per tonne in 2018, rising by $10 each year. However, he’d phase in his own plan in 2021, raising the annual price by $10 until a $130-per-tonne price is reached by 2030. (Liberals aim to raise the costs by $10 each year until it hits $50 per tonne in 2022).
While the Liberal plan calls on provinces and territories to keep revenues from a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, Chong is pledging to use those funds to slash income taxes by $18 billion in his first year as prime minister.
Chong wants to reduce the number of income tax rates from five to two by 2020, keeping only the rates of 15 and 29 per cent. That would mean a tax break of four percentage points for Canada’s wealthiest, who are currently taxed at 33 per cent.
Chong understands why some feel rich Canadians ought to pay more, but believes the changes brought in by the Liberals to increase taxes on upper income earners are hurting job creation.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” he offers.
Chong is also proposing to slash corporate tax rates by $1.9 billion a year.
It all feels pretty conservative. So, why are some hell-bent to paint Chong as a secret Liberal?
He says it’s a question that confounds him, especially because his environmental policy is about making good on a Conservative pledge.
He notes that the Liberal government’s current promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 was first made by Harper in 2015. He is convinced a carbon tax is the only way to achieve that goal.
“This is a Conservative commitment and a commitment that we, as Conservatives, should honour and uphold.”
Asked if he thinks most Tories see climate change as a threat, Chong says that while the majority do, it is “certainly not unanimous.” He points to fellow leadership candidate Brad Trost, who has clearly staked out his place as the skeptic in the race.
Chong says he appreciates that Trost has been “honest and upfront” about where he stands. In an earlier interview, Trost touted Chong as someone who is a “compass” rather than a “weathervane.”
“The rest of the candidates in the race are saying two things that are contradictory,” Chong says, suggesting they are hammering his policy mostly because it’s an easy rhetorical device.
“They’re saying, on one hand, ‘We need to reduce emissions.’ On the other hand, they don’t have a credible plan to do that.”
Chong can rhyme off a host of other big- and small-C conservatives who have gotten behind carbon pricing, including Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown, who “understands the path to power,” and former Reform Party leader Preston Manning.
And Chong firmly rejects that the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House means that he needs to pump the brakes. Quite the opposite, in fact.
With Trump itching to make deep income and corporate tax cuts, Canada will need to answer to stay competitive.
“But unlike the Americans, we need a source of funds. We can’t borrow to pay for tax cuts, we’re not a reserve currency,” he says. “So, my plan does exactly that. It has a source to pay for it.”
Chong offers something else interesting when asked if he’s tired of people calling him a Liberal.
“What I’ve been clear about throughout this race is that I’m inclusive,” he says. “I believe everybody should be included in our party, and I want to build a much bigger, inclusive Conservative party. So, I won’t tolerate anyone playing to anti-immigrant sentiment.”
Chong has publicly accused Leitch of “dog-whistle politics” because of her controversial plan to screen immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.” In his closing statement at a debate in Moncton last December, he targeted how Leitch’s “race-baiting” campaign had been endorsed by a white supremacist group.
And then came the massacre at a Quebec City mosque in January, where six men were gunned down while praying. Chong released a statement that pulled no punches, calling it a direct result of “demagogues and wannabe demagogues playing to fears and prejudices."
“That’s what political leadership is all about,” Chong says, drinking water to handle a pesky cough. “When 25 people were shot in a place of worship in this country — six of whom died — it is incumbent on all leaders to denounce this kind of hate and this kind of prejudice.”
Chong says he is very concerned Tories could be seen as anti-Muslim. In another frank moment, he says the barbaric cultural practices tip line Tories proposed in 2015 — championed by Leitch and leadership hopeful Chris Alexander — was a “clear attempt” to play to anti-Muslim sentiment.
“We will not win if we become the anti-immigrant party. Canada is not the United States and the Conservative party is not the Republican party,” he says.
“But more importantly, it’s not a question of whether it’s going to work. It’s wrong.”
Leitch is not the only rival Chong has tried to publicly shame.
He also called out Alexander for “egging on” protesters at an Edmonton rally, who chanted for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley to be locked up. Faith Goldy, a commentator with Rebel Media, which organized the event, responded with a video calling Chong a “cuckservative” — a term favoured by the alt-right, derived from the word “cuckold,” meant to describe conservatives who sell out their own.
At a debate in February, he accused O’Leary of trying to make himself look like “Rambo” by posting a video of himself firing a machine gun at a Miami range on the very day a memorial was held for victims of the Quebec City attack.
“This is not the judgment of someone who should be leader of the Conservative party or prime minister of Canada,” Chong said at the time.
In a contest that will be decided by a ranked ballot — where being the second choice of party members will count greatly — Chong hasn’t been afraid to rock the boat.
“People want to vote for clearly defined choices. If you are pablum, and trying to be everything for everyone, you’re not going to win,” he says.
He’s on his feet now.
“I’ve just got to blow my nose for a second. I’ll get out of your face so I don’t…”
Chong takes a few steps back and lets loose with three strong spurts. After a pause, he adds a fourth for good measure.
It’s a reminder that there have been lighter moments during his leadership run, too, such as when Chong’s photo surfaced as part of an ad touting the cleanliness of a public restroom in Guatemala.
And there was that strange, spiked column from a writer at The Globe and Mail who said she once tried to breastfeed one of Chong’s sons — even though she wasn’t lactating or pregnant.
“This incident happened over 10 years ago. It was odd, no doubt, but not of any real consequence,” Chong said in a statement at the time that made clear he’d rather discuss other things.
If he doesn’t win, Chong says he will have no trouble running again. “And here’s why. As an MP, I don’t report to the leader. The leader works for me.”
He says he’d serve in cabinet again, if asked. “But if I have a strong disagreement with the prime minister on a particular issue, my record demonstrates I’m willing to stand up and voice that disagreement.”
If there’s another issue beyond the carbon tax that firmly separates Chong from the pack it might be his vote (days after this interview) on a non-binding motion from a Liberal backbencher that spurred unexpected controversy.
Motion 103, tabled by Iqra Khalid, called on the House of Commons to condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism. Though largely symbolic, it asked the heritage committee to study ways to tackle the scourge.
"We are the party that traditionally has been the party of minorities. The party that has stood up for the underdog, that has stood up for the dispossessed, that has stood up for the downtrodden."
Chong was the only Conservative leadership hopeful and one of just two Tory MPs to back M-103. The motion was interpreted by some as an attempt to divide Tories in the middle of a competitive leadership race.
Many of Chong’s rivals fell over themselves to amplify their opposition to the motion, primarily over concerns it could restrict free speech or grant special treatment to Muslims.
Misinformation about M-103 littered right-wing blogs in Canada and the U.S., with some even suggesting it was the first step to Shariah law.
The motion was featured prominently in leadership fundraising pitches. Andrew Scheer released a 19-second video to Facebook of him rising from his seat to vote against it.
When asked why he supports M-103, Chong replies, simply: “I’m a Conservative.
“When I say I believe in individual liberty, I believe in individual liberty. I believe in freedom of religion, in freedom of expression, in freedom of conscience,” he says. “You want to talk about fundamental Canadian values? Those are fundamental Canadian values.”
It’s the same reason Chong voted to support the Liberals’ transgender rights legislation. He backed a similar NDP bill in the last Parliament. Conservatives, he says, have a long tradition of defending individual rights.
“We are the party that traditionally has been the party of minorities. The party that has stood up for the underdog, that has stood up for the dispossessed, that has stood up for the downtrodden,” he says, listing how the first Chinese-Canadian MP, the first black Canadian MP, and Canada’s first female cabinet minister were all Tories.
It’s as if he’s worried those pieces of history are being forgotten, too.
'Their project is not yet finished'
In his maiden speech to the House, nearly 13 years ago, Chong spoke with reverence of a country with many cultures but “one Canadian identity, fragile as it sometimes may be.”
He paid tribute to those who, in “this vast and inchoate land,” dared blaze a path.
“Like many new Canadians who come today and those who came before, my late mother and father came to this country with nothing but dreams and hopes,” he told the House in 2004.
“We owe much to these pioneers who came before and began to build this country. Their project is not yet finished and we must carry on.”
With a file from The Canadian Press
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