Conservative leadership candidates spar over trucker convoy, bitcoin in fiery French debate
6 contenders for party's top job meet for matchup in Laval, Que.
The six candidates vying for the Conservative Party's top job sparred in the last official debate of the leadership campaign on Wednesday — clashing over everything from the trucker convoy to bitcoin and tax cuts in a fiery matchup in a Laval, Que., banquet hall.
The two-hour debate featured pointed, personal exchanges throughout as Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the leading right-wing candidate in this race, traded jabs with his more centrist opponents, Brampton, Ont. Mayor Patrick Brown and former Quebec premier Jean Charest.
With the Conservatives running neck-and-neck with the governing Liberals in opinion polls, the front-running leadership contenders signalled they're willing to say just about anything about each other to land a job that could get them one step closer to the Prime Minister's Office.
Poilievre accused Brown and Charest of being corrupt while the two returned the favour, branding Poilievre an extremist who has welcomed racists into his movement.
On the hunt for francophone support in a province that helped decide the last two Conservative leadership races, the three leading candidates also argued over what to do about Quebec legislation that some say has curbed minority rights.
WATCH: Charest, Poilievre clash in French-language Conservative leadership debate:
Brown set his sights on Poilievre early in the debate and went on to pummel him for much of the contest.
Brown accused Poilievre of cozying up to accused criminals like Pat King — a convoy organizer with a history of making racist statements — and of pushing questionable investment advice by touting cryptocurrencies like bitcoin; the price of which has dropped some 50 per cent since its November 2021 high.
At one point he read out Poilievre's past statement that Canadians could "opt out" of inflation by investing in crypto.
If Canada had gone all-in on bitcoin like El Salvador, which adopted it as an official currency last year, the country would be headed for insolvency, Brown said.
"If you believed Pierre, your grandparents would have lost their life savings," he said.
Poilievre defends support of convoy
Poilievre dismissed Brown's charge that he'd duped his supporters into buying volatile financial products, and denied backing King.
But he defended his support for the convoy, saying someone had to take a stand against federal vaccine mandates that cost some people their jobs. He said mandatory shots "have done absolutely nothing" to help in Canada's fight against COVID-19.
Brown fired back, saying Poilievre only took a stand against mandates when it became politically popular in some circles.
He said, during the worst of the pandemic, Poilievre "sent 3,000 tweets and he didn't talk about vaccine mandates once. He only started talking about them when the leadership race began."
'That's your record'
Charest joined the Poilievre pile-on, saying the MP "doesn't really know what he's talking about" when he speaks about monetary policy.
He chided Poilievre's pledge to fire Tiff Macklem, the governor of the Bank of Canada, if he makes it to the Prime Minister's Office.
Charest said the Conservative Party needs a leader who "isn't beholden to conspiracy theories."
WATCH: Charest reminds CPC debate audience that Poilievre supported Ottawa convoy:
Poilievre said Charest also has a mixed record on taxation, accusing him of brandishing fiscal conservative credentials that he doesn't really have.
"You increased the sales tax twice. You increased the gas tax. You increased the carbon tax. You created a health tax and yet you still had the longest wait times for emergency rooms. That's your record," Poilievre said.
The MP also accused the former premier of being an electoral loser who was turned out of office by the separatist Parti Québécois.
"You said you would help the separatists retire but you lost your own seat," Poilievre said of Charest's 2012 loss in Sherbrooke Que. "You are the least popular in Quebec that you've ever been."
"Go ahead — add your name to the long list of people who've said my career in politics is over," Charest said in return.
Poilievre questions opponents' ethics
Poilievre said Conservatives can't trust Brown to tackle the country's mounting affordability crisis because he supported a carbon tax in the past.
As leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, Brown backed a carbon tax to help drive down greenhouse gas emissions despite promising to oppose one when running for the provincial party's top job.
WATCH: Patrick Brown says Quebec's Bill 96 goes against charter:
Poilievre also said both Brown and Charest have questionable ethics, suggesting past scandals could be a liability for the party if either assumes the leadership.
Poilievre noted that, years ago, Brown received money from a supporter to purchase a property — something the Brampton mayor said was above board.
He also suggested Charest had problematic ties to Quebec's construction industry.
"Do you remember the Charbonneau commission? I do and so do Quebecers," Poilievre said, referencing a public inquiry that Charest struck amid public pressure to investigate corruption in the province.
"Truckers have no lessons to learn from you on law and order. You shouldn't be lecturing other people," Poilievre said.
Sparring over Quebec's Bill 21
Charest and Poilievre also sparred over Quebec's Bill 21, legislation that forces public servants to remove religious garb while on the job — controversial legislation that is popular with some francophones.
Charest, who opposes the law, accused Poilievre of taking a different position in French than he does in English.
He pointed to Poilievre's past comments in a media report where he said, if elected, a government led by him wouldn't challenge the law in court.
"He can't answer because we're in Quebec," Charest said. "He can't give a frank answer."
Poilievre said that simply isn't true.
"I've already said what my position is. I'm against Bill 21. I will always be against it. I would not overturn the government's decision to challenge the bill," the MP said, referencing the Liberal government's pledge to intervene in a court case on the legislation's constitutionality.
Charest calls Poilievre 'slippery'
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Charest said Poilievre was "slippery," dodging questions about a bill that has been condemned by some as discriminatory. "I'm not even sure what his answer was," the former premier said.
The heated exchanges revealed just how much bad blood there is between Poilievre on one side and Brown and Charest on the other.
WATCH | Poilievre affirms positions on Bill 21 and abortion during French language debate:
Brown and Charest said nothing negative about one another during Wednesday's debate and focused all their energies on tearing into Poilievre, who is thought to be in the lead given his large crowd sizes and favourable polling numbers.
Charest told reporters "there is no agreement among the camps" but he said he considers the mayor a "friend."
"He's been campaigning very vigorously, and I don't underestimate Patrick Brown," Charest said, adding Brown easily won the Ontario Progressive Conservative race in 2015 because of his strong organizational skills.
Brown said Charest was something of a hero in the Conservative movement because he was instrumental in stopping a 'yes' vote in the 1995 Quebec referendum.
The other three candidates on stage — Conservative MPs Leslyn Lewis and Scott Aitchison and Independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber — struggled to stand out in this debate as they're not fluently bilingual.
Read from notes
These candidates spent much of their debate time reading from prepared notes.
They also seemed confused at times as the moderator, Marc-Olivier Fortin, a former Conservative official, moved quickly through the debate's themes — immigration, inflation, public safety, health, winning more seats in Quebec, Canada's official languages, energy and the environment, trade and supply chains, foreign affairs and the party's future.
"Their level of French was clearly inadequate and they didn't belong on stage," Rudy Husny, a prominent Quebec Conservative and an ex-staffer to former prime minister Stephen Harper, said of Aitchison, Baber and Lewis.
While struggling to communicate, Aitchison and Baber took a more conciliatory approach in repeatedly calling for party unity at a time when Conservative divisions have never seemed so stark.
Baber, who made a name for himself in Conservative circles for strenuously opposing provincial public health measures, said he's a reluctant candidate in this race.
"I'm not an ordinary politician. I don't even like politics but I love this country and I love Canadians as well. I don't want to watch from the sidelines."
Watch: The full second official Conservative leadership debate:
The stakes were high for this event because it was the last chance for candidates to convince would-be voters to take out party memberships before a June 3 deadline.
Anyone who wants to cast a ballot to choose the next Conservative Party leader must be on the party's membership list by that date to receive a ballot for the Sept. 10 vote.