EDMONTON — Candidates vying for the Conservative leadership described the country — and the party — as deeply divided during Wednesday’s first official debate, and took turns pointing the finger at a rival they accuse of driving disunity in the race.

The loudest applause at 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 was to give people “the freedom to regain control of their lives.

Much of his speech is about fighting inflation. During the debate, he specifically targeted Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem, saying he would fire him because Canada’s inflation rate is the highest in decades.

“The Governor of the Bank of Canada has taken the liberty of becoming this government’s ATM. And so I would replace him with a new governor who would restore our low inflation mandate, protect the purchasing power of our dollar, and honor the workers who earn those dollars,” Poilievre said.

Jean Charest, former premier of Quebec, responded by saying the MP’s comments were irresponsible and sowed mistrust in the system.

“Conservatives don’t do that.”

Leslyn Lewis, a social conservative who placed third in the party’s 2020 leadership race before being elected as an Ontario MP in last year’s federal election, said after the debate that she found the comment concerning, saying it “undermines the credibility of our economic system”.

“I don’t agree with MPs meddling with the Bank of Canada.

Poilievre was the only candidate not to speak to reporters after the debate.

The popular conservative, who has at times drawn crowds in the thousands at campaign events across the country, has been repeatedly targeted by different candidates on topics including his stance on abortion and crypto adoption. -Bitcoin currency.

Charest, along with Lewis, accused Poilievre of encouraging Canadians to invest in the risky digital currency.

Patrick Brown, Mayor of Brampton, Ont., said “internet magic money” like Bitcoin fluctuates wildly and Poilievre should not encourage vulnerable investors in Canada to gamble their savings.

In response, Poilievre said he doesn’t encourage people to invest in Bitcoin, but doesn’t want to see it banned because investors deserve the right to choose how to spend their money.

Poilievre also said a government led by him would not pass or introduce legislation restricting access to abortion. Charest, who said he supports abortion rights, called that response insufficient, saying Canadian women deserved to know where he stood.

“Every candidate in this race has to tell the Canadian women where they stand, whether they are for or against. The women of Canada deserve to know where they stand, and Mr. Poilievre’s response, quite frankly, does not meet that criteria,” Charest said.

Poilievre later said he believed in freedom of choice and would allow free votes from his caucus on the subject. He also established Charest’s own record on the matter.

“You are the only one on this stage who actually voted for a law that would recriminalize abortion when you were in the Mulroney government. You did it,” Poilievre said.

“And you can take a moment now to retract your previous vote if you changed your mind, but that was your position. You seem to have forgotten. You forgot a lot of things on your file.

In 1990, Charest voted in favor of Bill C-43, which Brian Mulroney’s government introduced after a 1988 Supreme Court decision decriminalizing abortion. The bill would have recriminalized the procedure except when a woman’s health was at risk, but died in a tie vote in the Senate.

Without mentioning Poilievre’s name, Brown also used his opening statement to attack the pompous political style of longtime Tories, saying that’s not what the party needs to grow in the suburbs and regions. such as the Greater Toronto Area.

“The pre-party choice is clear,” Brown said.

“Do we want an ineligible party leader who drives voters away, falls straight into liberal trappings, gives unclear answers on divisible issues like abortion, and pits conservatives against each other?

Most of the six candidates have directly referenced COVID-19 vaccine mandates as one of the main reasons for what they see as a division in the country, with Lewis saying she believes Canada must once again become a beacon of life because people are “traumatized” by the pandemic. – related health rules.

Charest was a notable exception, as he pointed to disagreements over oil and gas between the eastern and western sides of the country as the cause of the conflict.

“I see a country that is deeply divided and I am running because I believe national unity is the No. 1 challenge for any prime minister,” he said.

Although the race was described as a contentious battle for the soul of the party after three straight election defeats to the Liberals, the atmosphere of Wednesday’s event was noticeably lighter at times. Candidates were asked a series of personal questions about their favorite political heroes, the books they read and the last TV show they binged.

Speaking afterwards, Charest, who led the former federal Progressive Conservative Party in the 1990s, said he found the formal debate “unusual” and did not expect to respond to questions. such personal matters.

Moderator Tom Clark, a former political journalist, applied sometimes complex rules. One segment required candidates to lift a paddle to participate, and Clark took time out for candidates whose supporters interrupted the debate with cheers. A clip of a sad trombone also played when the suitors broke some rules.

Candidates were pushed to provide clear answers on policy elements ranging from support for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, to supply management and the implementation of the 94 calls to the work of 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 last and eliminate divisive rhetoric from politics.

Roman Baber, the Independent MPP for Ontario who was kicked out of Premier Doug Ford’s caucus for opposing COVID-19 restrictions, said he wants to restore democracy to Canada and end what he called “21st century segregation,” referring to vaccination mandates.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 11, 2022.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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