06/19/2020 01:52 EDT | Updated 12/17/2020 11:51 EST

Conservative Leadership Debates End With A Whimper

They’re obviously more comfortable debating in English.

The contenders for the federal Conservative leadership traded fewer pointed barbs during the English-language debate in Toronto on Thursday, appealing for more party unity to defeat Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.

After the presumed front-runners, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, had several heated exchanges during a bumpy debate in French the night earlier, neither showed the same chippiness on stage Thursday, making only the odd jab.

The two-hour debate also gave the social conservatives in the race, Ontario MP Derek Sloan and Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis, plenty of runway to share their perspectives.

Conservative leadership candidates Peter MacKay, Erin O'Toole, Derek Sloan, and Leslyn Lewis are shown in a composite of images from The Canadian Press on June 18, 2020.

The candidates criticized the Trudeau government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and its unsuccessful bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council — something both MacKay and O’Toole called a “vanity project” for the prime minister.

But they were also asked to weigh in on another issue that is top of mind for many Canadians: systemic racism.

Here are some of the highlights from the last official debate of the race, which will wrap up in August.

No big fights over social conservative issues

Although MacKay repeatedly challenged O’Toole during Wednesday’s French debate to state whether he is pro-choice or anti-abortion — a throwback to the pressure outgoing Tory Leader Andrew Scheer faced during the fall election campaign — there were no such fireworks Thursday. 

Likewise, the two men did not debate each other’s record on LGBTQ issues, including support for same-sex marriage and transgender rights.

At one point, Sloan said MacKay and O’Toole would agree with him that it’s “not right Canada doesn’t have any laws when it comes to abortion.” Sloan asserted that Canada’s position is “out of whack with most of the developed world.” Neither man responded to that charge.

CP/Tijana Martin
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Peter MacKay, left, and Derek Sloan participate in the English debate in Toronto on June 18, 2020.

Although MacKay and O’Toole have said they oppose conversion therapy, neither objected when Sloan said the Liberals are “radically far to the left” for seeking to ban the practice.

Sloan, who has accused the Liberal government of “effectively putting into law child abuse” with its proposed legislation to ban conversion therapy, said he would repeal such a law as prime minister. Both he and Lewis have also pledged to repeal the transgender rights law enacted by the Liberals in 2016. That law added new rights protections to prevent discrimination based on a person’s gender identity or expression.

MacKay and O’Toole may have had strategic imperatives for not challenging Sloan or Lewis on social issues. The next leader of the Conservatives will be chosen according to a ranked ballot, where members list candidates by order of preference. The support of the last place candidate in each round will be redistributed to the second choices of their supporters.

In the 2017 Tory leadership race, support from social conservatives was seen as crucial in helping Scheer best front-runner Maxime Bernier.

Candidates address systemic racism

The candidates were asked to share their thoughts on systemic racism and how they would show leadership on that issue.

MacKay said it’s time to have “an honest and sometimes awkward discussion” about the matter.

“I think we have to acknowledge that systemic racism exists. It exists in our institutions. It exists in our communities across this country,” he said, noting that his hometown of New Glasgow, N.S., is where Viola Desmond, a Black woman who would become a civil rights icon, refused to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre in 1946. (She is now featured on the $10 bill.)

MacKay said those who have experienced racism must be listened to, adding that First Nations communities still face systemic racism. He said more members of visible minority communities should be represented in institutions, including policing.

CP/Tijana Martin
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Peter MacKay speaks during the English debate in Toronto on June 18, 2020.

MacKay said Trudeau’s past use of racist makeup makes him ill-suited to meet the challenge. “We have a prime minister who did blackface,” he said. “He’s not well situated to lead the country in a way that is going to address these issues in a real way. It has to go well beyond the symbols.”

Sloan said that while Canada has made mistakes, “I don’t believe that we should call Canada a racist country.” He did, however, call out Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 — now a law — as an example of systemic racism. 

The legislation bans some public sector workers in positions of authority, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols, such as turbans, kippahs, and crosses, at work.

Sloan said he knows some Conservatives think discussing Bill 21 will hurt the party in Quebec, but he insisted the “bill is not right.” Asked later by reporters why he did not address the issue during the French debate, Sloan said the topic didn’t come up.

Lewis, the first Black woman to run for the party’s leadership, said a distinction must be drawn between individual racism and systemic racism, which is evident in the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

CP/Tijana Martin
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis arrives for the start of the English Leadership Debate in Toronto on June 18, 2020.

O’Toole said Canadians should unite behind a “zero-tolerance approach to any form of racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination.” But he did not explicitly reference systemic racism.

After the debate, O’Toole was asked repeatedly by reporters if he believes there is systemic racism in Canada. He repeated his earlier points about the need to eliminate racism in all its forms so that Canada can “remain the best country in the world,” including in the RCMP and military.

When a reporter said she gets the feeling that he doesn’t believe there is systemic racism in Canada, O’Toole said “there is racism in Canada and we have to have a commitment to stamp it out.”

Different strategies to build Conservative base

Lewis emphasized that the party needs to “respect diversity of thought” to expand the party’s base. She spoke about appealing to new immigrants, young people, libertarians, and social, progressive, and fiscal conservatives, Green party supporters, and also former party members who left to join the People’s Party of Canada.

O’Toole said he agreed with a lot of what Lewis said, adding that he would also make an effort to court more first-time Conservative voters — as well as former New Democrats.

“Because they don’t stand up for hard-working families anymore. They’re a social justice movement,” he said. 

CP/Tijana Martin
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Erin O'Toole speaks during the English debate in Toronto on June 18, 2020.

O’Toole made several references to his electoral success in the Greater Toronto Area — he has represented the riding of Durham since 2012 — saying he is the best candidate to win the battleground suburbs.

MacKay took a different path, explaining that he thinks one way to “push those tent pegs out a little further” is by showing that the party is open to new ideas, which he listed as protecting the environment, the Arctic, and borders. 

Sloan said the party needs to be prepared to have answers for “every question that’s facing Canadians,” and can’t centre its messaging on the economy and “Liberal corruption.” He said “good Conservative answers” are needed to address issues such as housing, poverty, and the opioid crisis.

Lewis finds solidarity on debate stage

On multiple occasions, candidates made an effort to explicitly agree with many of the points Lewis made during the debate. 

When Lewis said she believes innovation in technology will lead to economic prosperity and environmental stewardship, O’Toole responded with, “I agree entirely with Dr. Lewis.”

O’Toole said he agreed with Lewis after she explained she doesn’t believe defunding the police is a realistic option, and that she would like to see officers honoured and institutions helped to address problems instead of being torn down.

After Lewis proposed tax incentives for Canadian manufacturers of  essential equipment, such as masks, gloves and ventilators, O’Toole quickly noted: “I agree with you. I agree with you, Dr. Lewis.”

I thought I just made some very substantial and good points and they were in agreement with them because the points were landing.Leslyn Lewis, Conservative leadership candidate

MacKay also praised Lewis (“I very much associate with what Dr. Lewis has said in terms of the respect that should be afforded to the people who have contributed so much to this country”). So did Sloan, “I agree with you Dr. Lewis” before adding his own comments during a section on environmental protection.

After the debate, Lewis was asked if those explicit signs of support were a way for a leadership rival to court second-choice votes from her supporters. She said her ideas were finding support across the stage.

“I thought I just made some very substantial and good points, and they were in agreement with them because the points were landing,” she said. 

Other notable highlights

Sloan predicted Donald Trump will be re-elected for a second term: “Under this next government, which will be a Conservative government, I know our relationship with the United States will be restored. And I’ll go so far as to say, I am confident that Donald Trump will defy the odds again and be the next administration and when I am leader of the Conservative party, I will give him a call and congratulate him.”

CP/Tijana Martin
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Derek Sloan speaks during the English debate in Toronto on June 18, 2020.

Sloan suggested poor Canada-U.S. relations, made worse by offhand remarks by Trudeau, is keeping Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in Chinese prisons: “With the United States on our side, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. Do you think if the United States really wanted to help us out with getting the two Michaels home they couldn’t make it happen? Donald Trump will not lift a finger to help Justin Trudeau because of what he’s done.”

O’Toole pinned Chinese telecom Huawei’s network expansion on MacKay: “The Chinese state enterprise Huawei got its start in Canada under Mr. MacKay’s watch. They started when he was the head of the Canadian Securities Agency. They got their foothold into 4G under rules that he approved.”

Lewis quoted a Whitney Houston song: “I believe that the children are the future. We need to just teach them well and let them lead the way,” she said, while responding to a question from a youngster named Max, who wanted to know why each candidate wants to be prime minister.

—With files from Althia Raj