NEWS
09/12/2016 14:08 EDT | Updated 09/13/2017 01:12 EDT

Leadership race heats up as Conservative caucus gathers in Halifax

OTTAWA — The Conservative leadership race will start ramping up as MPs and senators gather in Halifax for a summer caucus retreat beginning Tuesday morning.

The Tories will spend two days discussing how to tackle the Liberals once everyone returns to Parliament Hill on Sept. 19, when they will push Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his handling of the economy, national security, defence and other areas where the Conservatives have traditionally seen their strength.

But the nascent leadership race is expected to dominate discussions in the corridors of the downtown Halifax hotel as candidates seek support from their colleagues and those who have yet to declare get closer to making up their minds.

Quebec MP Denis Lebel, the deputy Conservative caucus leader, said that while some leadership candidates have been taking strong positions, no one should think the race to replace former prime minister Stephen Harper is tearing them apart.

"Our caucus is united, very united," Lebel said Monday.

One of those positions is a proposal from the leadership campaign of Kellie Leitch, who wants to see the federal government screen potential immigrants and refugees for their views on what she is calling "Canadian values", such as the equality of men and women and tolerance for all religions, cultures and sexual orientations.

The controversial idea woke up an otherwise sleepy contest earlier this month, prompting many of her rivals to denounce it.

Conservative MP Michael Chong went so far as to accuse Leitch of engaging in "dog-whistle politics."

Even interim leader Rona Ambrose distanced herself from the idea, sparking a rebuke from Leitch.

"I'm disappointed that an interim leader would engage themselves in the leadership race," Leitch told CTV's "Question Period" on Sunday.

Conservative MP Erin O'Toole, who is also considering a leadership bid, said it will be important for caucus to remember the leadership race is about an exchange of ideas and do their best to avoid making things personal.

"I think we've always been a party of ideas and we can't let this race divide us," O'Toole said Monday.

"I think that will be something that we have to talk about as a caucus — how can we make sure that we debate all ideas, but do it in a way that respects contrary viewpoints?" said O'Toole.

The Conservatives have 97 MPs but none of them are in Atlantic Canada.

The Liberals won all 32 seats in the region in the 2015 federal election.

O'Toole said holding the caucus meeting in Halifax is a way for the party to show it is ready to stand up for its voters, as it did by criticizing the Liberal government for not guaranteeing an Atlantic Canadian will be chosen to replace Justice Thomas Cromwell, who is retiring from the Supreme Court.

 "We feel that the government is actually taking Atlantic Canada for granted," O'Toole said.

"There is no opposition voice from there right now, so we are going to show them that we are there to advance their issues," he said.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter