This winter, on the heels of a leadership shakeup in the Conservative Party of Canada, Michelle Rempel Garner found herself on the outs. The Calgary Nose Hill MP had been a fixture in the party’s inner circle for nearly a decade: A rising star in Stephen Harper’s cabinet in the 2010s, she went on to serve as health critic and then as natural resources critic under Opposition leader Erin O’Toole. Among Conservatives, Rempel Garner signified who the party could serve: young, socially progressive, fiscally conservative Canadians.
But that came to a halt in February, when members of the party voted to oust O’Toole. Stepping in as interim leader was Manitoba MP Candice Bergen. In weeks, she would turf multiple members of O’Toole’s shadow cabinet. Rempel Garner, along with other outspoken social progressives, was out of the inner circle.
It’s not the first time in her 11 years in office that the 42-year-old has found herself on the outside. When former Conservative cabinet minister Keith Ashfield made a sexist comment about a teenager at a 2013 media event, Rempel Garner face-palmed her way through his non-apology in the House of Commons while other Conservatives stayed quiet. “I’ve never been comfortable just letting shit like that pass,” she says. She was also a vocal cheerleader in 2016 when the Conservative party, then a decade behind in public policy, struck language from its internal documents in order to recognize gay marriage. Five years later, she lobbied for more research into gay party drugs, colloquially known as poppers, amid a party still debating whether or not to support a ban on conversion-therapy practices across Canada. (She was one of the most outspoken Conservatives in favour of the ban.) She even called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “fake feminist” in the House in 2019.
But with this outsider status comes backlash: Rempel Garner has been on the receiving end of death and rape threats for years. She also holds positions that those on the other side of the political spectrum find hard to agree with—from supporting gun rights to lobbying the government to cancel increases to the carbon tax.
Now, as the Conservative party searches for a new leader, Rempel Garner has hitched herself to Patrick Brown, co-chairing the Brampton, Ont., mayor’s leadership campaign. While Brown was accused in 2018 of sexual misconduct, Rempel Garner says supporting him means remaining true to her beliefs—endorsing the person she thinks will make the best leader of the party. The cost? After years of working from within a boys’ club of a party, this Conservative insider is once again willing to make herself an outsider—and to pay the price for advancing the kind of conservatism she believes in.
Born Michelle Godin on Valentine’s Day in 1980 to a working-class family in Winnipeg, Rempel Garner discovered her interest in politics when a local Liberal MP came in to speak to her high school class. “I knew nothing about politics; my family was not political at all. And to 17-year-old me, this guy just came across as so naive [and] shitty and arrogant,” she tells me over lunch in March at the CattleBaron Steakhouse near her Calgary riding. That was also the moment she started looking seriously at the Conservative party: “I’m like, if this guy’s such a dick, then clearly I don’t want to be part of this.”
She studied economics at the University of Manitoba, paying for school in part with gigs as a classically trained pianist. In 2004, she and then-husband Jason Rempel moved to Calgary for work—he as an actuary, and she as the director of the Institutional Programs Division at the University of Calgary. (She has since divorced and remarried.) There, Rempel Garner connected with the Conservative party; she rose through the ranks of then MP Diane Ablonczy’s riding association. Years later, she found her way in when, in 2010, Jim Prentice announced he would be stepping away from politics, leaving his Calgary Centre-North riding vacant.
Rempel Garner ran unopposed, winning the nomination by acclamation. “I’m a public policy wonk . . . I love the legislative process. To be able to do that in a democracy as a woman, it’s incredible,” she says. But “the hardest part of this job for me is getting up and being in front of a camera all the time.”
A self-described introvert, Rempel Garner has nonetheless found herself at the forefront of some of the country’s most pressing issues. Throughout the pandemic, she served as health critic for the Opposition, often asking some of the toughest questions about the government’s management of the public health crisis. During the wildest days of the Trump administration’s policy reversals on refugees, which led to an increased number of overland crossings at the U.S.-Canada border, she was the immigration critic.
In some ways, Ottawa’s media bubble was always going to find her compelling. Elected at 31, Rempel Garner became the youngest woman ever in cabinet (she held the distinction until Karina Gould joined the Liberal cabinet in 2017). In 2020, her colleagues across party lines voted Rempel Garner the Hardest Working Parliamentarian in Maclean’s magazine’s annual parliamentary popularity contest. For someone who dislikes the spotlight, she has nonetheless found herself working doggedly underneath it.
“Michelle’s going to cry,” warns Lisa Raitt about my pending interview with Rempel Garner. The two women became close friends when they were cabinet colleagues under Harper from 2013 to 2015. “I viewed myself as a feminist, and I am a feminist, but Jesus, she took on shit that I would never even think about being able to stand up to,” says Raitt. “She wasn’t afraid of the backlash that would come at her.”
There would be times, Raitt remembers, when Rempel Garner would receive “nasty feedback” for opting out of the usual Conservative uniform, a three-piece blue suit, on Parliament Hill. “She put her chin up and she would wear [the same outfit] again the next day and not really give an F what other people thought,” says Raitt.
“She’s always authentic, regardless of the leader or the direction; she’s very authentic to who she is and who she is as a conservative,” notes Erika Barootes, senator-elect in Alberta and vice-president of Western Canada for PR firm Enterprise Canada. Barootes called Rempel Garner when she was running for Senate in Alberta to get her support, drawing in part on their personal relationship; she got an exacting earful about policy and public service as she drove back through the mountains with her family. “She’s a no-bullshitter,” says Barootes.
And in a political world filled with manufactured talking points and copy-and-pasted-in-both-official-languages tweets, her social media offers unusual honesty—from hot takes on Liberal spending to call-outs of government failures on COVID-19. She manages her own Twitter account, where she’s fluent in the language of a well placed emoji reply. She’s also friendly with the service’s block button; for many, the #BlockedByRempel hashtag has become a badge of honour. But her online presence hasn’t always been easy to manage: Twitter puts “pressure on parties and politicians into generating ever-more rapid and emotive responses,” Rempel Garner wrote for The Line in 2021. “I’m guilty of falling into this trap, myself.”
Rempel Garner does, in fact, cry when we talk at that Calgary steak house: about the challenge of being a newlywed separated from her husband during the pandemic, about the end of her first marriage and about the stress of her political career over the past five years.
“I divorced shortly after I was elected,” she tells me. “We got married too young.” She has since married Jeff Garner, a U.S. Army veteran who ran an equine-therapy centre in Oklahoma. (Early in the pandemic, before the government recalled Canadians home, she was working remotely from Oklahoma when her family received word of her mother-in-law’s cancer diagnosis.) The two met on an airplane from New Orleans. “I sat down by the window and I put my earphones and sleep mask on, the universal signal of ‘Just Don’t Talk to Me,’ ” Rempel Garner recalls. “And Jeff changed his seat—he’s a large man—so he could sit in the middle seat beside me. And he had me.” The pair married in May 2019; Stephen Harper was their officiant. Rempel Garner is now a stepmother to three, and a step-grandmother.
Beyond personal hurdles, Rempel Garner says the federal elections in 2015 and 2019 were the most taxing for her. Party policies, like banning niqabs from citizenship ceremonies, came up frequently at the doors in 2015; by the next election, Andrew Scheer (try your best to imagine him—I dare you) was leading the party even further toward social conservatism.
That’s why she’s taken a stance in the Conservative party’s current leadership race, which she calls “a critical inflection point for the party.” She has endorsed Patrick Brown, who is running on an “anti- cancel-culture” platform; she’ll also serve as national co-chair on his campaign.
That hasn’t been so straightforward given Brown’s track record. In 2018, Brown resigned as leader of the Ontario PC party after CTV News reported that he’d been accused of sexual misconduct by two women during his time as a local politician and federal MP. Brown launched an $8-million defamation suit against CTV in 2018 and reached a settlement with the news channel in early March 2022; no money changed hands, but the channel updated their story to include a statement noting that “key details” in the story were “factually incorrect and required correction.”
Despite the addition of the statement and a correction to the age of one of the women, the story remains up on CTV’s website. In it, Brown, a well-known teetotaler, is alleged to have propositioned a woman for oral sex while she was drunk and he was a local politician in Barrie, Ont.; in a second incident, he is alleged to have offered a young woman a job in his office and she alleges that, during her term there, he sexually assaulted her when she had been drinking. Brown denies all of the allegations.
“Obviously, having that retraction meant a lot,” Rempel Garner says about the update to the CTV News story. Still, she admits she would have “no qualms or compunction, if anything else [were to come] forward, [about] being very vocal on it. And that’s always been my role in the party; the party knows I’ve never shied away from speaking, even against my own team.”
Rempel Garner has been outspoken on women’s issues, from the plight of Yazidi women and girls to the gendered harassment she faces as a public official. That hasn’t changed her decision to endorse Brown. “He knows that if I endorse him, I’m holding him to account on that stuff,” she says. “Because for me, we will never attract more women to politics—and it’s not just our party—unless it’s very clear that nobody is above and nobody has so much power that women’s rights can be taken away.”
Rempel Garner’s endorsement of Brown coincided with his campaign launch speech in March. The speech critiqued leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre’s support of the 2015 niqab ban and the establishment of a tip line that would allow Canadians to report “barbaric cultural practices”—policies condemned by activists and opposition parties for being racist. Rempel Garner, then a cabinet minister, was not critical of the policies at the time. She says she didn’t understand the niqab ban as she should have: “I was 34 years old. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t have.” Understanding the ban then as a matter of procedural administration, she also notes that she “hadn’t really interacted with a lot of people that are of Islamic faith.”
That changed in 2021, when four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont., were killed after a white man intentionally drove into them with a pickup truck. “While I’ve since spoken out on it, one of my biggest regrets in my public service was being silent during the 2015 general election campaign on the wrongness of the barbaric cultural practices tip line and the proposed niqab ban,” Rempel Garner wrote in a statement on her website. “Those policies were wrong.”
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s necessary to hear someone like Michelle acknowledge what she did was wrong,” says Amira Elghawaby, director of strategic communications and campaigns at the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. “It’s tragic that it had to take this tragedy for that realization to happen for Ms. Rempel Garner.”
Over New York strip loin (“rare”), Rempel Garner offers some contrition. “Those moments where you’re wrong, they stick with you,” she says. I ask why she chose to wait nearly five years to apologize or acknowledge her errors—if it’s too little, too late for her and the party to set the record straight. “Why do I have to be the first out on everything?” she says. Then she quickly backs down: “I’m not trying to argue with you. There’s actually no justification for it.”
There’s a cost to being first out. “It’s a personal cost,” Rempel Garner admits. “It’s people hating you from your own team.”
In her car, on the way back to downtown Calgary, Rempel Garner and I chat about my recent trip to Kenya. She’s been there before, too, on a parliamentary trip. Without the permission or help of the Canadian Embassy, she trekked to Amboseli National Park—just her and a guide in a rickety van. They made the nearly four-hour drive to the park and stopped in a clearing, where the guide removed the tarp over the van. And then, suddenly, “This herd of about 40 elephants came by and they were just touching my head,” she says. Rempel Garner goes her own way, consequences be damned.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that a Muslim family from London, Ont. was killed in 2020; the attack occurred in 2021. The story has been updated.