VANCOUVER — Raucous cheers greeted former prime minister Stephen Harper for likely the last time in his political life Thursday as he took the stage in front of thousands of Conservative party loyalists to celebrate the legacy of his nine years in power.
The party remains strong and united even in the face of last fall's election defeat, Harper said in his first public remarks since stepping down on election night.
"We have a proud record, but the past is no place to linger," Harper said.
"Now is the time to look forward. Our party's journey is only beginning."
Close to 3,000 people are registered to attend the party's policy convention in Vancouver this weekend to update the party's policies and its constitution.
Harper was the headliner of an opening ceremony that featured Chinese lion dancers, a traditional First Nations welcome and jokes aplenty from presenters about the governing Trudeau Liberals, including repeated references to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's elbowing of an opposition NDP MP last week.
But Harper himself made no direct reference to his political opponent, choosing to focus on thanking his family, his staff, party loyalists and parliamentarians and his legacy.
Harper said he was personally proud of the party's success in Quebec in the last election, with a record number of Tories elected.
"Our party now has a solid base in the heart of the great Quebecois nation," he said in a nod to the party's gains specifically in Quebec City, where they won eight of ten seats in the area.
The party says there are more delegates from Quebec registered for this convention than similar events in year's past and there's already one leadership contender from that province as well, former Tory cabinet minister Maxime Bernier.
Harper said the party must be prepared to unite around whomever is chosen as the next leader.
"In 2019, perhaps more than we understand even now, our country will need a strong, united Conservative party ready to govern," he said.
"A party driven by hope, by hard work and by higher purpose that Canada can be and must always be the best country in the world."
In the aftermath of the federal election, many Conservatives groused that the party had failed to communicate any sense of hope its platform or campaign, choosing too often to take a negative tact.
What other mistakes may have been made will emerge Friday during a session reviewing the election.
The party's grassroots are hoping to ease other wounds by amending several elements of the constitution that some argue will render the party more transparent and take away some of the power that had been amassed by Harper and the national executive over the last decade.
In his remarks Harper did not address what's in store for him next, saying only that he is enjoying not being centre stage any more.
But his speech Thursday night could be his last as an MP, as he's expected to step down over the summer and pursue other interests, including foreign policy.
The Tories will select a new leader in 2017.
In addition to Bernier, Kellie Leitch and Michael Chong are the other two people formally registered to run and all are already working the delegates at the convention, alongside others considering throwing their hats in the ring.
Former cabinet minister Peter MacKay is in attendance, and TV personality and businessman Kevin O'Leary is expected in the crowd as well.
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