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As Centre Ice group drops ‘Conservative’ from name, where are moderate Tories to go?

Questions linger about what unity looks like in different parts of the Conservative coalition

An advocacy group started by centrist Conservatives to provide more of a voice to the political middle has dropped the party’s name to expand its base.

The “Centre Ice Conservatives” have become the “Centre Ice Canadians.” What does that say about the state of the federal party and the role of moderate Tories within it?

According to Rick Peterson, one of the group’s co-founders, the move shouldn’t be taken as a sign of any major shift.

He says the decision simply reflects how the group heard from supporters who wanted to get involved without appearing to be members of the federal Conservative party.

Peterson, an Edmonton-based businessman who ran as a candidate in the party’s 2017 leadership race, says the current contest — in which many are expecting longtime Conservative Pierre Poilievre to take the victory — had a “minimal” effect on its decision.

“I don’t think it’s so much a reflection of any formal party. It’s just that the reason we started Centre Ice Conservatives is we didn’t think any of the parties were adequately addressing issues in the centre,” he says. “And we’ve been right.”

He added: “This is not an anti-Pierre Poilievre movement.”

Still, with less than two weeks left in the race before the next leader is chosen, questions linger about what unity looks like and how different parts of the Conservative coalition, including the party’s moderates, will react to a Poilievre win.

While Poilievre has campaigned on economic messages of battling inflation and high housing prices, he has also defended participants of last winter’s “Freedom Convoy” in Ottawa and promised to ban future ministers from attending the World Economic Forum — a global organization that has been the subject of rampant conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those moves have caused some to worry about the party’s direction, prompting concerns that the positions could cost Conservatives in areas like the seat-rich Greater Toronto Area, much of which is currently held by the governing Liberals.

Longtime Conservative strategist Melanie Paradis says Poilievre’s political record is that of a centrist or centre-right Conservative. That is reflected in campaign promises such as vowing to expand the runway at the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport to allow larger jets, she said.

What’s happening, Paradis suggests, is that Poilievre is reflecting the country’s anger.

“The tone in the country has shifted,” she says. “And he’s speaking to it, which isn’t the same thing as being far-right.”

Paradis says the task ahead of the next leader will be to make sure everyone feels included. She pointed out that members have been vocally concerned about leadership contest winners in the past, but have nonetheless stuck around.

“We had this conversation when Andrew Scheer was elected,” she said, recalling the 2017 leadership contest.

“People thought, ‘OK, well, you know he’s more socially conservative. Are the progressives going to leave the party because he’s leader?’ And they didn’t.”

One of the first chances the new leader will have to gauge reception to their victory will be when the Conservative national caucus meets, which is tentatively planned for Sept.12, two days after the ballot results are unveiled.

British Columbia member of Parliament Kerry-Lynne Findlay, who is co-chairing Poilievre’s campaign in that province, believes that once the race is over, colleagues will come together.

“Now, that doesn’t mean that a couple of people might not be happy with the choice, or might make decisions to do something different. Or, you know, they’ve been there a long time, they might decide they don’t want to continue,” she says.

“But that happens with every leadership.”

Findlay says reception to Poilievre in her province has been thrilling to watch, with supporters packing venues like she’s never seen before in regions that are not typically Conservative territory — like on Vancouver Island, where they have no members of Parliament. She is one of 62 MPs backing him.

But Quebec MP Joel Godin, for one, has already signalled that if Poilievre doesn’t shift more toward the political centre, he would re-evaluate his own future with the party.

When it comes to the caucus’s reaction to Poilievre’s more-controversial positions, Findlay pointed to vaccine mandates as a non-issue, saying the party has been opposed to them for some time. Other issues will be up to the next leader and MPs to decide on, she says.

“The first caucus meeting, and thereafter, will be all these opportunities to talk about how we move forward, how we move forward as a team, what our priorities for messaging will be.”

—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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