WEATHER ALERT

Bergen served CPC well as interim leader

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Interim Conservative Party of Canada leader Candice Bergen is not going to seek re-election, after 14 years spent representing Portage-Lisgar. She made that announcement earlier this week, making it clear that it’s time for a life beyond politics.

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Opinion

Interim Conservative Party of Canada leader Candice Bergen is not going to seek re-election, after 14 years spent representing Portage-Lisgar. She made that announcement earlier this week, making it clear that it’s time for a life beyond politics.

As one of a few women in the position of leader of a political party at the federal level, Bergen has more than earned the right to stop and smell the roses. While she and I may not have always agreed on things, I respect Bergen and I don’t think her job has been easy.

First, Bergen took over the role as interim leader at one of the most difficult times the party has faced. It had failed to win an election and had just ousted yet another leader, Erin O’Toole. Bergen won the role of interim leader last February, and many observed her toughest job was going to be maintaining some semblance of unity within the party.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Portage-Lisgar MP Candice Bergen has been a steadying influence during the Conservative Party’s tumultuous leadership race.

At the time of Bergen’s election to the top post, Alberta MP Ron Liepert suggested, “It’s going to be a bloody tough job” to bring everyone together. Yet Bergen appears to have done it. Her ability to maintain order in the midst of a leadership race that has set most of Canada on its ear is noteworthy.

The official Opposition has been organized and on point in keeping the Liberals on their toes about the economy, the invocation of the Emergencies Act and the war in Ukraine.

Do I agree ideologically with Bergen’s approach? Of course not. But expecting women in positions of power to lead with the same ideas is a bit like expecting Cirque du Soleil to perform in an elevator. The whole idea of having women in leadership roles is to advance a variety of voices. Some we agree with and some, not so much.

Bergen was also one of several Conservatives who met with “convoy” protesters in Ottawa during the shutdown at Parliament Hill. Progressives saw this as a reason to lash out against her in disgust. I think that’s actually misguided. In my read of the so-called “freedom” protests, there were some people there who had legitimate concerns. Conservatives, including Bergen, provided those individuals with an opportunity to voice those concerns.

This may have fueled political polarization in Canada, but at the same time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hardly responded well. He was dismissive of the convoy, calling it a “small fringe minority of people” who have “unacceptable views.”

As CBC’s Aaron Wherry wrote so eloquently, “The convoy demonstrated the need for people in public life to find the line between compassion and capitulation — to acknowledge the concerns of angry, uneasy voters while still rejecting the influencers and ideas that cannot in good conscience be humoured.”

Could Bergen have been more assertive in rejecting the influencers? Sure. But for those watching from the cheap seats, it’s easy to make that call — especially those so-called progressives who call her nasty names on social media. This is where context matters.

Portage-Lisgar is a large riding. In the south, it’s home to a deeply conservative Christians element who are anti-vaccination and anti-government. In fact, Manitoba’s Southern Health/Santé Sud district has the lowest vaccination rate in the province.

In the last federal election, Bergen easily won her riding with more than 52 per cent of the vote. But the People’s Party of Canada’s Solomon Wiebe came in second with almost 22 per cent, which certainly speaks to Bergen’s constituents’ leanings.

It’s also important to recognize Bergen is one of a few women who has stood as a leader of a political party in Canada. She follows the likes of the Canadian Alliance’s Deborah Grey, the NDP’s Nycole Turmel and fellow Conservative Rona Ambrose, who also acted as interim leaders of the opposition.

Alexa McDonough and Audrey McLaughlin both served as NDP leaders. Elsie Wayne was interim leader of the Conservatives in 1998 and Elizabeth May was the Green Party’s leader. And of course, so far Canada has only had one female prime minister — Conservative Kim Campbell.

In a political world in which leadership usually follows a male model, Bergen brought her Manitoba sensibilities to the forefront. She told Sun columnist Brian Lilley that one of her highlights while working with prime minister Stephen Harper was the passage of a bill in 2013 that granted women on reserves matrimonial property rights. As Bergen now watches her Indigenous granddaughter grow up, it’s likely this is even more significant.

Bergen has proven her value as a leader at the federal stage and now there are rumours that she could turn her attention to the Progressive Conservative leadership in Manitoba — a rumour she has dismissed. In true Bergen style, she pledged support for leader Heather Stefanson.

She remains one of the hardest-working women I have ever met. I hope she’ll take at least a couple of months off to ponder her next steps.

Shannon Sampert is the former politics and perspectives editor at the Winnipeg Free Press and a communications consultant.

shannon@mediadiva.ca

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