Conservative leadership candidates tackle values, trade, racism and Trudeau in final official debate

The four Conservative leadership contenders squared off in the last official debate of the race Thursday with the candidates focusing their attacks not on each other but on the common foe: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party.

English debate features fewer personal attacks, more focus on conservative policies for Canada

Conservative leadership candidates met for the final official debate in Toronto on Thursday. From left: Peter MacKay, Erin O'Toole, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis. (Andrew Vaughan, Adrian Wyld, Frank Gunn, Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

The four Conservative leadership contenders squared off in the last official debate of the race Thursday with the candidates focusing their attacks not on each other but on the common foe: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party.

While Wednesday night's French debate included much sniping between the two perceived frontrunners, Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay, in the English debate the candidates called for unity among conservatives to take on Trudeau.

MacKay and O'Toole avoided some of the personal slurs that peppered the French exchange — on Wednesday, O'Toole called MacKay a "liar," for example, while MacKay said O'Toole is an "angry man" — and focused instead on how their policies will better Canada.

The four candidates used the two-hour event to brand Trudeau as a threat to family values and the country's continued prosperity.

Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis said Trudeau has "destroyed the Canadian dream" and threatened the bonds of Confederation by alienating Canadians in the West. 

Watch | Power & Politics full special coverage of the English-language Conservative debate

"Debt is piling up, social divisions are widening, but there is hope that Canada can be restored as a beacon of hope and opportunity for all around the world.

"I believe that when Conservatives unite — we can start the work of healing this great nation," she said.

O'Toole said he's determined to "unite all conservatives — all voices in our party are welcome," while MacKay said he is focused on "bringing conservatives together."

MacKay, who presented himself as a social moderate on Wednesday night, said all conservatives must unite to stop Trudeau, including social conservatives.

Watch | Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay on being PM

O’Toole and MacKay on being PM

3 years ago
Duration 4:17
Conservative leadership candidates Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole explain why they want to be the prime minister of Canada.

"I don't speak of being 'true blue' I speak of everyone. There are no hyphenated conservatives. We need to get the party together to keep the country together," he said.

Speaking to reporters after the debate, MacKay said he took a more civil approach Thursday evening so that he could speak "directly to Canadians about my ideas and my platform and my eight-point jobs plan."

"I personally think the bickering, the back and forth — it's a by-product of competition... but I think tonight's debate had a good tone, it was substantive and we shone a positive light on our party," he said.

Lewis and rookie MP Derek Sloan, the two social conservatives in this race, said the Liberal government is undermining family values by pushing legislation through Parliament that would criminalize conversion therapy.

Lewis said the party should do more to promote family as "the cornerstone, the bedrock of our society," and, if elected, she should enact parental rights legislation.

Watch | Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis on being PM

Sloan and Lewis on why they want to be PM

3 years ago
Duration 3:56
Conservative leadership candidates Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis explain why they want to become prime minister of Canada.

Lewis, echoing lyrics from the Whitney Houston song "Greatest Love of All," said "children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way."

Sloan said kids "go through a lot of different things," and in some instances, those with gender dysphoria, "will grow out of it."

Sloan also promised to enact legislation on abortion.

"It's not right that Canada doesn't have any laws when it comes to abortion," Sloan said. "It's put us out of whack with most of the developed world." 

Taking aim at Trudeau and COVID response

O'Toole, referencing MacKay's assertion last night that he is an "angry man," said he is angry about what Trudeau has done to Canada in the last five years, rhyming off a list of the prime minister's perceived failings, including ballooning budget deficits, challenges to national unity, a troubled energy sector and a poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

O'Toole said the Liberal government bungled the pandemic by refusing to heed Conservative calls to close the border in January, a decision, he said, that left our country saddled with untold thousands of infections.

MacKay said Trudeau sent 16 tonnes of medical equipment to China early in the year, a decision that, he said, left Canada without the needed supplies at the start of this pandemic in March.

Sloan, who faced earlier criticism for remarks he made about Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said officials in Canada have been too deferential to the World Health Organization. He promised to pull Canada's contributions to the WHO.

The candidates also took aim at Trudeau for mishandling foreign affairs, pointing to Canada's recent loss at the UN for a Security Council seat as just the latest failure.

MacKay said Trudeau soured Canada's relationship with the U.S. by talking about U.S. President Donald Trump behind his back.

"That type of behaviour doesn't advance Canada's interests," he said, adding Canada got a raw deal during the NAFTA negotiations because Canada let Mexico take the lead in renegotiating the trilateral trade deal.

Watch | Sloan says Trump is 'a very shrewd and capable negotiator'

Trump is ‘a very shrewd and capable negotiator’

3 years ago
Duration 1:41
Conservative leadership Candidate Derek Sloan says he fully expects Donald Trump to win re-election in the United States and when he does Sloan will call him up to congratulate him.

Trudeau "acted like an absolute child when dealing with a shrewd negotiator," Sloan added, referencing Trump.

"Donald Trump will not lift a finger to help Justin Trudeau because of what he's done," Sloan said. "I'm confident Trump will defy the odds again and win the next election and when I'm prime minister I'll call and congratulate him."

Confronting systemic racism

Asked about racism, MacKay said there is systemic racism in Canada and Trudeau isn't the man to lead this country through a time when minorities are demanding access to equity because the prime minister wore black-face multiple times.

He said he grew up in New Glasgow, N.S., the town where Viola Desmond was arrested after sitting in a whites only part of a movie theatre, and he knows there has been a racist streak throughout Canada's history.

"We cannot erase our history but we can try to make things right," he said.

Watch | MacKay on systemic racism and Trudeau's blackface

Peter MacKay on Trudeau and blackface

3 years ago
Duration 0:58
MacKay said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's blackface past means he is 'not well situated to lead the country'

Speaking to reporters after the debate, O'Toole dodged questions about whether he thought systemic racism exists in Canada but promised to tackle prejudice.

"There is racism in Canada. We will stamp out any instances of racism, unfairness or discrimination. We have to make sure we have a zero tolerance approach from top to bottom," he said.

Lewis, the only black candidate in the leadership race, said Trudeau needs to do more than just take a knee during a protest on Parliament Hill. She said Trudeau is all about "virtue signalling" with little concrete reforms to policing.

"Taking a knee is just a symbol — if he wants to do something about making this country a better place he can do it. I think it's really important we have realistic changes," she said.

Lewis said most Canadians aren't racist, but systemic discrimination exists in Canada as some Black and Indigenous people face unequal outcomes, such as stiffer penalties than a white person would receive for a similar crime.

"The average Canadian feels very hurt because they know they themselves aren't racist — so they become defensive," she said. "It's very hard for people to hear that there is systemic racism." 

Watch | Leslyn Lewis on Justin Trudeau taking a knee at Parliament Hill protest

Lewis on Justin Trudeau taking a knee at Parliament Hill protest

3 years ago
Duration 0:51
Conservative Leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis says Trudeau taking a knee is little more than a symbol when what Canada needs is action on racism.

One area of disagreement came during the debate segment on the environment.

O'Toole's three opponents piled on his plan, which will focus on "making industry pay" through a "national industrial regulatory and pricing regime."

MacKay suggested that this was akin to a dressed-up carbon tax that will punish consumers and businesses alike. (O'Toole has said he will scrap the Liberals' carbon tax.)

Lewis said a regulatory regime like the one proposed by O'Toole, which would levy taxes on large industrial emitters, would put the oil and gas sector at a disadvantage compared to its global competitors.

Sensitive to the criticism the party faced in the last election about its climate policy, O'Toole said the party needs a serious environmental platform for the next election.

"I'm the only one who has a detailed plan. It's disappointing to see Mr. MacKay attack that. If we're not clear on the environment in the next election ... we're not going to be able to get pipelines built," O'Toole said.

MacKay's environment plan reads much like what outgoing leader Andrew Scheer pitched to voters in the last election — a promise to achieve "advances in technology," invest in "carbon sequestration" and to sell Canadian natural gas around the world to displace coal as a source of energy.

He said the problem with Scheer's plan was not the substance but how it was communicated to voters.

Watch: Candidates offer final words in their closing statements

Final words from Tory candidates

3 years ago
Duration 6:05
Conservative leadership candidates Erin O'Toole, Leslyn Lewis, Derek Sloan and Peter MacKay deliver their closing statements after the second of two CPC moderated debates in Toronto.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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