OTTAWA - Former Republican presidential candidate and libertarian Ron Paul will be the marquee speaker at Canada's premier gathering of Conservatives next month, a figure that even organizers bill as controversial.

Paul will speak to the Manning Centre for Building Democracy's networking conference, an event that in the past has drawn Prime Minister Stephen Harper and many of his key cabinet members and advisers.

Paul, referred to by some pundits as the real inspiration behind the Tea Party movement in the United States, is one of the foremost voices for small government — including eliminating foreign aid, the education department, key social programs and the war on drugs.

He is staunchly anti-abortion, anti-gun control, and opposed to President Barack Obama's health-care reform. The 77-year-old has advocated for an end to Medicare and Medicaid in the United States.

A Texan, Paul is a former doctor turned congressman and currently the chairman of the Campaign for Liberty. He was able to assemble a loyal following over the course of two Republican races in 2008 and 2011, notably with the use of the Internet.

"We oppose the dehumanizing assumption that all issues that divide us must be settled at the federal level and forced on every American community, whether by activist judges, a power-hungry executive, or a meddling Congress," says the campaign's website.

"We believe in the humane alternative of local self-government, as called for in our Constitution."

Olivier Ballou, a spokesman for the Manning Centre, said centre president Preston Manning himself will engage in an on-stage discussion with Paul following the former presidential candidate's speech.

"He's definitely our biggest attraction and source of controversy," Ballou said. "He's one of those guys that people either love him or hate him. It's fascinating since we announced him seeing the debates online."

On the Manning Centre's Facebook page, commenters were divided about the wisdom of having Paul speak at the conference.

"Ron Paul is a fool who will only discredit this fine attempt at preparing conservative minds for the future," read one post.

"Ron Paul is the best politician in the U.S.A., the real deal. Very smart man, can't believe he isn't President he's so smart," said another.

Conservative parliamentarians who are on the schedule for the conference were markedly terse in their reaction to Paul's participation.

"I actually have heard him speak in the past, and while I disagree with what he says on occasion, I'll defend to the death his right to say it," said Treasury Board President Tony Clement.

"The Manning Centre conference has a history of bringing up a wide variety of different speakers to appeal to a wide variety of different audiences, so I don't think that'll be any different this time around," said Calgary MP Michelle Rempel.

Although there are many libertarians in the ranks of the Conservative party, including Harper himself, Paul's small government is a different breed than that expressed publicly by Conservatives in power. Universal health care, official languages policy and supply management are just three areas that would be anathema to Paul's positions.

Participants might more in common in another speaker — former Australian prime minister John Howard. Some in Harper's team borrowed liberally from Howard's campaign and communications style over the years.

Opposition MPs said it's telling that Paul was selected to speak to Canada's top Conservatives.

"We know that the right in Canada are getting loonier all the time, but I think it's very telling that they're bringing in Mr. Ron Paul," said NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.

"Mr. Ron Paul is a marginal figure in the United States where the right are extremely right wing, so the Harperites think they're going to learn lessons from him? It might show an indication of where their backbench is certainly wanting to go."

Said Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia: "I don't understand what wisdom Mr. Paul can bring to the Canadian setting. We're a very different country with very different issues."

Paul courted controversy earlier this week when he tweeted that the "death of a former NAVY Seal at a shooting range confirmed that 'he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.’ Treating PTSD at a firing range doesn’t make sense."'

Paul is strongly non-interventionist when it comes to American military activities, and voted against the war in Iraq.

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