Photo: CP24

Edmonton: Six candidates vying for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada all framed the country _ and the party _ as deeply divided at the first official debate on Wednesday, though they were split on the reasons for the disunity and how they would fix it.
The loudest applause in the Edmonton Convention Centre, packed with more than 1,000 people, went to longtime MP Pierre Poilievre, who said his vision for the country is about giving people “freedom to take back control of their lives.
“That means freedom from inflation, so that hard-working single mothers can afford nutritious food for their kids, freedom from inflation so that 32-year-olds don’t have to live in their parents’ basements,’’ he told the crowd.
He vowed to make every Canadian “the captain of your own life.’’
Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, Ont., said his vision involves the Conservative party being a more inclusive coalition that can defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in areas like the Greater Toronto Area.
Without mentioning Poilievre’s name, he also took a shot at the longtime Conservative’s bombastic political style.
“The choice before the party is clear,’’ Brown said.
“Do we want an unelectable party leader who drives voters away, walk straight into Liberal traps, giving unclear answers on divisible issues like abortion, and wedges Conservatives against each other?’’
Most candidates directly referenced COVID-19 vaccine mandates as one of the key reasons for the division in the country, with rural Ontario MP Leslyn Lewis saying she believes Canada needs to become a beacon of life again because people are “traumatized’’ from pandemic-related health rules
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest was the exception, as he pointed to disagreements over oil and gas between the eastern and western parts of the country as the cause of the conflict.
“I see a country that is deeply divided and I am running because I believe that national unity is the No. 1 challenge of any prime minister,’’ he said.
Charest took aim at Poilievre when moderator Tom Clark, a veteran political journalist asked a series of yes or no questions of candidates, including whether they would support legislation around abortion.
Poilievre said a government led by him wouldn’t pass or introduce legislation restricting access to the procedure. Charest, who said he supports abortion rights, called that answer insufficient, saying that Canadian women deserved to know where he stood.
For his vision for Canada, Rural Ontario MP Scott Aitchison said he wants to renew the promise that the next generation of Canadians will be better than the one before and remove divisive rhetoric from politics.
Roman Baber, the independent Ontario MPP who was kicked out of Premier Doug Ford’s caucus for opposing COVID-19 restrictions, said he wants to return democracy to Canada and end what he called “21st-century segregation,’’ referring to vaccine mandates.

By Stephanie Taylor
The Canadian Press