OTTAWA—Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has announced he will step down once a new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is selected.
Scheer told his caucus MPs at an emergency caucus meeting Thursday that he would be quitting, but will remain as leader of the Official Opposition until a new leader is chosen.
Conservative MPs then filed into the House of Commons tight-lipped, where Scheer delivered his resignation speech.
Scheer said he had come to a “difficult decision” to “put my family first,” saying it had been an “incredible challenge” to lead the party into the last general election.”
He said he would stay on as a member of Parliament and pledged his full support to the next Conservative leader.
Scheer urged party members to “stay united” through the months-long leadership race that is now about to unfold, but made clear he no longer had the stomach for it.
“This party, this movement, needs someone who can give 100 per cent to the effort,” he said, adding that after conversations with his children and family, “I felt it was time to put my family first.”
As the news broke, Global News first reported allegations that Scheer used Conservative party money to pay for his children’s private schooling. The Star had received similar allegations and has now independently confirmed that the Conservative Fund “partially covered the costs associated with” Scheer’s children’s schooling, but would not specify any amounts.
There are conflicting reports about whether top party officials, like Stephen Harper who remains a director of the Conservative Fund, were aware of such a use of party money. The board approves a dedicated fund to cover a leader’s expenses but does not sign off on specific expenditures, a source told the Star.
But Scheer’s supporters pushed back at any suggestion that he was under pressure to quit and denied suggestions he wrongly used party funds.
“There was no misappropriation of any funds,” MP Chris Warkentin, one of Scheer’s loyalists in caucus, told CBC on Thursday.
Conservative Party of Canada executive director Dustin van Vugt confirmed Thursday that the party has been paying part of the schooling costs for Scheer’s children.
“As is the normal practice for political parties, the party offered to reimburse some of the costs associated with being a national leader and relocating the family to Ottawa,” van Vugt said in a written statement.
“Shortly after Mr. Scheer was elected leader, we had a meeting where I made a standard offer to cover costs associated with moving his family from Regina to Ottawa. This includes a differential in schooling costs between Regina and Ottawa. All proper procedures were followed and signed off on by the appropriate people.”
Kory Teneycke, a former Stephen Harper aide who mounted a campaign to dump Scheer, told the Star Thursday that his decision to step down was “the right decision. It should have happened on election night.”
But Teneycke said that if the allegations about private school payments are true, there is “no way” Scheer should remain in the top job until a new leader is chosen.
“Benefits paid to party leaders should be above-board and transparent,” Teneycke said. “They should be public, they should be filed to Elections Canada, and they should be fully disclosed to the party membership. Hiding this stuff — secret payments to party leaders — is outrageous, it’s from some bygone era that should never have existed and … I don’t think you’ll find anyone in the Conservative party who would say anything other than it’s inappropriate.”
Scheer was faced with praise in the Commons chamber after he announced his decision to resign in the coming months.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quickly entered the chamber after Scheer’s speech to deliver an impromptu tribute, thanking Scheer and his wife Jill for their “service to Canada.”
Trudeau said he understood the challenges Scheer outlined about juggling family and political work, and of leading a diverse party. He said for all the challenging moments, he wished Scheer “all the very best” in his future work, and thanked him again “deeply, for his service to Canada.
“Thanks, Andrew, for the work you’re doing.”
Trudeau then crossed the Commons floor to shake Scheer’s hand and hug him.
Scheer, his eyes red-rimmed, and his lower lip quivering, had told the Commons that since being elected in 2004 as a 25-year-old MP for Saskatchewan’s Regina-Qu’Appelle riding and in 2011 as Speaker of the House, “in many ways I’ve grown up here.”
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also set aside partisan differences to pay tribute to Scheer. “What unites us is the desire to work for the common good,” said Singh.
Conservative MPs and senators had dodged reporters’ questions on their way into the Commons.
After Scheer’s speech, MPs from his caucus lined up to embrace him and shake his hand, followed by MPs from all other parties in the House.
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Moments later, Scheer’s recently named deputy leader, former Liberal MP Leona Alleslev, credited him with an “honourable speech” and said MPs respect him for laying out his reasons for stepping down.
“He has led us with courage and dignity and needs to be commended for that, and we are just processing this,” Alleslev said.
Manitoba MP Candice Bergen, the Opposition House Leader, added that Scheer’s resignation came as a surprise to the Conservative caucus Thursday morning.
“It was a shock for us, because the caucus has really appreciated what Andrew’s done and there’s just so much respect for him in the caucus,” Bergen said. “We’re looking at how we move forward, but the news is kind of just sinking in right now for all of us.”
Bergen and other Conservative MPs, including Quebec’s Luc Berthold and Alberta’s Garnett Genuis, said they did not know about Conservative funds being used to put Scheer’s children in private school.
Pierre Poilievre, the party’s finance critic and an MP from the Ottawa area, did not answer a reporter’s question about the school arrangement, but offered praise for Scheer.
“Andrew is a decent, honourable man. I want to thank him and his family for their grace and sacrifice on behalf of Canadians,” he said.
On social media, Ontario Premier Doug Ford extended his own greetings to Scheer, who had pointedly avoided any association with Ford during the election campaign — a decision that was criticized in the wake of the Conservatives’ poor showing in Ontario.
“I wish Andrew Scheer all the best as he undertakes this new chapter in his life, and thank him for his service,” Ford said on Twitter.
Scheer’s announcement came just seven weeks after the federal election, in which he led the Conservatives to more seats and a greater share of the popular vote but failed to topple Trudeau’s government.
John Baird tweeted Thursday that he was still leading an internal review of the loss, and talking to party members about what went wrong in the campaign.
“My work in speaking with Conservatives continues, including this week. I look forward to writing and then submitting my report when it is complete. I hope it will inform our party’s next campaign and provide advice to whomever” the members select as leader, he wrote.
Baird also thanked Scheer for his service and recognized his family’s contribution.
The party has been convulsed with internal divisions ever since the election, with defeated Conservative candidates and campaign managers in Quebec openly demanding that Scheer step aside.
In Ontario and Quebec, the criticism was also intense but kept behind closed doors.
On Thursday, the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition told the Star it “welcomes” Scheer’s resignation, blaming him for losing the election after he “betrayed the party’s socially-conservative base” by allegedly tamping down anti-abortion voices in his caucus. The organization called for his ouster as leader earlier this fall.
“Scheer’s poorly articulated and clearly uncomfortable position of claiming to be personally pro-life while vowing to not touch the issue upset his socially conservative base, confused many people, and was seen as disingenuous,” said the coalition’s national president, Jeff Gunnarson, in a statement to the Star.
In the days after the election, Scheer sought to turn aside criticism of his campaign, saying the Conservatives had the strongest opposition in history and that he would stay on as leader.
But he faced growing calls to quit from high-profile Conservative organizers including Teneycke and Jeff Ballingall, who was behind groups like Ontario Proud and who mounted an online campaign called Conservative Victory to urge Scheer to quit.
Scheer loyalists had tried to punch back, but Scheer’s own post-election performance was judged harshly, with critics saying he showed no insight into the reasons for the election loss.
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