OTTAWA — It was Conservative fight night in the nation’s capital Thursday as leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre pummeled his rival Jean Charest while taking hits himself from Leslyn Lewis at the leadership race’s inaugural debate.
Poilievre, Charest, Lewis, Scott Aitchison and Roman Baber sought to highlight their strengths and undercut those of their opponents over 90 minutes of sparring in front of a raucous crowd of both grassroots and party elites attending the annual Canada Strong and Free Conference.
Poilievre, a seven-term Ottawa MP, has been seen as the front-runner in the race generating intense excitement around his populist economic message.
But talking economics isn’t enough charged Lewis, as she as she pushed him to more clearly define his positions on social conservative issues.
The question of where candidates stand on abortion surfaced this week with the leaked draft of a US Supreme Court decision that would roll back abortion rights.
Poilievre refused to answer, with his campaign only saying his government would not restrict access here.
Lewis, who opposes abortion, accused him of hiding.
“As a leader, he is going to have to declare that,” she argued.
“He cannot just be a minister of finance if he wants to be a prime minister. He is going to have to deal with social conservative issues, which he has been running from for this entire campaign.”
That social conservative issues should surface over the course of a leadership contest is standard for this party’s races, with that faction also being a factor in deciding the last two leadership campaigns.
But a newly controversial current is also running through this race in particular: where candidates stood — or who they stood with — when the so-called Freedom Convoy rolled through Ottawa earlier this year.
Some of the convoy’s roots are in the anti-vaccine mandate and anti-COVID lockdown movement, of which Baber has sought to position himself a champion.
He was kicked out of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s caucus well over a year ago when he started speaking out against lockdowns, and accused the federal party of not following suit.
In the 2021 election, the Tories struggled to find and define a position on vaccine mandates when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on the eve of the election he was imposing them on areas within federal jurisdiction.
He would go on to use the Tories’ refusal to support the idea as a wedge issue in the campaign, accusing them of not supporting science.
That the party lost support over the issue wasn’t because they didn’t support vaccine mandates, Baber suggested — but the opposite.
They didn’t speak up forcefully enough against them.
“Our party refused to stand up for Canadians. We did not stand up for Canadians. No one on the stage stood up with Canadians until the truckers came to town,” he said.
Poilievre stood on an overpass and cheered the convoy as it rolled into Ottawa for what would become a weeks-long protest that paralyzed the downtown core and spilled over into other cities.
Lewis accused him of just doing it for a photo op, while Charest blasted him for it, then was nearly drowned out by boos when he called the convoy an “illegal blockade.”
Poilievre turned on him fiercely for remarks Charest made earlier in the year suggesting Poilievre be booted from the race because he supported the truckers.
“That is the kind of cancel culture and censorship you would expect from Justin Trudeau, but instead we’re getting it from this liberal on this stage,” Poilievre thundered.
“The average trucker has more integrity in his pinky finger than you have in your entire scandal-plagued Liberal cabinet.”
Poilievre’s early war against Charest has involved much highlighting over Charest’s time as Quebec’s Liberal premier; on Thursday as Poilievre tries to position himself as a true conservative by comparison.
“I’m not just putting on temporarily a blue shirt to cover up a red shirt underneath it in order to take over the party,” he said.
But Charest sought to turn the issue into a political strength as he honed his main campaign narrative of being the sole candidate who has experience unifying the country, and winning governments.
He pointed out that he joined and led the Quebec Liberals in the 1990s to put the federalist fight to Quebec separatists in the 1990s, and that was the party doing it.
“I pushed back the separatists and it is not this guy on the stage who is going to intimidate me,” he said of Poilievre.
Absent from the debate stage Thursday was candidate Patrick Brown, out in other parts of the country selling memberships in a bid to infuse new voters into the mix for this leadership race.
Sources close to his campaign tell the Star he’s sold 3,000 in Atlantic Canada this week alone.
Brown has focused much of his efforts on recruits within ethnic and cultural communities.
His absence was remarked upon by debate moderator Jamil Jivani, who noted accusations Brown is “manipulating diaspora politics” to bolster his campaign, asking three candidates how their approaches would differ.
Lewis noted that as a Black woman, and an immigrant to Canada — she arrived from Jamaica as a child — she was uniquely positioned on that score, while Baber noted his roots as a Russian immigrant.
Poilievre took a swipe at Brown directly and how while running for leader of the Ontario PCs he opposed a carbon tax, and then as leader embraced it.
Reaching out to Canadians is proving that you mean what you say, Poilievre said.
Candidates were also asked about outreach to different regions of the country.
Aitchison appeared to be surveying the political carnage of Thursday’s debate as he answered.
“If we put on a show that is divisive and nasty with each other, I just don’t see how that unites all Conservatives,” he said.
“I don’t see how it shows to Canadians that we can govern and we can lead.”
The next time all candidates will face off is May 11, at the party’s official English language leadership debate in Edmonton, followed by a French language debate later this month.
Candidates have until June 3 to sell memberships in the race, and the mail-in ballots will be sent to members over the summer.
A new leader will be chosen by Sept. 10.
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