Anti-abortion activists claim corruption after Tories bar social conservative from leadership race

Composite illustration featuring Conservative leadership candidates, top row left to right, Pierre Poilievre, Leslyn Lewis, Jean Charest, and bottom row left to right, Roman Baber, Patrick Brown and Scott Aitchison. (Blair Gable/Reuters; Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press; Justin Tang/The Canadian Press; The Canadian Press; Chris Young/The Canadian Press;Scott Aitchison - image credit)

The Conservative Party of Canada today released the list of candidates who will appear on the ballot when party members vote for a new leader in September — and it doesn't include three candidates who say they collected enough money and signatures to qualify.

In a social media post, the party said Conservative MPs Scott Aitchison, Leslyn Lewis and Pierre Poilievre, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber have been accepted by the Leadership Election Organizing Committee (LEOC) as "verified" candidates. That means they have at least $300,000 to pay a series of entry fees and 500 endorsement signatures from members in 30 different ridings.

Three candidates — Joel Etienne, a commercial lawyer from Toronto, Joseph Bourgault, a Saskatchewan business owner and B.C.'s Grant Abraham, a consultant — will not appear on the final ballot, despite their claims that they met the party's requirements to be considered "verified."

But candidates need more than money and signatures to advance.

According to the party's leadership election rules, the Leadership Candidate Nomination Committee (LCNC), the group of party stalwarts reviewing applications from would-be candidates, can also rely on "any other information they see fit to ascertain the suitability of an applicant." The LCNC can, in turn, recommend to LEOC that a particular candidate be barred from running.

Bourgault, the president and CEO of Bourgault Tillage Tools, is a social conservative who was strongly endorsed by Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), an anti-abortion group that has long sought to pull the party to the right on social issues.

In addition to his anti-abortion credentials, Bourgault was a member of the so-called Freedom Convoy and participated in protests against COVID-related measures like vaccine mandates on Parliament Hill earlier this year.

Joseph Bourgault/Facebook
Joseph Bourgault/Facebook

In a letter to supporters last week, Jack Fonseca, the director of political operations for the CLC, said it was crucial to get Bourgault and at least two other candidates — Conservative MP Marc Dalton and Abraham — into the race to advance a "pro-family" agenda within the party.

Those efforts appear to have failed — the only "so con" candidate still in the running is Lewis.

In a social media post, Abraham's campaign said the candidate was told Sunday he has been "deemed ineligible" by the party.

Abraham has criticized Conservative MPs for failing to stop Bill C-4, the Liberal government's ban on conversion therapy. He has also called for a return to a "Judeo-Christian framework" in Canada and an end to secularism.

"Grant has responded to the party with a communication asking for a detailed justification of their decision," Abraham's campaign said, adding it will "question the ruling" and provide an update to supporters.

Reached by phone Monday, Fonseca said blocking some social conservatives from the final ballot "looks like skullduggery."

'They're corrupt'

"It's another lynching of social conservatives. They're trying to cancel us and it's a total disgrace. This is what Red Tories do. Red Tories cheat. They're dishonest and they don't like to play fair. They're corrupt," Fonseca told CBC News.

"It's the same kind of corruption the party used to disqualify Jim Karahalios and Richard Décarie the last time — they don't like their views and that's why Bourgault is out, despite whatever excuses they'll say publicly," he added, referring to two social conservative candidates who were barred from running in the last leadership election.

Bourgault did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fonseca said any attempt by the Conservative Party to "purge" itself of social conservatives would hurt its electoral fortunes in the next campaign.

He said some anti-abortion activists could jump to another party that is seen as more welcoming to their cause.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

"We have the corrupt Red Tory establishment disqualifying 'so cons' left and right because they can get away with it and they're destroying the party in the process. It's just pushing people into the arms of Maxime Bernier and the People's Party and they think they're wonderful for doing so," Fonseca said.

Fonseca said the People's Party's relative success in the last federal election — Bernier and his candidates secured about five per cent of the national vote — was due to a number of ardently conservative voters who were tired of what he called "Liberal-lite" policies.

He said the anti-abortion movement's last hope in this leadership race is Lewis, a candidate who has promised to table a suite of social conservative measures if she ever makes it to the Prime Minister's Office. Lewis has said she wants a ban on "sex-selective" abortions and criminal penalties for "coercive" abortions.

Tijana Martin / Canadian Press
Tijana Martin / Canadian Press

"If they could take Leslyn Lewis out, they would. But she's too high-profile and too well liked by party members. They know it would totally destroy the party if they did that. She's the only one we can trust," Fonseca said.

Speaking to Radio-Canada, CBC's French-language service, Etienne, the other rejected candidate, said he personally delivered the required paperwork to the party's Ottawa office last Friday at 2 p.m., well before the LEOC-imposed deadline.

He said he was told subsequently that the party wouldn't accept a credit card as payment for some of the necessary fees.

Etienne also said the party rejected some of the signatures he collected as "invalid," but he hasn't been told why.

In a statement, Wayne Benson, the party's executive director, said the decision to block a particular candidate "was based on the requirements set out under the rules, not any prospective candidate's political beliefs."

"Any prospective candidate who did not meet the requirements was informed of this fact and the reason or reasons why they did not meet the requirements set out under the rules," Benson said.