Conservative leadership contender Leslyn Lewis sells herself to social conservatives, takes shots at MacKay

Conservative leadership hopeful Leslyn Lewis doesn't want to ban conversion therapy or walk in a Pride parade. She's winning support from social conservatives.

'Peter MacKay has a message for you: if you’re pro-life, you just need to be quiet,' candidate says

Lawyer Leslyn Lewis is running for the Conservative Party leadership. (Greg Bruce/CBC News)

​Conservative Party leadership prospect Leslyn Lewis says she wants to see all Canadians treated with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Don't expect to see her marching in any Pride parades, though. And she thinks the drive to ban conversion therapy is misguided.

"I didn't march in the parade before I became a politician," said the Toronto lawyer, who became eligible to run for the leadership late last month. "And I would feel that it's very disingenuous for me to use a particular vulnerable group to advance my political career."

Lewis, who runs her own law firm and has a PhD in law and a master's in environmental science, has emerged as the first choice of some social conservatives, including the anti-abortion advocacy group Right Now.

On abortion, Pride parades and conversion therapy — the highly controversial practice of attempting to change someone's sexual orientation through psychological or spiritual counselling — she's offside with those in the party calling for an end to divisive debates on hot-button social issues.

Watch: Power & Politics' full interview with Conservative leadership contender Leslyn Lewis.

FULL INTERVIEW: Leslyn Lewis Power & Politics

2 years ago
Duration 10:17
Vassy Kapelos, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics interviews Conservative leadership contender Leslyn Lewis.

Pride participation a 'personal choice'

In fact, Lewis told CBC News she decided to run for the leadership after watching the way Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was treated during the last election — and what she called the Liberals' "obsession" with Scheer's refusal to attend Pride parades.

"If you are ready to treat every Canadian with equal dignity and respect, it doesn't matter whether or not you march in a parade," she said. "That's a personal choice."

Lewis' position distinguishes her from the perceived front-runners in the race. Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole both have said they would march in Pride parades, although O'Toole said he would skip Toronto's parade because of its policy of excluding uniformed police officers.

Today, Lewis took a direct shot at MacKay on Facebook, accusing him of trying to shut down social conservatives within the party by arguing shortly after last fall's election that Scheer's views on social issues were a "stinking albatross" hanging around the leader's neck during the campaign.

"Peter MacKay has a message for you: if you're pro-life, you just need to be quiet," she wrote.

The issue of LGBTQ rights was a flashpoint in the Conservative leadership race before it even got properly started. Well before the eligible candidates were confirmed, Richard Décarie, a former chief of staff to Stephen Harper who pitched himself as a candidate, made headlines and drew widespread criticism when he said being gay is a choice.

Watch: Richard Décarie on abortion, LGBTQ rights

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Duration 10:09
Richard Décarie says he would push to roll back same-sex marriage & abortion rights if he wins Conservative leadership.

Lewis said she thinks Décarie is wrong.

"When I look at the struggles of some of my gay friends, being estranged from your parents from coming out — I wouldn't think that they would choose that themselves," she said. "I witnessed the pain that they've gone through."

Décarie was later barred by the party from running for the leadership. While no official reason was ever given, he has claimed he was blocked because of his views on LGBTQ rights. Lewis said she didn't seek an endorsement from him.

"I have not communicated with him throughout this entire campaign," she said.

Décarie has endorsed another social conservative candidate, MP Derek Sloan.

Conversion therapy and parental autonomy

Lewis said she's firmly opposed to the federal government's push to ban conversion therapy — the practice of using psychological or spiritual counselling to attempt to change the sexual orientation of someone who identifies as LGBTQ2 to heterosexual.

The World Health Organization has called the practice a "serious threat to the health and well-being" of those affected.

Lewis said she's hearing from parents and pastors who worry that what she calls "a talk therapy session" could be criminalized under the proposed law.

"They're concerned that their parental autonomy is being limited because the government is basically somewhat stepped in as surrogate to tell them what they can and cannot do," she said.

Asked if she thinks children might need protection from conversion therapy in some circumstances, Lewis would only say she thinks it's important to support children who are struggling — and that may include speaking with their pastors.

'No hidden agenda'

On abortion, Lewis has told her supporters that she is "pro-life, no hidden agenda."

If elected party leader, she said, she would move to ban sex-selective abortions, criminalize coercive abortions, increase funding for pregnancy centres that counsel women about their alternatives to ending a pregnancy and end funding for international abortions through Canada's foreign aid.

Listen: CBC's Party Lines on the Conservative leadership candidates

After weeks of wondering who's in and who's out, the stage is finally set for the federal Conservative leadership race. Eight contenders will fight it out to become party leader, and by extension, Leader of the Official Opposition -— a plum job, in a minority parliament. Catherine Cullen, senior reporter for CBC News, sits in for Rosie this week and joins Elamin in running through the list of hopefuls. And as several candidates say they intend to bring down the Liberal government at the first opportunity this fall, Elamin asks — are the Conservatives more focused on defeating Justin Trudeau than establishing a party vision?

The anti-abortion group Right Now is recommending that Conservative Party members rank Lewis first on their ballots, followed by fellow social conservative Sloan. O'Toole — who has said he will defend the right of women to choose but would let MPs vote their conscience on matters like abortion — is ranked third.

Another prominent anti-abortion group, Campaign Life Coalition, has given Lewis "green light" status to indicate she is a candidate worthy of support.

No carbon tax, not committing to Paris targets

Lewis said having a master's in environmental science gives her a unique angle on how the environment is interwoven into different aspects of the economy.

She's written papers about attracting green energy investments to sub-Sarahan Africa and has written that "the existential debate over climate change seems to be settled."

But Lewis is still non-committal about Canada meeting the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets set out in the Paris accord.

"I think that we need to set our own goals," she said. "If the Paris targets are constricting our national growth and national autonomy, maybe we don't aim for that. Or maybe we aim to go higher than that. So, I think, we just have to set our own standards and do the best we can and realize we live in a global environment."

She's coy about the details of her own environmental plan, but promises she has one coming. 

But she is clear about what won't be in it.

"We're going to abolish the carbon tax," she said.

(CBC News)


Catherine Cullen

Senior reporter

Catherine Cullen covers Parliament Hill for CBC News in Ottawa. She writes frequently about the Conservative Party. She has also worked in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.