Former Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole speaks during a media availability in West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Former Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole speaks during a media availability in West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Conservative leadership candidates prep for first official party debate in Edmonton

Candidates to field questions on the future of energy, the environment, law, and the cost of living

Six candidates competing to become the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada will meet on stage tonight for the first of two official debates.

The event in Edmonton comes less than a week after five out of the six contenders put on a feisty performance during an unofficial debate in Ottawa, where much focus was paid to fighting COVID-19 mandates and the recent convoy protest in the streets around Parliament Hill.

Tonight, candidates will field questions on topics such as the future of energy, the environment, law and order, the cost of living and the North.

This debate will feature Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, Ont., whose campaign said he chose to sell party memberships last week instead of attending the Ottawa event.

His opponents include longtime MP Pierre Poilievre, whom Brown recently criticized for offering up what he called “wacky investment advice” for having said that the cryptocurrency Bitcoin was a solution to inflation.

Poilievre also found himself on the defensive last week against fellow MP Leslyn Lewis, who laid into him over the authenticity of his support for those opposing pandemic mandates, as well as his position on social conservative issues.

Lewis, who opposes abortion, placed third in the party’s 2020 leadership race and is once again enjoying considerable backing from groups who believe in restricting access to the procedure.

That issue has remerged in light of a recently leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court, which suggests it may overturn a countrywide law protecting abortion rights in that country.

The anti-abortion organization Campaign Life Coalition staged a press conference in front of the Supreme Court of Canada on Wednesday morning, where Jack Fonseca, its director of political operation, highlighted Lewis as being the only anti-abortion candidate in the race.

He said she’s offering “common sense” policies, like banning so-called sex-selective abortions and promising to protect women from being coerced into having the procedure.

Liberal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos also announced Ottawa would provide $3.5 million in funding to projects that promise to make it easier to access abortion in Canada.

The debate will also include former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who launched his leadership bid in Calgary in March, and is pitching himself as the serious national leader the party needs to defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

B.C. MP Ed Fast, who is co-chairing his campaign, recently called Charest the underdog of the race because he’s been out of federal politics for nearly 25 years.

Another self-proclaimed underdog is Roman Baber, the Independent Ontario MPP whom Doug Ford booted from his Progressive Conservative caucus in early 2021 for opposing a provincial lockdown that was in place to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Ahead of Wednesday’s event, Baber released a statement announcing he would axe equalization, which is a program that sees federal revenues given to provinces that have lower than average fiscal capacity to pay for services. It is deeply unpopular with Conservatives in Alberta. He also pledged to give Canadians an income-tax cut.

During last week’s debate, rural Ontario MP Scott Aitchison called on his fellow candidates to improve their behaviour, saying their personal attacks against one another were a turnoff to people considering voting Conservative.

—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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