Conservative Party leadership hopefuls talk change in Calgary

Change was a constant theme at a Conservative Party gathering in Calgary on Saturday, as leadership hopefuls put distance between the party of Stephen Harper and what's coming next — at least for the most part.

Putting distance between the past and the future, candidates and grassroots rub elbows at informal event

Calgary MP Michelle Rempel helped organize a gathering of Conservative leadership hopefuls where change was the main theme. (Meghan Dionne/CBC)

Change was a constant theme at a Conservative Party gathering in Calgary on Saturday, as leadership hopefuls put distance between the party of Stephen Harper and what's coming next.

At least for the most part. 

Organized by local MPs Michelle Rempel and Blake Richards, the gathering, billed as Conservative Next, was an informal opportunity for the hopefuls to meet some of the grassroots.

Rempel, who hinted at a potential run for the leadership on Twitter last year, said the point was for leadership candidates, and those exploring a run, to meet local organizers and activists. 

She also said she wanted to get a sense of how people are feeling after the party's first session in opposition. 

"I've never gone through a leadership race before as an elected MP," she said. 

"It's weird. A lot of our caucus is getting along really well. I don't feel like there's these big sort of frictional battles that you sometimes see in leadership races. Yet."

'We need to be nimble'

Rempel championed recognition of same-sex marriage at the recent Conservative convention in Vancouver and suggested the party has to change in order to reconnect with Canadians. 

"I also think that we need to be very accessible to Canadians," she said. "We need to be nimble in understanding their needs and concerns, and realize that Canada is a very dynamic place and our party needs to reflect that. And I'm really proud of what we've accomplished in the last few months since the election."

Tony Clement, the former head of the Treasury Board, hasn't officially declared a leadership run. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Tony Clement, the former head of the Treasury Board, hasn't officially declared a leadership run, but said he's seriously considering it and will have an answer in the coming weeks.

"I can say that it's close," he said of his decision.

'Liberal elite narrative'

Clement celebrated the Conservative government's accomplishments but said the party has to look to the future. 

"We need someone with some experience in governing, particularly after three more years of Mr. Trudeau and his government," he said. "But we also need to be innovative, we have to connect our conservative values and principles to the issues of today and tomorrow."

In his speech to the gathered crowd at Symons Valley Ranch on Calgary's northern edge, Clement said the story of the Conservatives getting "crushed" in the election was part of the "liberal elite narrative that we face." He received loud applause when he called for CBC funding to be cut. 

Michael Chong chose to focus on his family's story of immigration. for his speech. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Also on the stump was Michael Chong, who declared his intention to lead the party on May 16. His focus was on his own family's story of immigration — a Dutch mother and Chinese father — and he said it's important for the Conservatives to connect with ethnic communities. 

Alberta bona fides

Kellie Leitch from Ontario, who was the first candidate to officially declare an interest, says she's exploring the idea of a leadership run. Leitch says she is making sure she has the support needed to "change the face of the party that reflects the country so that we're successful in the future."

She spent a good portion of her speech outlining her family's roots in Alberta and how she lived in Fort McMurray in the '70s, long before it became an oilsands boomtown. 

Afterwards, she drew a line between Alberta under former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau and his son, without mentioning either by name. 

"These are tough times, like they were in the 1980s. Albertans are losing their jobs, some people are losing their homes," she said.

Kellie Leitch spent a significant amount of time in her speech outlining her family's roots in Alberta. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Lisa Raitt and Andrew Scheer, who aren't officially seeking the leadership, also spoke at the event, while Maxime Bernier, who's officially in the running, cancelled his appearance. 

Rempel said more leadership candidates are likely to emerge and that she expects they will be spending time in Calgary prior to the May, 2017 vote. 

"I think it'll get more intense and we'll have more people declaring, probably in the fall later this year," she said. 

With files from Stephanie Wiebe and Meghan Dionne