The Conservative leadership race is about to get a little bit more interesting. The four candidates pitching to lead the Official Opposition and go toe-to-toe with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the next election square off Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. EDT in the first of two official debates.
UPDATE: Poor French and social conservative issues dominated the French-language Conservative leadership debate. But there were far fewer barbs at the English-language debate the next night.
The 1½ to 2-hour sessions will feature questions from the public, submitted on the party’s website. Wednesday’s debate will be held in French and moderated by Dan Nowlan, co-chair of the party’s leadership election organizing committee, and Thursday’s English debate will be moderated by former MP Lisa Raitt, the other co-chair. Both will be held in Toronto without a live audience.
The first part of the debate will feature a series of one-on-one face-offs. The second part will see all candidates have a chance to answer the same question and then debate.
Watch: Here’s who is still running to replace Andrew Scheer as Tory leader
Although most of the candidates are not fluent in French, Conservative party spokesman Cory Hann told HuffPost Canada that the candidates will be expected to speak in French during Wednesday’s debate.
“There is no interpretation or translation provided — French debate is in French, English debate is in English,” Hann said. They have not been given the questions in advance, he added.
Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the candidates’ campaigns have mostly been reduced to Zoom sessions, phone calls, social media posts and emails to party members. The race may not have galvanized public attention as much as it otherwise could have. Here’s what you may have missed about the candidates, from who they are to what they are pitching.
The only woman in the race, Lewis, 49, is the only candidate who can call herself doctor (she completed a PhD in law last summer, defending a thesis on attracting foreign investment for green energy projects in Ghana).
She is also the only candidate with no experience as an elected representative. In 2015, the single mother of two was asked to run in Scarborough–Rouge Park — a riding with a large concentration of visible minorities, after an old video of the then-Conservative candidate urinating into a coffee mug while on a service call to someone’s house was made public. Lewis obtained 27.4 per cent of the votes, a respectable second-place finish in a riding typically held by the Liberals. (In 2011, when most of the riding was known as Scarborough–Rouge Park, the Conservatives placed second with 29.9 per cent, losing to the NDP.)
A Pentecostal, Lewis has the backing of two influential social conservative groups, Right Now (she’s their top choice) and Campaign Life Coalition (she’s their second choice). She promises to allow Conservative MPs, including cabinet ministers, “free votes on all conscience matters.” She pledges to ban sex-selective abortions, protect women from coerced abortions, increase support for pregnancy care centres to support women who carry their pregnancies to term and to end international funding that supports abortions.
She also favours reducing international aid to focus funds on paying for safe drinking water on reserves. She has said she wants the party to forge a relationship with Indigenous people that leads to meaningful results, and she’d like to see more communities partner with energy projects in order to get better jobs.
On her website, Lewis lists her No. 1 priority as “upholding family as the cornerstone of society.” Parents should be able to raise their children according to their beliefs, she writes. She also believes the government should pursue compassion towards the vulnerable by “protecting” seniors, veterans, those with disabilities, and Indigenous people.
A Black woman, she is best placed to discuss anti-Black racism, calls to defund the police, and lead attacks against Trudeau for his notorious blackface incidents. In a CBC interview, Lewis suggested the prime minister’s Liberal colleagues had “coddled him” after he’d engaged in “one of the most horrendously racist acts.” She accepted Trudeau’s apology but said she felt there is a double standard in the country. When Conservatives misspeak on racial issues, such as former Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day did on a CBC program last week, she said, they are called upon to resign.
Lewis has expressed hope that her entry into the contest will make the public rethink its views on her party, and its appeal to Canadians of colour.
When she was five years old, she immigrated to Canada from Jamaica with her parents and siblings (she has five). The family settled in North York. Lewis has spoken about herself as an example of what people who are willing to work hard can accomplish. She has several other degrees: a bachelor from Trinity College, a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School (where she also obtained her doctorate), a masters in environmental studies from York, an MBA from the Schulich School of Business. She has said she relied on scholarships, grants and OSAP (the Ontario Student Assistance Program) to put herself through school. She has run a law practice for more than 20 years, her campaign manager said. “I know what it’s like to put a payroll for a small business on your personal line of credit,” she told the Toronto Sun earlier this year.
She is opposed to the carbon tax and has taken up positions popular with more radical Conservatives, saying, for example, that she would pull Canada out of the non-binding UN Global For Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. She is opposed to Bill C-8 (the ban on conversion therapy), saying it is too broadly written and may criminalize parents and faith leaders for offering advice or counsel. She has also pledged to repeal Bill C-16, saying it impedes free speech. The transgender rights bill, passed by the Liberals in 2016, added “gender identity or expression” to the list of prohibited discriminatory acts.
Like the other candidates, she has promised to move Canada’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to scrap the tanker ban off B.C. ‘s coast and Bill C-69, the Liberals’ effort to revamp approval for energy projects.
In a 2015 riding debate, Lewis spoke confidently and stood her ground, telling her opponent to “put your money where your mouth is.” She favours low taxes and was quite forceful in attacking the Liberals’ planned $10-billion deficits, saying more debt would lead to job losses and suggesting Canada would end up like Greece.
There are no French media clips posted to her website, and HuffPost Canada did not find any interviews in French. She was quoted in the Stoney Creek News, in an article published on Feb. 1, saying she isn’t bilingual but plans to immerse herself in the language. “I do believe the leader of the country should be able to communicate in both official languages,” she told the Ontario paper. Right Now’s French-speaking volunteers gave her linguistic ability a two out of five ranking, the same score they gave Peter MacKay. But her campaign manager, Steve Outhouse, told HuffPost Lewis began learning French only once she decided to run for the leadership.
“This was not a life-long goal, so she had not been preparing by taking lessons. What you’ll hear on the stage [Wednesday] evening will be her participating to the best of her ability, and she hopes it will show she is making sincere efforts,” he said, noting she is working with a tutor. “She acknowledges there is much room to improve.”
Lewis is divorced and has two children, a son, 15, and a daughter in post-secondary education.
The presumptive front-runner, MacKay, 54, a married father of three, may be in for a tougher fight than he expected. The leader of the former Progressive Conservative party, he broke a deal made to secure that leadership — he had promised anti-free trader David Orchard that the party would not merge with the Canadian Alliance. Now, he finds himself with no natural allies in this contest.
MacKay, who went on to forge the Conservative Party with Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance, then served as foreign affairs minister, minister for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, defence minister, and justice minister, leaving each position with baggage and small controversies. He did not run in 2015, after 18 years in politics, saying he wanted to spend more time with his young family. He left his home in Pictou County, the Nova Scotia district he and, before him, his father, represented in Ottawa, and moved his family to Toronto, where he joined a Bay Street law firm as a partner.
After the 2019 campaign, MacKay emerged as one of the harshest critics of leader Andrew Scheer’s performance, telling an audience in the United States that the loss “was like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net.” Scheer’s inability to deal with questions about his socially conservative views on abortion and same-sex marriage “hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like a stinking albatross,” he said. (He has since said he regrets how his remarks were interpreted.)
Still, MacKay insisted that, when Scheer’s leadership would be up for review, he would vote to keep him as leader and denied reports he was organizing a campaign. That was in late October and November. In January, after Scheer announced he would step down (or after was pushed out, depending on who’s telling), MacKay announced he was stepping up.
Despite having name recognition and the national profile other candidates lacked, MacKay’s run has been marked by a series of early stumbles. After launching his campaign, he was criticized for taking no questions from reporters, for challenging Trudeau to a physical brawl, for vapid social media slogans (“Canada is strong because Canadians make it strong”), for leaving a tweet up mocking Trudeau’s yoga expenses while he insisted he was “not happy” with it and it did not meet his standard for civility, and for letting his staff cut short an interview when the questions became uncomfortable.
In February, MacKay’s team deleted tweets he’d published after he was criticized for what some viewed as praising and encouraging vigilante behaviour against Indigenous protestors blocking railway lines. The following month, as the country was adjusting to life with the novel coronavirus and millions of Canadians were losing their jobs, MacKay argued that the Conservative party leadership contest should not be delayed but rather sped up so the Tories could pick a leader earlier. (That didn’t happen. The contest has been pushed back until Aug. 21.)
MacKay pitched himself as the leader who can unite the party and expand its tent. In January, he told the National Post’s John Ivison, “there is an overwhelming consensus among Conservatives on economic issues, law and order and security. It frays a bit at the edges on social issues.”
But, so far in this contest, his opponents have sought to paint him as out of step with a large part of the party, a centrist “Liberal-lite” candidate. He supported same-sex marriage in 2006, after previously voting against it, and describes himself as a “pro-choice” candidate who plans to walk in Pride parades.
While he has said he believes social conservatives have a place in the Conservative party and pledged to defend freedom of speech and freedom of faith, he has also said he will whip his cabinet on any abortion bills brought forward by his caucus. In leak audio promoted by the Lewis campaign, MacKay also asked asked social conservatives to “park those issues, for a time” while the party tries to get the country on track, because those positions will be “misinterpreted” and “used against us” and will impede the Tories’ ability to break through in certain parts of the country with more important messages.
That’s why it was puzzling to read an email from MacKay in April, seemingly directed at social conservatives opposed to expanding transgender rights, attacking his opponent, Erin O’Toole, for supporting legislation that added gender identity as a protected category in the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act. (MacKay voted against this bill in 2012, but O’Toole, recently elected, voted in favour.) MacKay, in the email, states that O’Toole has said a lot of “untrue and disappointing things” during the campaign.
“While I haven’t always agreed with him, like when he voted in favour of the Transgender Rights “bathroom” Bill in 2012, I’ve always respected that his motivations were positive. But I’m not so sure anymore,” he wrote.
MacKay’s camp reversed themselves the next day, apologizing for describing the legislation as a “bathroom bill” and saying their candidate’s views had evolved and that if MacKay had been in Parliament during the last mandate, he, as O’Toole did, would have voted in favour of Bill C-16.
While he personally disagrees with many social conservative issues, MacKay has promised to protect the conscience rights of medical professionals unwilling to help with medically assisted dying. Among his other promises: banning China’s Telecom giant Huawei from Canada’s 5G network, allowing Canadians to withdraw as much as they want from their RRSP to purchase their first home, boosting services for veterans, and cutting taxes for Canadian small business owners.
MacKay’s pitch — retooled since the pandemic — includes a focus on rebuilding the country post COVID-19, what he calls a “made-in-Canada equivalent of the Marshall Plan.” His vision is focused on building a more self-reliant and resilient Canada, with — in reading the lines and in between the lines — more manufacturing capacity for critical health care infrastructure, more defence spending, but lower taxes, while also lowering the country’s debt. MacKay is opposed to putting a price on carbon, which he says is ineffective, but he pitches a North-American response to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a fashion similar to acid rain. (That was done through regulation, cooperation and lengthy negotiations. Evidence of the problem was gathered by Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) which Harper’s government tried to shut down in 2012).
MacKay and O’Toole, who are seen as the frontrunners, have traded barbs over fundraising figures (as of the end of March, MacKay had raised the most money, while O’Toole had the most donors). O’Toole has run aggressive ads against his challenger, suggesting a MacKay victory would lead to another Trudeau mandate.
MacKay’s camp believes O’Toole is using influential conservative online outlets to tar their candidate unfairly. They note that O’Toole’s digital director Jeff Ballingall is a co-owner of the website The Post Millennial and runs the influential Canada Proud/Ontario Proud Facebook pages that pump out shareable memes. (His firm, Mobilize Media Group has also been hired by O’Toole to micro-target Conservative supporters, according to The Star.) The Post Millennial has published several negative stories about MacKay, teasing what they said was a leaked memo from the O’Toole campaign outlining MacKay’s past transgressions (appointing friends as judges, racking up large travel expenses, using a government search and rescue helicopter to pick him up from a vacation, etc.).
MacKay is suing the site over an article titled: “Leaked Polling Report Shows MacKay’s Support Plummeting, O’Toole Takes the Lead” which he says is defamatory and provides a false and misleading picture. MacKay’s lawyer says the poll was conducted by O’Toole campaign manager Fred Delorey’s polling company, DesLauriers Public Affairs, but that that fact was not disclosed.
MacKay has collected the largest number of caucus endorsements, 53, a number that means those people closest to him think he has the chops — “the temperament, the style, the capacity, and the character” — to do the job, said longtime colleague and former cabinet minister James Moore on Canadaland’s “Oppo” podcast.
With almost two decades in Ottawa, and free private French lessons at his disposal, many have remarked with bewilderment that MacKay never learned to speak fluently. He was roundly mocked in Quebec when he announced his candidacy in broken French — with the province’s largest circulation daily, underlining his errors in red on its front page: “J’ai sera candidate.”
In a social media video last week, MacKay is seen with his wife, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a human rights activist and former Miss World Canada, who speaks French, discussing his efforts to learn and speak Canada’s other official language at home.
The couple has two sons and a daughter: Kian, 7, Valentia, 4, and Caledon, 1.
O’Toole, 47, is the only candidate who’s done this before. The former lawyer and Royal Canadian Air Force tactical navigator, joined the Conservative caucus in 2012 after the local MP, Bev Oda, stepped down over a national scandal involving a $16 orange juice. Ambitious and congenial, O’Toole was tapped in January 2015 to replace Julian Fantino as veterans affairs minister. Fantino, a former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner, earned the condemnation of many veterans and their families after two bewildering, disrespectful incidents.
Widely seen as an effective communicator, O’Toole attempted to change the tone of the Harper government’s relationship with veterans, but cuts to the department remained a liability heading into that year’s election campaign.
In 2017, O’Toole ran for the party leadership and placed third, surpassing longtime cabinet ministers, based, in part, on an appeal as a moderate, bilingual, suburban Toronto-area MP who offered the possibility of a breakthrough in populous suburban areas. This time, however, O’Toole is pitching himself as the candidate who offers Western Canada the strongest voice, and a leader who will govern to the right of Peter MacKay, notably when it comes to social issues. He has been helped by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who, unable to convince Rona Ambrose or anyone else he preferred to run, threw his support and network behind O’Toole, pitching him as “a leader who is competent and principled.”
“A leader who won’t run away from conservative principles under pressure from the media or the Left,” he said. O’Toole, in contrast to MacKay, has said he will not whip his front-bench on matters of conscience, including abortion. He espouses the same position as Scheer. His campaign strategy relies on obtaining second-ballot support from social conservatives whose first choice is Lewis or Derek Sloan. That should be on display this week.
Although O’Toole’s negative tone — aggressively painting MacKay as a weak leader who would lose against Trudeau — may turn some Conservatives off, the candidate was praised for running a smooth campaign until the release of his 50-page platform. (No other candidate has offered anything as comprehensive.) A day after his platform was published, O’Toole removed a pledge he’d made to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. Many Conservatives, including Kenney, argue that the sector does not benefit from subsidies, though the Auditor General has attempted to calculate the different governments programs and support — tax breaks, research and development funding, cheap government loans, etc. — that have helped boost the sector. O’Toole said he’d heard an earful and made changes to “make it clearer.”
Like the other candidates, O’Toole promises to scrap the Liberals’ carbon tax, but he does say his plan would be “founded on proven market-based principles for incenting positive change.” His federal government would support provinces that choose to enact their own carbon pricing regime, O’Toole states. But his focus would be “on making industry pay” through “national industrial regulatory and pricing regime across the country.”
Since the platform’s release last week, MacKay has said it “does not sound like it was written by someone running to be the leader of our Conservative Party.” His camp has called it a “dangerous plan” for Canada’s economy, with former finance minister Joe Oliver arguing that regulation and pricing regimes (“more intrusive regulations and higher taxes”) would batter the country’s energy sector. MacKay has said taxpayers would end up paying for any new pricing regime. One of MacKay’s supporters, MP John Barlow, raised the possibility that O’Toole could make farmers pay more for their methane production, if he delivers, as he has called for, a plan that focuses not only on carbon but on all greenhouse gas emissions.
The Ontario MP has said he believes one of the reasons the Tories lost the last election was because they did not have a strong enough environmental plan. O’Toole has said he is not proposing anything Kenney isn’t already implementing in Alberta.
Among his other promises, O’Toole would “cancel Liberal tax hikes,” review and simplify the tax code; launch a royal commission on Canada’s pandemic response, with a look at the state of long-term care in Canada; institute a “Pay-as-You-Go rule, enshrined in law,” requiring that any new dollar in spending be offset by cuts elsewhere; offer entrepreneurs the possibility of withdrawing up to $50,000 from an RRSP (to be repaid subsequently) to start or acquire a small business.
He also proposes more controversial measures such as invoking the notwithstanding clause to impose mandatory minimum sentences for certain offences, and passing a law that would prevent protesters from blocking railways, ports or airports but also one that would prevent the blocking of an “entrance to a business or household in a way that interferes with people lawfully entering or leaving.”
His platform includes a five-page insert with policies specifically for Quebec. The Conservative have fewer supporters there, and with ballot results for each riding holding the same proportion of weight regardless of local membership, members in Quebec could hold a powerful sway over who becomes the next leader.
O’Toole brands himself a “true, blue, conservative.” His motto, “Take Back Canada” has been criticized in some corners for its populist call. He promises to “take on the elites” and “rattle the system to get it done.”
He has also been criticized for appearing to pander to social conservatives.
In a leaked video this week, O’Toole was seen speaking in French to a group of social conservatives, asking them to rank him second on their ballot. In the course of the conversation, O’Toole says as a Roman Catholic, as a lawyer, he is not comfortable widening eligibility to medically assisted dying (as the courts have directed) and will likely vote against the Liberals’ bill. He also said, in a slow and somewhat broken French, that he will watch the debates on C-8, a bill banning conversion therapy, because he’s heard concerns expressed by certain constituents, and that it would be inappropriate to change the approach taken with regard to faith communities. “It is very important to respect the rights — the conversations between priests and members of his flock,” he says in a video obtained by TVA. After reporters published his comments, O’Toole tweeted, in French only, that he believes conversation therapy has no place in Canada and should be abolished.
“LGBTQ individuals have their place in the large conservative family, and I promise to fight against this unacceptable and hurtful practice,” he tweeted, in French. “I will not make any compromises on that.”
O’Toole was also reportedly the only Ontario caucus member, aside from Derek Sloan, who voted against asking Sloan to apologize for remarks about Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam.
O’Toole and his wife Rebecca have two children: Mollie, 13, and Jack, 8.
Sloan is a first-time MP who beat better known candidates to win the Tory nomination, then defeated the Liberal incumbent last fall in the Ontario rural riding of Hastings–Lennox and Addington. Sloan, 35, is not fluent in French.
The Seventh-day Adventist’s campaign has focused mostly on opposing abortion, defending conversion therapy (he called Bill C-8 a form of child abuse) and railing against legislation such as Bill C-16, while defending free speech. He has said he pursued a law degree in order to defend religious freedoms.
Sloan’s other policy positions include raising the legal age for cannabis consumption to 25, recognizing property rights, and reducing immigration levels from 350,000 a year to 150,000, though he pledges to fast-track victims of religious persecution.
In April, Sloan called for Tam to be fired, accusing her of “dutifully” repeating propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party. “Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer needs to work for Canada. Not for the WHO or any other foreign entity,” he wrote. In a Facebook post, he questioned whether Tam works “for Canada or for China.”
The missive unleashed a wave of criticism, with many calling the attack racist. His team noted his was the only website available in Chinese and pushed back against the accusation. Sloan, who said the criticism was not unexpected, continued to accuse Tam of showing great incompetence through Canada’s pandemic response.
Many Conservatives believe Sloan is using the contest to push a certain agenda with no regard for the damage it could do the party in the long run. Many of MacKay’s backers supported a move for the national caucus to condemn Sloan for his behaviour, but they fell short of the required support. The Ontario caucus was nearly united in asking Sloan to apologize, but he refused, saying he was asking a rhetorical question. His motto is: “Conservative. Without apology.”
Sloan has described MacKay’s policies as a “social liberal extremism,” he has also come out swinging against O’Toole accusing him of being a “Liberal-lite” conservative, who pushes the party to the left and silences MPs’ freedom of speech on bills such as C-16. He said it was “appalling” that O’Toole had twice voted “for grown men to use the bathroom with my young daughters,” playing up a harmful stereotype about transgender women using public facilities.
He told Right Now that he was moved to compete for the leadership because of “how Red Tory” the other candidates in the running were. He has also suggested Lewis is not aggressive enough in pursuing a “pro-life” agenda.
“The boldest thing my fellow pro-life candidate Leslyn Lewis has said on abortion is that ‘a fetus shouldn’t be terminated on the basis of its sex.’ While I agree, that is setting the bar very low,” he wrote.
Sloan and his wife, Jennifer, have three young children: Fiona, Callum, and Nora.