HALIFAX — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer set his sights squarely on Justin Trudeau during his keynote speech to party faithful in Halifax on Friday, saying he will not allow "political correctness" to divide Canadians or sanitize history.
Scheer took to the podium to rally the roughly 3,000 members attending the Conservative convention in the Nova Scotia capital, and to demonstrate that his political rival is the prime minister — not Maxime Bernier.
He made no direct mention of the now-former Conservative MP, who announced his departure from the party Thursday with a bitter stream of anti-Tory invective.
Scheer did, however, make a thinly veiled reference to the controversy when he thanked former Tory leader Peter MacKay, who is widely credited with helping to foster the merger between right-wing factions that spawned the current-day Conservative party in 2003.
"Thank you for your years of selfless service to our unified Conservative party," Scheer told MacKay.
"Peter is someone who set his personal interests aside for the good of our party, who decided to build up and not to tear down — and our party is a living testament to his hard work."
However, MacKay's history involving the united right is not without controversy. He once signed an agreement with a rival to keep the federal Progressive Conservatives separate from the Canadian Alliance in perpetuity — a deal he later backtracked on.
Scheer's closely watched, 55-minute speech chastised Trudeau more than once for what Scheer characterized as promoting political correctness over common sense.
Referencing recent controversies involving statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, he called attempts to remove images of Canada's first prime minister a "disgrace" and noted many other historic figures have ties to dark moments in Canadian history.
"I'm proud to say that we are the party of Canada's first prime minister, the father of our federation, and the visionary who made this land possible," said Scheer.
"I think it's a disgrace that we're allowing extreme voices in this country to erase our proud heritage."
The MP for Regina-Qu'Appelle also warned Canadians of what he called the "forces of political correctness," which he said are converging on contrary ideas "and even on legitimate criticism."
He cited Trudeau's confrontation last week with a woman at a campaign event in Quebec, where the prime minister parried questions about the cost of irregular border crossers coming into the province with accusations of racism and intolerance. The woman has associated herself on social media with anti-immigrant groups such as Storm Alliance.
Trudeau "wants to impose his personal views on the country and demonize those who don't accept them," Scheer said, vowing to hold the prime minister to account for "smearing and name-calling those who criticize him."
The partisan crowd was attentive and often broke out into applause, notably when Scheer touched on several core Conservative refrains: lower taxes, smaller government and reduced regulation.
He promised that his first act as prime minister would be to get rid of the federal government's carbon tax scheme once and for all, and he chastised the Trudeau government for deficit spending and "virtue-signalling."
But the address also lingered on Scheer's personal life, part of the party's ongoing effort to allow Canadians a closer look at a leader who for many has remained an enigma since taking the Tory helm 15 months ago.
He spoke of his own family's history and his upbringing in Ontario, where he grew up in a small townhouse in Ottawa with little income and few luxuries — evidence, he suggested, that he has more in common with ordinary Canadians than his Liberal rival.
The Conservative leader used the opportunity in front a captive audience of party faithful to cast himself as the perfect foil to Trudeau and the his "tax-hiking, rule-breaking, perk-loving, deficit-spending, debt-mounting, virtue-signalling'" ways.
He asked Conservative members to begin the long, hard task of building support for the October 2019 election — and he called on them to stick together.
"If we stay united, if we continue to work hard, if we remain true to our principles — in a few months, the path of Conservative victories will cross the whole country."