What do the federal Conservative leadership hopefuls have in store for Nova Scotia?

New Conservative leader contender Kevin O'Leary blames Liberal policy for hindering Nova Scotia's economy and need for Atlantic Canada to be competitive.

In a region that was dominated by the Liberals in last year’s federal election, all 14 Conservative party leadership candidates took their first shot at “winning back the trust” of Atlantic Canadians Saturday night in Halifax.

The candidates, in their first debate setting, fielded several questions about how to create jobs in Nova Scotia and make the region’s voice heard in Ottawa.

READ MORE: Conservative leadership candidates target Kevin O’Leary in Halifax debate

Many focused on the fact that Nova Scotia’s “number one export” is young people, and that more needs to be done to keep them in the province.

“You can’t even grow a weed here anymore,” leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary said.

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O’Leary said if he were prime minister, he would provide a “rich soil” for entrepreneurs in the province to help grow the economy. He also criticized the policies put in place by the Liberals.

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WATCH: Kevin O’Leary joined fellow Conservative leadership hopefuls in Halifax on Saturday for the latest debate, exposing himself to a barrage of personal attacks.
CPC leadership hopefuls target O’Leary, flirt with Atlantic Canada
CPC leadership hopefuls target O’Leary, flirt with Atlantic Canada

“Corporate taxes are insane in Atlantic Canada, they’ve got to come down, all the regulation here is punitive to job growth,” he said.

More funding for health care

Many of the candidates talked about changing the way all Canadians access health care, floating the idea that there should be more cross-over between private and public health care delivery.

Erin O’Toole, however, touched on the need for more services, including mental health care, in rural Nova Scotia.

WATCH: Two-tier healthcare system exists between Atlantic Canada and rest of Canada: Erin O’Toole

Two-tier healthcare system between Atlantic Canada and rest of Canada: O’Toole
Two-tier healthcare system between Atlantic Canada and rest of Canada: O’Toole

“My worry is the two-tier health care system that’s emerging in Canada — Atlantic Canada versus the rest of Canada, especially urban Canada,” O’Toole said.

“With the shrinking population and demographic challenges, the federal government has to find a way to help particularly rural parts of Nova Scotia. My plan, I announced doubling the expense credit, tax credit for people in rural areas, incentivizing health care professionals to come here.”

Much of the conversation around health care also surrounded the idea that the federal government has too much say in the ways in which provinces allocate the funding they receive in health care deals.

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READ MORE: Nova Scotia reaches own health care funding deal with Ottawa

Critical of carbon tax

All candidates, except Michael Chong, were critical of the federal government’s plan to phase out coal-fired energy by 2030,highlighting Nova Scotia as a leader when it comes to combating climate change.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil announced in November that the province would be adopting a cap-and-trade system, at the same time striking a bargain with the federal government to keep using coal-fired electricity plants past the federal deadline.

READ MORE: N.S. wins deal to use coal-fired plants past new federal deadline of 2030

“Nova Scotia has punched above its weight” candidate Lisa Raitt said.

Candidates said the cap-and-trade decision was made without properly consulting Nova Scotians, proving current members of parliament weren’t a strong enough voice in Ottawa for the province and region.

All candidates said they’d work hard to change that and make Atlantic Canada a key player in its own future.

Growth from shipyard

Candidates also boasted about the Irving Shipyard in Halifax being a source of jobs and growth for the economy, despite concerns raised recently about potential layoffs in the operation.

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READ MORE: Halifax shipyard says warship ‘gap’ could result in layoffs without federal help

Candidate Steven Blaney said the out-migration of youth from Nova Scotia is what’s causing the province to lose $1.2 billion a year, and it’s what points to the province needing a special approach for growth.

WATCH: Government should support Nova Scotia shipyards: Blaney

Government should support Nova Scotia shipyards: Blaney
Government should support Nova Scotia shipyards: Blaney

“That’s what we need, as a federal government, to work in partnership with provinces to find solutions with a plan to keep our youth here, with universities, with the shipyard, with clean energy, with farmers, with supply management,” Blaney said.