OTTAWA — About 30 people are gathered in a small, windowless conference room on the second floor of a suburban Ottawa hotel, waiting for the guest of honor, who is a few minutes late. There is no podium. No microphone.
OTTAWA — About 30 people are gathered in a small, windowless conference room on the second floor of a suburban Ottawa hotel, waiting for the guest of honor, who is a few minutes late. There is no podium. No microphone. No flashy branding except for a small laminated billboard that features the slogan: “People before politics.”
When Roman Baber walks in wearing dark jeans and a black suit jacket, he greets each person, none of whom are wearing a mask, with a handshake. A woman thanks him effusively, shaking his hands. “I’ve been following you since the pandemic started,” she said.
Baber is one of five candidates for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party, a contest that will crown a winner on September 10.
The placid 42-year-old is a folk hero for people opposing COVID-19 lockdowns. His open letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford calling for an end to the closures in January 2021 got him kicked out of the Progressive Conservative caucus less than three years after he was elected to represent York Center in Toronto.
A year and a half after the Ontario government accused him of being “reckless and irresponsible” for his opinions, the former business litigator rejects the idea that he ever made misinformation. “Never in the 12 years of my professional career has anyone ever accused me of not telling the truth,” he said in an interview.
Some have accused Baber of shamelessly appealing to the “Freedom Convoy” and the anti-vaccine mob to score political points. But while he came out early with his anti-lockdown arguments and amassed tens of thousands of followers, his opponents are now using the same playbook with more success.
“There is no doubt that we have had an impact on the other candidates, and on their campaigns, and therefore on our party, and therefore on our country,” he says. “It’s a gratifying thing for a public servant to accomplish something like this.”
Baber says he believes if history judges this period fairly, he will be even more vindicated. “I hope this will ease my reputation. And the very many adversities that I have suffered, and those close to me have suffered, over the past two years because of the positions I have taken.”
His actions show an obvious quixotic streak. During Baber’s five short years in politics, he often stood against the mainstream narrative when his own convictions or his constituents demanded it.
He made waves in 2019 when The Globe and Mail wrote about a policy report written by Baber, along with a critical preamble, which outlined changes he says should be made to Ontario’s Autism Program. .
Earlier that year, the Ford government announced changes that drew strong criticism from autism organizations in the province. When Baber voiced his concerns, Ford asked him to reconsider the plan. Baber concluded that it would “essentially come down to giving everyone crumbs instead of good treatment for a few,” he says.
He presented a “very detailed and technical reform proposal”, but when his criticisms leaked out, the Ford administration distanced itself from him even as he publicly apologized for the original plan. Baber’s alternative proposal was dead in the water.
During his two and a half years in caucus, Baber says he also complained internally about other government policies, including an increase in the size of classrooms and increases in recuperation rates. Ontario Disability Benefits.
To little effect, he’s spent time lobbying colleagues about his “dream” of connecting Toronto’s Sheppard West subway station, which he sees outside his window at home, to more of the TTC. . “I got the title ‘subway guy’,” he says wistfully. “I used to carry a subway map with me to show people.”
He was one of the few Progressive Conservatives elected in 2018 who were never offered additional roles in government. He is the first to admit that his criticisms have often had little impact, even though he says he has no hard feelings towards his other former colleagues.
If he was an island then, he seems to be an island now.
Baber’s campaign is a simple operation. Although it brought in half a million dollars in donations in the first quarter of this year alone, there is little evidence of that at the Kanata hotel.
Baber drove there and brought copies of a platform document which contains a few notable typos. He explains to the participants that the woman they saw supporting the poster in the front and setting up a printer in the hallway (to photocopy IDs, if they wanted to prepare their ballots on the spot) is his companion, Nancy. He jokes that his campaign costs are low.
He lists some of his political ideas and tries to play with the crowd, criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, warning of the erosion of democracy and mocking folk lines mocking environmentalists – “I’m not going to eat crickets!”
Even here, with 30 people he hopes to like and vote for him, he’s still willing to push back against whatever narrative is presented to him.
To a young woman inquiring about the World Economic Forum, he says the organization itself isn’t much of a problem, although “leftist ideology” is. To a middle-aged woman who claims her son-in-law died after being vaccinated and who later blames society’s ills on the collapse of Christianity, he says: “Just like we don’t tell people what to do of their bodies, I don’t think we should tell people how to exercise their spiritual beliefs.” To a man who wonders about the replacement of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he says that it is in fact a “beautiful document”.
A young man with glasses and his hair tied in a bun tells Baber that he marked him first on his leadership ballot because “you speak from the heart.” It sounds right.
The effusive woman who thanked Baber on entering is called Ruxandra. She prefers not to give her last name. She immigrated from Romania and has vivid memories of the revolution that ended communist rule in the country in 1989. She says the pandemic restrictions reminded her of everything they fought against at the time, and Baber expressed these sentiments.
For some, like Ruxandra, the idea that Baber is sincere about his “People before Politics” slogan may be more meaningful than whether he is bringing about concrete change.
“I’ve watched Roman since ‘Plandemic’ started and it resonated a lot with how I feel,” she says, using a term popularized by a viral plot video from 2020. “Every time I watched his videos and his challenges and his fights against what had happened, I realized that I was not alone.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 1, 2022.
Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press