Six candidates vying for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada all framed the country — and the party — as deeply divided at the first official debate on Wednesday, though they were split on the reasons for the disunity and how they would fix it.
The loudest applause in the Edmonton Convention Centre, packed with more than 1,000 people, went to longtime MP Pierre Poilievre, who said his vision for the country is about giving people “freedom to take back control of their lives.
“That means freedom from inflation, so that hard-working single mothers can afford nutritious food for their kids, freedom from inflation so that 32-year-olds don’t have to live in their parents’ basements,” he told the crowd.
He vowed to make every Canadian “the captain of your own life.”
Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, Ont., said his vision involves the Conservative party being a more inclusive coalition that can defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in places like the Greater Toronto Area.
Without mentioning Poilievre’s name, he also took a shot at the longtime Conservative’s bombastic political style.
“The choice before the party is clear,” Brown said.
“Do we want an unelectable party leader who drives voters away, walk straight into Liberal traps, giving unclear answers on divisible issues like abortion, and wedges Conservatives against each other?”
Most candidates directly referenced COVID-19 vaccine mandates as one of the key reasons for the division in the country, with rural Ontario MP Leslyn Lewis saying she believes Canada needs to become a beacon of life again because people are “traumatized” from pandemic-related health rules.
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest was a notable exception, as he pointed to disagreements over oil and gas between the eastern and western parts of the country as the cause of the conflict.
“I see a country that is deeply divided and I am running because I believe that national unity is the No. 1 challenge of any prime minister,” he said.
Charest took aim at Poilievre when moderator Tom Clark, a veteran political journalist asked a series of yes or no questions of candidates, including whether they would support legislation around abortion.
Poilievre said a government led by him wouldn’t pass or introduce legislation restricting access to the procedure. Charest, who said he supports abortion rights, called that answer insufficient, saying that Canadian women deserved to know where he stood.
“Every candidate in this race needs to tell the women of Canada where they stand, whether they’re pro or against. The women of Canada deserve to know where they stand, and Mr. Poilievre’s answer, quite frankly, does not fit that test,” said Charest.
Poilievre later said he believes in freedom of choice and would allow free votes.
Although the race has been described as a contentious battle for the soul of the party after three consecutive election losses to the Liberals, the atmosphere of Wednesday’s event was at times markedly lighter. Candidates were asked a series of personal questions about their favourite political heroes, what books they were reading and the last television show they binged.
A clip of a sad trombone also played when candidates went over the prescribed time to give answers.
Candidates were prodded to deliver clear answers on policy items from supporting a no-fly zone over Ukraine, supply management and implementing the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Some candidates took aim at Poilievre for his stance on Bitcoin, with Charest and Lewis accusing Poilievre of encouraging Canadians to invest in the digital currency.
Brown said “magic internet money” like Bitcoin fluctuates wildly and Poilievre shouldn’t be encouraging Canada’s vulnerable investors to gamble their savings.
Poilievre said he did not encourage people to invest in Bitcoin, but does not want to see it banned because investors deserve the right to choose how to spend their money.
For his vision for Canada, Rural Ontario MP Scott Aitchison said he wants to renew the promise that the next generation of Canadians will be better than the one before and remove divisive rhetoric from politics.
Roman Baber, the Independent Ontario MPP who was kicked out of Premier Doug Ford’s caucus for opposing COVID-19 restrictions, said he wants to return democracy to Canada and end what he called “21st-century segregation,” referring to vaccine mandates.