Conservative leadership candidates squared off against each other over COVID-19 mandates and the trucker convoy in downtown Ottawa in the race’s first unofficial debate Thursday.
Leslyn Lewis, the MP who placed third in the 2020 leadership race, challenged former Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre over his record of defending Canadian freedoms during the pandemic. Health measures like vaccine and mask mandates have been opposed by many Conservatives over concerns they infringe on personal choice.
When Poilievre, who is campaigning on promises to give Canadians more freedoms and has drawn crowds of thousands at rallies across the country, tried to argue that he was one of the strongest voices, Lewis charged that he was not.
“You did not speak until it was convenient for you to speak. You didn’t even go to the truckers’ protest,” she said.
“You actually went and had your picture taken in your neighborhood at a local stop.”
Lewis, who vows to ban so-called sex-selective abortions, also took Poilievre to task for his stance on conservative social issues. She accused him of avoiding media questions about abortion in recent days after a draft US Supreme Court decision was leaked that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
“As a leader, you will have to declare that,” he said. “He can’t just be a finance minister if he wants to be a prime minister. He will have to deal with conservative social issues, which he has been running away from this entire campaign.”
Poilievre said earlier in the week that a government led by him would not introduce or pass laws restricting abortion.
Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who casts himself as a seasoned national leader who believes in a united Canada, drew boos from hundreds of conservative loyalists who packed a conference room in downtown Ottawa by saying Poilievre supported illegal blockades.
Poilievre responded by saying “Mr. Charest learned about the trucker convoy on the CBC like other liberals, and misrepresented them,” adding that he perpetuated the culture of canceling by saying in previous interviews that Poilievre’s support for the protest means he should be disqualified.
Poilievre attacked Charest for his Quebec record and criticized him for being liberal because he led the Quebec Liberal Party. He also repeatedly pressed Charest about how much money he earned working for the telecom giant Huawei.
“We need to know the truth here,” Poilievre said.
“Liberals are going to ask that. He never told us how much he was paid. This is a company whose software and hardware have been banned from the 5G networks of four of the Five Eye countries due to allegations, in many cases proven, that they have used it for espionage.”
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Charest dismissed any suggestion that his previous job with Huawei was a handicap for him in the race.
As Charest, Poilievre and Lewis took turns focusing on one another, Ontario MP Scott Aitchison said onstage that as Conservatives “all we do is yell at each other,” saying that’s a problem if the party wants to be competitive. with more Canadians in the next election. However, there were heated exchanges throughout the debate.
“We’re insulting each other here. What Canadian is going to trust this batch? We have to do better,” Aitchison said.
He also added that: “Every time I hear a conservative talk about some conspiracy theory, there’s another group of undecided voters in the GTA who just won’t cross our path.”
That comment drew pushback from Lewis and from Roman Baber, the independent MPP from Ontario who was kicked out of Doug Ford’s progressive conservative caucus in 2021 for opposing a COVID-19 lockdown that was in place at the time.
Baber says many Canadians are still unable to board a plane in the country due to a federal COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
“Canadians are witnessing the continuing erosion of our democracy and we need to heed this conversation instead of mocking them like the prime minister does,” Baber said.
After the debate, Baber told reporters that he was concerned about the divisive tone.
As the leadership contenders argued onstage, most seemed collegiate once the questions were over. Poilievre and Charest, however, carefully avoided shaking hands onstage.
The debate, organized by the Canada Strong and Free Network, began by asking five of the six candidates who appeared at the event why they think the Conservative Party has lost the last election.
During Thursday’s debate, Aitchison blamed the party’s recent electoral losses on a lack of consistency in messaging.
Baber took aim at former party leader Erin O’Toole’s policy changes between her leadership campaign and the general election that same year.
“We lost the last two elections because a lot of Canadians weren’t sure where we stood. We shouldn’t be running to the right during the leadership and to the left during the general,” he said.
Charest pointed to the lack of seats in Quebec, the Greater Toronto Area, and the lower mainland of British Columbia.
The former prime minister says one of the problems the party faces in trying to break through in the GTA is the backlash over the 2015 Conservative campaign, when the Tories promised to create an information line for so-called barbaric cultural practices.
“The message it sent to new Canadians is that they are not welcome in the Conservative Party of Canada,” Charest said.
Poilievre told the room that he has never lost an election, has a large social media following and is attracting many new party members with his rallies.
Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, Ontario, did not participate. His campaign said he was focused on selling memberships to his supporters before the June 3 deadline needed to vote in the Conservative leadership race.
Moderator Jamil Jivani, the incoming president of the Canada Strong and Free Network, took aim at Brown’s campaign tactics in his absence.
“Some Canadians are concerned that Mayor Brown is sowing division in our country. He has been criticized for manipulating diaspora politics to bolster his campaign,” Jivani said, before inviting the candidates onstage to contrast his own approach with Canadians of diverse backgrounds.
“The bottom line is that Patrick Brown says one thing in one room and the exact opposite in another room. And that’s what he’s done throughout this campaign,” Poilievre said in response, noting a sea change in support for Brown. to the carbon tax as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives.
A Brown campaign official told The Canadian Press that his efforts to attract new Canadians to the party should be celebrated, not mocked.
Brown will be on stage next week when all six candidates take part in the first official debate in Edmonton.
The party will elect a new leader on September 10.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 5, 2022.