It was billed as an opportunity for networking and bridge-building among Canadian conservatives, but this year’s Manning Centre Conference was also a product of its time.
As attendees gathered in Ottawa on Friday, there were the usual calls for unity within the right-of-centre, promises of prudent spending in government and a healthy dose of Liberal-bashing in the conference rooms.
What was perhaps new, however, were the “Make America Great Again” ball caps that dotted the hallways, the open discussions about “front organizations” for the Muslim Brotherhood in Canada, and an appearance by none other than Doug Ford, who made the trip from Toronto to bash the “mainstream media” and “the elites.”
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Preston Manning, the conference’s founder and the former leader of Canada’s defunct Reform Party, opened the proceedings with a general call to reconnect with the federal Conservative Party’s base and oust a fiscally irresponsible Liberal government.
“The answer to manifestations of Trumpomania is not Trumpophobia, but political leadership that addresses the root causes of voter alienation and redirects negative political energy into positive ends,” Manning said.
An hour later, a panel was underway tackling the notion of “Islamist extremism and its ideology in Canada,” and a member of the audience was inquiring if it should be acceptable to call the prophet Mohammed a pedophile (that discussion was, in fact, the first of two such sessions focusing on Islamic extremism).
An afternoon session looked at censorship of conservatives on campus, and another hosted by President Donald Trump’s campaign speechwriter examined whether the Trump phenomenon could coalesce in Canada.
During a panel titled “Down with the elites?” Doug Ford credited his late brother, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, with blazing a trail for the political pushback among “the common folk.”
He also told a packed room that “four or five families” control the mainstream media in Canada.
“They drive the message,” Ford said. “They’ll attack you, they’ll print false stories, they can’t be held accountable.”
Unity status ‘pretty good’: Manning
Manning, speaking to reporters between panels, denied that Canada’s conservatives are suffering from internal divisions so profound that they can’t be overcome. Even among the 14 candidates running to lead the federal party, he said, there are commonalities, and the 2017 conference was designed to act as unifier, not a reflection of an identity crisis gripping the right.
“I think that the unity status is pretty good,” Manning told reporters, adding that many older conservatives still remember similar ideological splits in the past that nearly sunk the federal party.
“I think there’s a caution about ever getting close to that kind of situation again.”
Asked about the populist, anti-establishment sentiment that pushed Trump into office and is bolstering the campaigns of leadership candidates like Kellie Leitch, Manning said it’s critical to give people the opportunity to air their grievances and try to figure out what’s making them so angry. Even if their views may be perceived as racist, xenophobic or otherwise unpalatable.
“I think you do recognize those voices,” he said. “I think the worst thing you can do is suppress or deny their existence.”
The 14 leadership candidates hoping to replace Stephen Harper took the stage on Friday afternoon at the conference for a debate.
Friday was also the deadline to register for the leadership contest, and the conference panels were held steps away from booths (or entire rooms) set up by the candidates.
The current leader, Rona Ambrose, delivered a keynote address Friday morning, again emphasizing unity.
“When Canadian Conservatives focus on their differences, the only ones who win are the Liberals,” she said.
“Canada’s Conservative Party is home for Canadians of all backgrounds … we’re committed to moving forward together towards our common goals.”