The two candidates — who lead the pack in terms of fundraising, according to the most recent available data — spent the evening exchanging attempted haymakers and accusing the other of being unfit to lead the party into the next election.
Poilievre, the Carleton MP and former cabinet minister, accused Charest of not being a true conservative and raising taxes during his tenure as premier of Quebec. Charest, to the chagrin of the right-wing audience at the Canada Strong and Free Network conference, attacked Poilievre for backing the illegal convoy protests in Ottawa and at international border crossings.
Charest was booed by the conservative crowd when he referred to the blockades as “illegal.”
“This mess (with the convoy protests) is the fault of Mr. Trudeau. But Mr. Poilievre, during that time, supported an illegal blockade,” Charest said.
“You cannot make laws, and break laws, and then say ‘I will make laws for other people.’ I’m sorry,” as Charest was shouted down by the crowd and cut off by the moderators.
“In addition to once again repeating a bunch of Trudeau rhetoric on our hard-working truckers, Mr. Charest misrepresents his track record on taxes,” Poilievre shot back.
“I fought for lower taxes and balanced budgets and making life more affordable, and that is how we’re going to win the election in the suburbs: by giving people their purchasing power back, something that I can do because I have a strong track record of fighting for it my entire life.”
It was clear, at least in the room — attended by conservative faithful from across the country, gathering for an annual conference in Ottawa — that support for the trucker protests that ground Ottawa to a halt and blocked international trade was an asset, rather than a liability.
But other fault lines between the two most high-profile candidates also emerged, including over Quebec’s contentious Bill 21, which bans many civil servants from wearing religious symbols while working.
Charest accused Poilievre of telling the Quebec press that he would not intervene should he become prime minister and the issue reach the Supreme Court. The former Quebec premier questioned if Poilievre’s chants of “freedom” extended to the freedom for Canadians to express their religious beliefs.
“I will not be neutral on this issue for my country,” Charest said. “Pierre, this idea of freedom, is it real or is it a slogan?”
“I’m against Bill 21. I’ve said I was against Bill 21 in English, in French, in Quebec, in English Canada. I’m 100 per cent against it,” Poilievre shot back.
“If anyone proposed it federally, I would vote against it.”
While Poilievre and Charest kept each other in their crosshairs, the other candidates on stage — Conservative MPs Scott Aitchison and Leslyn Lewis, along with independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber — attempted to make their case to the committed rank-and-file of the conservative movement, albeit in very different ways.
Lewis, who surprised Conservative insiders by mounting an impressive campaign in the 2020 leadership race, suggested the “fabric” of Canadian society was being “torn apart by cancel culture and wokeism.”
The social conservative standard bearer accused Poilievre of being insufficiently supportive of the convoy protests, despite his repeated endorsement of the “law abiding” participants in what police declared an unlawful protest.
Baber, who was ejected from Doug Ford’s PC caucus in Ontario for his opposition to COVID-19-related public health measures, railed against what he called an “erosion” of Canadian democracy.
Aitchison, widely perceived as a moderate in a polarized leadership contest, appealed for common sense conservatism and party unity.
“Our politics are increasingly divided, and we have stopped respecting those we disagree with,” Aitchison said.
“As Conservatives, we must take inspiration from our principles and apply them to the challenges of today to make the future better for all Canadians.”
All six Conservative leadership candidates — including Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, who skipped Thursday’s debate — are scheduled to participate in two official party debates in Edmonton on May 11 and in Laval on May 25.
The next leader of the Conservative party is expected to be announced on Sept. 10.