OTTAWA — Now that the second official debate of the race is out of the way, Conservative leadership hopefuls will turn their attention to signing up as many supporters as they can before a fast-approaching deadline.
The party's leadership election organizing committee says it is already breaking records for how many new members candidates have drawn in ahead of the June 3 cutoff date for new members being able to vote.
The six candidates vying to replace former leader Erin O'Toole were on stage for a French-language debate in Laval, Que. — a province where the Conservative Party of Canada has never won more than a dozen seats.
A rowdy crowd of several hundred booed and cheered throughout the night as candidates took turns lacing into each other's records, including on controversial pieces of Quebec legislation.
Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre repeatedly stressed his opposition to the Quebec secularism law known as Bill 21, which prohibits certain public servants in positions of power from wearing religious symbols on the job.
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Ontario mayor Patrick Brown — considered his main rivals — both accused Poilievre of not clearly stating his position on the law when speaking to Quebecers, which he denied.
Grassroots Conservatives are looking for leadership candidates, who also include Ontario MPs Scott Aitchison and Leslyn Lewis, as well as Independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber, who can draw many new faces into the party, including in Quebec where membership numbers are low.
Under new rules adopted last year, a riding must have at least 100 members in order for candidates to nab the full amount of points available to them in the ranked-ballot system used to determine a winner.
After Wednesday's debate, which saw Charest and Brown repeatedly attack Poilievre but not one another, Charest says Brown should not be underestimated in the race.
Entering as the mayor of Brampton, Ont., Brown had a reputation in Tory circles for his ability to organize from his time as leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives.
He has spent the race criss-crossing the country, meeting with different immigrant and racialized communities, encouraging them to take out a membership in the party to change Canada's conservative movement.
He accused Poilievre of trying to court support with people akin to Pat King, a leading voice of the Ottawa convoy protest who has also espoused the so-called white replacement conspiracy theory.
Poilievre has denounced King's remarks. After Quebec, he was set to travel to New Brunswick, followed by Thunder Bay, Ont., Winnipeg and Saskatoon. He will bring his campaign message of "freedom" from everything from mandated COVID-19 restrictions to the cost of living.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press