Feeling 'betrayed,' social conservatives look for a Conservative leadership candidate they can believe in

Social conservatives are trying to find a candidate to represent their views in the CPC leadership race. Pierre Poilievre's voting record is a source of optimism for at least one group.

Social conservatives are looking for a champion. Could it be Pierre Poilievre?

Abortion opponents take part in the 'March For Life' on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 8, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canadian social conservatives who say they're tired of being written off and ignored by Conservative Party politicians are searching for a leadership candidate they can get behind.

"We have people that we're talking to. Nobody has come out to say, 'Yes. I'm going to [run],'" said Jeff Gunnarson, national president of Campaign Life Coalition, a group that advocates against abortion.

Gunnarson declined to name the possible candidates who could win the coalition's support, adding the organization is looking for a contender who would be "reasonable enough to say that a discussion should be had" about changing the legal status quo on abortion in Canada.

Are some issues 'off limits'?

The upcoming leadership race may serve as a test of just how much sway social conservatives hold in the Conservative Party.

In the 2017 leadership race, with the help of support from groups like Campaign Life Coalition, former MP Brad Trost came in fourth place in a field of fourteen candidates. The eventual winner, Andrew Scheer, also had socially conservative leanings.

After Scheer failed to dislodge the Trudeau Liberals in the recent election, some Conservatives argued Scheer's apparent discomfort with media questions about abortion and LGBTQ rights alienated too many potential voters.

Many social conservatives say that argument amounts to an attempt to shut down one side of the debate within the party.

"I don't think anybody with their authoritarian dialogue has the right to dictate some issue off limits and others not," said Tanya Granic Allen, an outspoken social conservative who ran for the leadership of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives in 2018.

Tanya Granic Allen participates in a debate in Ottawa on Feb. 28, 2018. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Granic Allen said social conservatives are still an important force within the party. She said she's had "several" conversations with potential leadership candidates about whether she would support them, though she wouldn't elaborate further on the conversations.

Poilievre holds potential appeal for SoCons

Gunnarson did reveal that none of the people his group is urging to run is a current federal MP. He said that, of the current crop of potential leadership candidates being talked about in the media — Rona Ambrose, Peter Mackay, Jean Charest, Erin O'Toole and Pierre Poilievre — it's Poilievre whose record looks the most promising to the Campaign Life Coalition.

Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre responds to the federal economic and fiscal update on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 16, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"Poilievre has a good track record, a good voting record for our issues. [But] he's not somebody that is out there in a very public way about his position," said Gunnarson. His group tracks the voting records of politicians on abortion and other social issues, such as the definition of marriage and gender identity. Poilievre gets a "green light" from Campaign Life coalition with a "life and family issues voting score" of 94 per cent, he said.

That's not quite an endorsement of Poilievre, he added.

"I'm not sure where he stands now. It really depends on what he says as a leadership candidate, whether or not he would get our support," he said.

Feelings of betrayal

Too often in the past, Gunnarson said, social conservatives have felt like the Conservative Party of Canada took their votes for granted without taking action on the issues that matter to them.

"It's not a difficult thing to get social conservatives involved," he said. "But it certainly is difficult to keep them involved when we get people who betray us or ... there's a lot of pressure coming from the Red Tories or the media that say we don't have a voice, or say we shouldn't even have a voice. And that's just ridiculous."

He points the finger at Scheer and "anybody who was or is considered a social conservative and turns his or her back on issues like abortion or even traditional marriage."

Granic Allen said she never endorsed Scheer and doesn't feel that he made promises to social conservatives. But she said she's seen plenty of instances of social conservatives being ignored in Ontario provincial Progressive Conservative circles.

"We just want people to be honest about issues," she said, adding that the next Conservative leader should allow open discussion on any issue — including hot-button social issues — and "let the best idea win."

While personally opposed to abortion, Scheer pledged repeatedly during the campaign not to re-open the abortion debate. He was less clear on whether he would allow individual MPs to put forward legislation restricting access to the procedure.

Quebec social conservative considers a run

There is one person who identifies as a social conservative and has publicly said he's considering a leadership run: Richard Décarie, who served as Stephen Harper's deputy chief of staff in 2004-2005.

Both Gunnarson and Granic Allen said they don't know Décarie well but are interested in hearing more about his views.

Décarie told CBC News that he'll run if Jean Charest jumps into the race, saying he views the former Quebec premier as too liberal.

"I think a victory of Jean Charest would be a Lac Megantic-sized train wreck for the conservative moment in Quebec and in Canada," he said, referencing the 2013 rail disaster that killed 47 people.

Décarie calls for defunding abortion services and said he also wants to change the definition of marriage so that it exclusively applies to religious weddings (everything else would be considered a civil union).

"I think conservatism by itself is the respect of what was good in society in the past," he said.


Catherine Cullen

Parliamentary Bureau

Catherine Cullen is a senior reporter covering politics and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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