How a Conservative party BBQ turned into Pierre Poilievre's way to cook red meat.
The hats were off to Poilievre and Danielle Smith, who thought they could lead. Jean Charest got a lot of boos.
Almost everything at a fundraiser for the federal Conservatives of today is meant to get a round of applause. Even the party favor bags that people took home.
The 1,400 people who went to the Conservatives' Stampede barbecue on Saturday night were given gift bags, or, to be more exact, tiny little gauzy pouches.
They had Canada flag lapel pins, two Lifesaver mints, and buttons that the ticket holder could choose.
One said, "Get your hands off my six-shooter," and another said, "More Alberta, less Ottawa," which is an interesting anti-federal slogan for a federal party. The other two said things like "All hat, no cattle" and "Buck off, Trudeau" about him.
Red meat is an obvious thing to put on paper plates and serve from the podium. This Calgary crowd can't go wrong when they talk about oil and gas, make fun of the Liberals and Trudeau, and take a few shots at the media.
When politicians are brought out at the beginning of the pre-supper ceremonies, it can seem like they are there to get people to cheer and clap. This crowd gave Premier Jason Kenney a big standing ovation, which may have seemed strange to his United Conservative party as they tried to get rid of him.
If this kind of audio straw poll is any indication of the outcome of a leadership race that won't be decided until October, then congratulations are in order for the next leader of the United Conservative Party, Danielle Smith. She got much louder cheers than the rest of the provincial pack, including distant runner-up Rebecca Schulz, who may have gotten a little boost from the fact that Rona Ambrose, the former federal interim leader, is now her campaign chair.
Hero from home
Then there was Pierre Poilievre, who was seen by many as the front-runner for the federal leadership. His reception by this crowd was just as enthusiastic as when Stephen Harper was prime minister and the hometown host and keynote speaker for the Conservatives' biggest annual summer fundraiser.
Because of how people reacted to Poilievre's presence, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between this party-sanctioned fundraising event and one of Poilievre's campaign rallies, the ones that made him a candidate to watch out for.
On the Heritage Park field, people lined up to meet him or take pictures with him.
During his six-minute speech, when he talked about his mom, they cheered. All of the candidates for federal leadership got about six minutes to talk. They cheered when he talked about picking up trash at the Stampede grounds as a teen job. cheered when he said he would "make this the freest country on earth" (it remains unclear which nation Canada would wrest this title from).
Almost every 10 or 15 seconds, he made people laugh or clap by quoting former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker: "I'm a Canadian, a free Canadian who doesn't have to be afraid to speak up... This history of freedom is something I promise to keep alive for myself and for everyone else." The cheers and whistles from the crowd almost drowned out his "thank you very much."
Leslyn Lewis and Roman Baber, two rivals for the leadership position, spoke before Poilievre, and Scott Aitchison had to cancel at the last minute. So, the unenviable job of following the apparent front-runner fell to Jean Charest, the former premier of Quebec. He was one of the few men there who didn't dress like cowboys and instead wore a standard-issue navy blazer.
He took off his suit jacket and spoke in his white dress shirt. Conservatives booed him a few times in between the cheers. When he said that the convoy protest in February was "illegal" at a conference of think tanks in Ottawa, he got booed. Before he even said anything, he was met with hostility in Calgary.
Even though it wasn't a big group of people laughing at him, it was enough for him to say, "I'm glad to see you, too."
How can a politician in Quebec get people to stop booing and treat him or her better? Filling a speech with general promises to do things that Albertans want Ottawa to do. These things are at the heart of Charest's "Alberta Accord," which he talked about in interviews with columnists before the Stampede.
"Do we need to put ourselves in a box?"
Early in the evening, interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen gave a speech in which she talked a lot about the possibility of conflict within the party. This included a long section that made the crowd quiet. It was about the risk of putting labels on Conservatives with whom you don't agree, and it was advice she'd given privately to caucus that she was repeating in public in Calgary in what was probably her last big speech as fill-in leader.
"These labels are getting old, boring, and, to be honest, they are becoming useless. Do we need to put ourselves in boxes?" Bergen asked.
"She is a Blue Tory and he is a Red Tory. He is a libertarian and she is a social conservative, and so on." Bergen didn't mention that people often call Poilievre a populist, like they do with former U.S. president Donald Trump, outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
"Having different ideas makes us stronger," she said next. "Having different ideas makes us smarter, and having different ideas shows what Canadians are really like."
Bergen's warning could hurt in more than one way. Some Conservatives are worried that if Poilievre wins, there will be an ideological purity test. This is because Poilievre's campaign attacked the more moderate Charest early on for being a premier for the Quebec Liberal Party. However, during Charest's time in office, the Quebec Liberal Party was the province's most popular right-of-center party, just like the ideologically conservative B.C. Liberals. Ed Fast, a veteran MP who supported Charest, quit his job as the party's finance critic in May because he thought that people who supported Poilievre were trying to stop him from saying that Poilievre's promise to fire the Bank of Canada governor would hurt the credibility of the Conservatives on economic issues.
On the other hand, it's a warning to the moderates who might wonder if they want to stay in a party led by Poilievre. Bergen said a little later, "If you want to do identity politics after September 10th, you will be left behind," which echoed this idea.
Some Alberta Conservatives wore buttons with Charest's face on them. Most of them were loyal to the former premier and cabinet minister under Mulroney and knew that his narrow path to victory doesn't include much support from the west. In the eyes of many people, that path got even narrower when Patrick Brown didn't show up to the party's Stampede fundraiser (along with Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who had backed Brown and recently wrote a blog post criticizing the cultures in both the CPC and UCP caucus).
Many Charest supporters in the crowd said quietly that if Poilievre won, they could see themselves supporting him. But, would they all?
Bergen herself said that there have been rumblings of a split ever since the CPC merged the Tories and Canadian Alliance in 2003, but they have never been very big. But of the three leadership races since Harper left office, this one has had the clearest front-runner and some of the most hostile talk between the two sides.
At this point, all that is known is that Charest got a lot of boos. When Poilievre stepped up, everyone in the crowd could only hear cheers.