OTTAWA — To singer Janis Joplin, freedom was just another word for nothing left to lose.
To candidates in the race to become the next leader of Canada’s federal Conservative party, freedom is the word they hope to trade on to win.
The belief that some freedoms are fundamental is baked into the party’s DNA. But the question of which freedoms should be paramount is gaining renewed traction in this leadership contest, thanks in part to more than two years of government-mandated restrictions to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s setting up the “F-word,” as one long-time Conservative insider put it, to be a wedge issue that may occupy space normally reserved for social issues like abortion.
What role it might play will become clearer Tuesday, as the first deadline for candidates hits, and the list of who is actually in the running begins to firm up.
But the freedom wedge is already on display.
Jean Charest has accused rival Pierre Poilievre of being unfit to lead the party because he supported the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” the movement that led to weeks of protests in downtown Ottawa and shorter blockades of border crossings, under an umbrella call for an end to COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
Poilievre retorted that Charest was trying to censor people for “supporting freedom.”
The attack was a wise tactical move for Charest, said veteran Tory campaigner Michael Diamond.
While there’s a highly motivated base of support for the convoy movement, there are also Canadians who outright reject it, Diamond said — and those are people Charest needs to join the party and back his campaign.
“I think it was smart to boldly seek out that ground instead of trying to either dance around it or tight rope around it or turn enemies into friends,” he said.
Poilievre launched his campaign in the midst of the convoy, framing his bid around a promise that he would make Canada the “freest” country in the world.
But although he’s attempting to lay claim to the freedom narrative, it is ground other candidates have also trod.
Roman Baber was ejected from the Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus in January 2021 over his opposition to COVID-19 lockdowns. Now, the Independent MPP is harnessing his reputation on the file for his leadership bid. In campaign videos, Baber says he’s running to shake up a party that stopped speaking up for Canadians during the pandemic.
But Baber says his campaign is about more than just opposition to lockdowns or vaccination mandates. It’s rooted, he says, in opposition to the ideology and “cancel culture” that he says have made it impossible for people to speak freely for the last two years.
“We must be able to speak freely,” he says, “because through speech we defend all other rights.”
Baber easily cleared the first hurdle to enter the leadership contest, paying a $50,000 fee and being cleared by party organizers to run.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown did too, while focusing on freedom of religion.
He’s attempted to wedge Poilievre with that issue already, accusing his rival of supporting discriminatory laws while serving in the last Conservative federal government.
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Brown also highlights his opposition to Bill 21, a Quebec law that prohibits people in positions of public authority from wearing religious symbols on the job. He’s met with representatives of numerous religious and cultural communities since the race began, and the subject is always on the list.
Talking up religious freedom resonates with all corners of the party, from those who fled religious persecution abroad to people fearful of losing access to worship here in Canada, Diamond said.
It’s also a way for progressive members of the party to reach out to the more socially conservative ones, Diamond said.
That may not work for Brown, however; he burned bridges with that wing of the party during his tenure as leader of Ontario Progressive Conservatives, with his dropped promise to repeal Ontario’s controversial sex-ed curriculum, among other things.
So far in this contest, six of the candidates officially registered by mid-Thursday — Charest, Brown, Baber, Poilievre, MP Scott Aitchison and former MP Leona Alleslev — have track records supporting LGBTQ rights and the rights of women seeking abortions.
Concern about the latter saw the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition send out an SOS this past week.
If its supporters don’t put money behind other social conservatives contenders, the lobby group warned, there’s only going to be one anti-abortion candidate in the race, and that in turn will lessen the chances that the party’s next leader will be an abortion opponent.
The contender it’s now hyping is Leslyn Lewis. She was the relatively unknown candidate in the 2020 leadership race who upset the political apple cart with an unexpectedly strong showing — and $2 million in campaign contributions.
That race spooled out in tandem with the pandemic, and even well before vaccines were widely available, Lewis was speaking out against making vaccination mandatory. She also was criticized for appearing to baselessly suggest that vaccines are dangerous to children.
Just weeks after her election to the House of Commons in 2021, Lewis bolstered her reputation with some Tories when she went toe to toe with then-leader Erin O’Toole’s inner circle in a caucus meeting over how it handled the issue of vaccination mandates for Conservative MPs.
She also voiced support of the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” calling the Ottawa protests peaceful and democratic, while saying vaccination mandates were “unscientific, vindictive, mean-spirited and promote segregation.”
Alissa Golob, who co-founded the anti-abortion group RightNow, said pandemic positions won’t necessarily be a vote-driver for social conservatives. Those in her organization’s database are divided on questions about vaccination mandates and pandemic restrictions, she said.
And while Poilievre’s messaging on economic freedoms may scoop up some of the anti-establishment votes that went to Lewis in 2020, Golob said he’s going to have to go farther if he wants more support from that social conservative constituency.
She pointed to Charest’s recent promise to expand benefits for parents, or Lewis’s pledge to enact a law protecting the rights of parents “to raise their children in accordance with their own values” as issues that will resonate.
Still, it’s too early to know how debates around social conservative causes will play out in this leadership race, Golob said.
Beyond the seven already registered to run, five other declared candidates have until April 19 to register and be approved by the party. By April 29, all must have paid the full $300,000 fee and submitted 500 signatures in support of their nomination to get their names on the ballot.
Charest, Poilievre and Lewis are already there.
And if Lewis ends up being the lone social conservative on the ballot, Diamond believes those inclined to support her will need to expand the issues they generally talk about.
The less time candidates spend talking about broadly divisive topics like abortion, the better for the party and the race, he said — “and that’s good for the eventual winner.”
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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