Candidates vying for the Conservative leadership framed the country — and the party — as deeply divided at the first official debate on Wednesday, and took turns pointing fingers at one rival they accuse of driving disunity in the race.
The loudest applause in the Edmonton Convention Centre, packed with more than 1,000 people, repeatedly 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.”
A major part of his pitch is about fighting inflation. During the debate, he took specific aim at Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem, saying he would fire him because Canada’s inflation rate is the highest it’s been in decades.
“The Bank of Canada governor has allowed himself to become the ATM machine of this government. And so I would replace him with a new governor who would reinstate our low-inflation mandate, protect the purchasing power of our dollar and honour the working people who earn those dollars,” Poilievre said.
Jean Charest, Quebec’s former premier, responded by saying the MP’s remarks were irresponsible and sowed distrust in the system.
“Conservatives do not do that.”
Leslyn Lewis, a social conservative who placed third in the party’s 2020 leadership race before being elected as an MP for Ontario in last year’s federal election, said after the debate she found the comment concerning, saying it “undermines credibility in our economic system.”
“I don’t agree that Members of Parliament should be meddling in the Bank of Canada.”
Poilievre was the only candidate not to speak to reporters following the debate.
The popular Conservative, who has at times drawn crowds by the thousands at campaign events across the country, was repeatedly targeted by different candidates on topics including his stance on abortion and embrace of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
Charest, along with Lewis, accused Poilievre of encouraging Canadians to invest in the risky digital currency.
Patrick Brown, mayor of Brampton, Ont., said “magic internet money” like Bitcoin fluctuates wildly and Poilievre shouldn’t be encouraging Canada’s vulnerable investors to gamble their savings.
In response, 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.
Poilievre also stated that a government led by him wouldn’t pass or introduce legislation restricting access to abortion. 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 from his caucus on the topic. He also laid into Charest’s own record on the issue.
“You’re the only one on this stage who actually voted for a law that would recriminalize abortion when you were part of the Mulroney government. You did,” said Poilievre.
“And you can take a moment now to renounce your earlier vote if you’ve changed your mind, but that was your position. You seem to have forgotten. You’ve forgotten a lot of things about your record.”
In 1990, Charest voted in favour of Bill C-43, which Brian Mulroney’s government brought in after a 1988 Supreme Court ruling decriminalized abortion. The bill would have recriminalized the procedure except when a woman’s health was at risk, but it died in a tie vote in the Senate.
Without mentioning Poilievre’s name, Brown also used his opening statement to take a shot at the longtime Conservative’s bombastic political style, saying it’s not what the party needs to grow in suburbs and areas like the Greater Toronto Area.
“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 of the six candidates directly referenced COVID-19 vaccine mandates as one of the key reasons for what they see as division in the country, with Lewis saying she believes Canada needs to become a beacon of life again because people are “traumatized” from pandemic-related health rules.
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.
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.
Speaking afterwards, Charest, who led the former federal Progressive Conservative party in the 1990s, said he found the debate formal “unusual” and wasn’t expecting to field questions so personal.
Moderator Tom Clark, a former political journalist, enforced at times complex rules. One segment required candidates to raise a prop paddle in order to participate, and Clark took time away from candidates whose supporters interrupted the debate with cheers. A clip of a sad trombone also played when contenders broke certain rules.
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.
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.
—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press