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Conservative leadership candidates spar over COVID-19 pandemic, trucker convoy

Conservative leadership candidates spar over COVID-19 pandemic, trucker convoy

OTTAWA – Conservative leadership candidates laid into one another over COVID-19 mandates and the trucker convoy in downtown Ottawa in the first unofficial debate of the race Thursday.


Conservative MP and leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre speaks during a press conference outside the Bank of Canada in Ottawa, on Thursday, April 28, 2022. The Conservative leadership candidate is among five who will appear in a debate Thursday evening in Ottawa.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Conservative MP and leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre speaks during a press conference outside the Bank of Canada in Ottawa, on Thursday, April 28, 2022. The Conservative leadership candidate is among five who will appear in a debate Thursday evening in Ottawa.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA – Conservative leadership candidates laid into one another over COVID-19 mandates and the trucker convoy in downtown Ottawa in the first unofficial debate of the race Thursday.

Leslyn Lewis, the MP who placed third in the 2020 leadership race, challenged longtime Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre over his record on standing up for Canadians’ freedoms throughout the pandemic. Many Conservatives opposed health measures like vaccine and mask mandates over concerns that they infringe on personal choice.

As Poilievre tried to argue he was one of the loudest voices, Lewis charged, “You were not one of the loudest voices.”

“You did not speak up until it was convenient for you to speak up. You did not even go to the trucker protest. You actually went and you took a picture in your neighbourhood at a local stop.”

Poilievre is running on a promise to give more freedoms to Canadians and has been attracting crowds of thousands at rallies across the country.

Lewis, who opposes abortion and is promising to ban so-called sex-selective abortions, also challenged Poilievre over his stance on social conservative issues, alleging he has spent the past few days avoiding media questions about whether he is anti-abortion.

“As a leader he is going to have to declare that,” she said. “He cannot just be a minister of finance if he wants to be a prime minister. He is going to have to deal with social conservative issues, which he has been running from this entire campaign.”

Poilievre said earlier in the week a government led by him wouldn’t introduce or pass laws that restrict abortion.

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest,who is pitching himself as an experienced leader who believes in Canada,earned boos from hundreds of the conservative faithful packed into the conference room in downtown Ottawa by saying Poilievre supported illegal blockades.

Poilievre attacked Charest over his track record in Quebec and slammed him for being a Liberal because he led the Quebec Liberal party. He also repeatedly pressed Charest on how much money he made working for telecoms giant Huawei.

“We need to know the truth here,” said Poilievre.

“The Liberals are going to ask that. He’s never told us how much he got paid. This is a company whose software and hardware has been banned from the 5G networks of four of the Five Eye countries because of allegations, in many cases proven, that they have used it for espionage.”

As the three candidates took turns focusing on one another, Ontario MP Scott Aitchison said on stage that as Conservatives, “all we do is yell and scream at each other,” and said that’s an issue if the party wants to be competitive with more Canadians in the next election. However, there were heated exchanges through the entire debate.

“Here we are calling each other names. What Canadian is going to trust this lot? We’ve got to do better,” said Aitchison.

He also added that: “Every time I hear a Conservative talking about some conspiracy theory … there’s another group of swing voters in the GTA that just are not going to come our way.”

That comment prompted pushback from Lewis as well as Roman Baber, the independent MPP from Ontario who was booted from Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative caucus in 2021 over opposing a COVID-19 lockdown that was in place at the time.

Baber says many Canadians still cannot board a plane in the country because of a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“Canadians are witnessing the continuous erosion of our democracy and we should be mindful of this conversation instead of mocking them like the Prime Minister does,” said Baber.

The debate, hosted by the Canada Strong and Free Network, stared off by asking the five of the six candidates who showed up for the event why they believe the Conservative party has lost the past few elections.

Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, Ont., did not take part. His campaign said he was focused on selling memberships to supporters before the June 3 deadline needed to vote in the Conservative leadership race. The party is set to pick a new leader Sept. 10

During Thursday’s debate Aitchison blamed the party’s recent election losses on a lack of consistency in message. Charest pointed to the lack of seats in Quebec, the Greater Toronto Area as well as British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

The former premier says one of the issues the party faces trying to break through in the GTA is backlash over the 2015 Conservative campaign, when the Tories vowed to create a tip line for so-called barbaric cultural practices.

Poilievre told the room he has never lost an election, has a big social media following and is attracting many new party members with his rallies.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2022.

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