TORONTO — Conservative leadership contenders Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis sought to regain their footing in the contest Thursday by advancing both provocative and passionate arguments stemming from their social conservative roots.
The English language debate in Toronto marked what will likely be the final face-off between all four candidates before the ballots are sent out to party members early next month.
It was a far less feisty affair than Wednesday night’s French-language debate when the perceived front-runners Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay battled each other and dominated the stage, sidelining Sloan and Lewis largely due to their relative lack of proficiency in French.
They wasted little time Thursday trying to take the stage.
Sloan suggested the party can gain ground on social conservative issues, saying new Canadians don’t believe in the concept of multiple genders and don’t want their kids confused.
The Conservatives failed, however, in the last federal election to capture a seat in many of Canada’s most diverse ridings, a failure in part attributed to current leader Andrew Scheer’s own social conservative views.
After the debates, Sloan said the issue was that Scheer didn’t better stand up for those points of view.
“Andrew Scheer may have had those values personally but if you don’t do anything about it, you don’t have anything to stand on, it’s the worst of both worlds, people view that as selling out.”
Sloan also suggested that reducing immigration would help create more affordable housing and spoke out forcefully against Quebec’s controversial Bill 21, which bans the wearing of religious symbols by public workers.
He called the bill a form of systemic racism and said Conservatives refuse to discuss it because they don’t want to lose support in Quebec.
“This bill is not right, and I’m against it,” he said before calling upon his competitors to do the same.
In scrums with reporters after, none of them would, citing it as a matter of provincial jurisdiction.
Sloan did not raise the issue during Wednesday night’s French debate, and when asked why afterwards, said it simply did not come up.
Lewis had stuck largely to script on Wednesday, save for a question she lobbed at MacKay over whether he’d allow free votes on matters of conscience by members of his cabinet.
Earlier in the campaign he had suggested he wouldn’t, but on Wednesday he said he would, though he’d hope MPs would respect party policy not to introduce legislation restricting access to abortion.
On Thursday, she upped her attacks on both him and O’Toole, going after them for elements of their environmental policies. She suggested O’Toole’s plan for a carbon pricing system for large emitters is a carbon tax, and questioned MacKay’s capital cost allowance proposal for manufacturing but not for the oil and gas sector.
She said afterwards the questions had come from supporters who had concerns about the pair’s plans, and on conscience rights, MacKay’s response was still prompting questions.
“The voters are asking about it, it’s a very, very important issue to them.”
Lewis was at her most animated when she fielded a question submitted by a young boy asking why she wants to be prime minister.
Quoting Michael Jackson, Lewis said she’s running because she believes children are the future and wanted this boy, whose name was Max, to have a bright future and maybe one day run for prime minister himself.
“In order for that to happen, Max, we need to make sure we have strong economic policies, that we care about our vulnerable, that we protect our children, that we maintain our environment, and that we create a strong future for children like yourself,” she said.
Earlier, she spoke out forcefully about the treatment of the elderly, saying one of the key lessons from the COVID-19 crisis was the vulnerability of seniors.
“We need to make sure we do not impose euthanasia on these seniors because some of them feel compelled to relieve suffering from this system and their family members,” she said.
Many social conservatives use the term euthanasia to refer to medical assistance in dying.
Sloan and Lewis have depended heavily on well-organized and funded social conservative groups to help raise the cash and get the signatures they needed to enter the leadership race.
Both have made anti-abortion policies part of their campaigns. Sloan suggested Thursday that O’Toole and MacKay would agree that it is not right that Canada doesn’t have a law against abortion.
Both have said a Conservative government led by them would not introduce legislation to restrict access to abortion, but they would allow free votes on it.
O’Toole has been running as what he calls a “True Blue” conservative, a nod to the original more right-wing elements of the party from back in its Reform days.
He insisted again Thursday, however, that he is running to represent all Conservatives.
“We need a principled leader who will unite our party,” he said.
MacKay, by contrast, continues to campaign on his Progressive Conservative credentials. He was leader of that party when it merged with the Reform/Canadian Alliance.
He suggested Thursday, however, that the old labels needed to go.
“I don’t speak of True Blue,” he said. “I speak of everyone.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press