OTTAWA — Peter MacKay’s ability to unify a fractured country will be tested Monday, as the Conservative leadership candidate holds a public rally in Winnipeg.
"I want to make sure that whoever we choose as leader is going to work at unifying our great nation," said Tory MP James Bezan (Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman), who is leading MacKay’s campaign in Manitoba.
The presumed frontrunner in June’s race to replace Andrew Scheer is running on a campaign that has been light on policy, while leaning into the need to unite Canadians.
Bezan said he agrees with MacKay’s general standpoints, such as sticking up to despotic regimes, boosting military spending and cutting taxes. He’s chosen the Nova Scotia-born lawyer over Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, whom he endorsed in the last leadership race in 2017.
"When it comes down to putting together a united Conservative party, with an ability to win right across the country, Peter MacKay is the only one in the slate who can do it, in my opinion," Bezan said. "I was courted by just about everybody that was throwing their hat in the ring."
The Conservatives are still smarting from last October’s election, where the Trudeau Liberals prevailed over unearthed blackface photos, the SNC-Lavalin affair, and the uptick of the Bloc Québécois.
Polls suggest Scheer’s social conservative views alienated the Tories from the vote-rich suburbs of cities such as Toronto, despite sweeping most of the Prairies.
To take government, the next Conservative leader will need to appeal to urban Canadians — while not isolating the party’s rural Prairie base, pundits say. That’s vexing the party itself, with four Alberta MPs issuing a so-called "Buffalo Declaration" a week ago, asking for that province to have more powers.
Many Tories, such as Bezan, argue MPs should instead debate those ideas in private.
Bezan said MacKay is uniquely positioned to unify the country, after helping create the modern Conservative Party through the merger of his Progressive Conservative Party of Canada with the Reform movement.
"He is talking about the big blue tent," Bezan said.
MP Marty Morantz (Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia—Headingley) revealed Friday he’s also backing MacKay.
Manitoba’s five remaining Tory MPs said they hadn’t endorsed anyone yet (including Candice Bergen, who is unlikely to do so, as House leaders generally steer clear of endorsements).
Bezan said MacKay’s Manitoba campaign is also being organized by former MPs Shelley Glover and Lawrence Toet.
His Manitoba fundraising chairman, David Schioler, said MacKay can connect to the average person, despite having held the roles of justice, defence and foreign-affairs minister during his first 1997-2015 stint in Parliament.
"He's really appealing to Canadians, because he's very much one of us," said Schioler, a software executive and former head of the Insurance Brokers Association of Manitoba.
"He's good at explaining things and holding his ground, and I think he'll be an excellent leader for our country."
MacKay’s campaign so far has been overshadowed by gaffes, such as a tweet mocking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s spending on yoga, which MacKay later disavowed. He also walked back a statement hailing people who take it upon themselves to clear Indigenous protest blockades.
Bezan said he wasn’t worried the online imbroglio will distract from MacKay’s campaign.
"I don't think that there's anything there that we need to apologize for," Bezan said.
MacKay made a quieter visit to Winnipeg in November, and his campaign says he’s also been to Alberta and British Columbia since announcing his bid for Tory leadership.
MacKay’s looming visit is aimed at showing off a groundswell of support in the city. It takes place Monday at the Canad Inns Polo Park, 7-9 p.m.
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