Beginning of blue wave or just a summer fling? Conservatives meet amid polling boost

QUEBEC — Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says he wants to give Canadians hope for a better future.

But for his party's grassroots at the Conservative policy convention in Quebec City Thursday, Poilievre was filling them with the hope of winning back power.

More than 2,500 delegates and other party supporters were expected at the gathering — the largest the party says it has seen since its 2005 founding convention —which will include debates around party policy, the election of a new governing council and a chance to hear directly from Poilievre when he delivers a highly anticipated speech Friday night.

"I think Conservatives we can all sense it," Calgary MP Stephanie Kusie told Thursday's crowd.

"There is a real buzz, an appetite for change from one coast of this country to the other."

Poilievre will address the full convention Friday, but offered up an early taste of what is to come in a speech to his caucus Thursday. It included partisan digs at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, comparing his governance to that of a "dystopia."

"This is the common sense, united for our common home," he told the room of MPs and senators of the party's plan to win over Canadians.

The caucus then joined in: "Your home, my home, our home — let's bring it home."

That phrase also appeared on merchandise the party rolled out, advertising it on screens around the convention halls inviting supporters to "join the movement."

Movement was a term that Poilievre's campaign first used last year when he was running to become leader and began staging rallies that attracted hundreds and, at times, even thousands, to hear him speak and stand in line to get their photo.

To show the Conservatives are in fighting shape, on the first day of the convention the party also unveiled a modified logo: A dark blue letter "C" with a red maple leaf in the middle, above a streak of lighter blue.

"It's quite a time to be a part of this, honestly," said attendee Emily Brown ahead of the event.

"Everybody is feeling hope and excitement. Even with (people) outside of those who would be traditional Conservative voters," said the former candidate, who ran in the Toronto-area riding of Burlington in the 2021 general election.

Supporters like Brown entered the convention buoyed by poll after poll showing the federal party's message on the cost of living and housing resonating among a wider, and younger, swath of Canadians at the governing Liberals' expense.

And as summer turns to fall, one question hanging over the Conservatives' fortunes is whether the embrace Canadians have given the party over the last few months is the start of a long-term relationship, or just an infatuation.

Outgoing party president Rob Batherson challenged Thursday's crowd to roll up their sleeves and create the blue wave they hope to see.

"Are you ready to go home and work and work like you've never worked before?"

One of the keys to potential Conservative success lies in not taking things for granted — a lesson Poilievre adopted while campaigning to become leader last year even though he entered the race as its clear front-runner.

Poilievre has spent the last 12 months steering his front-bench team in Parliament, rolling out its message-turned-rallying cry of "Bring it home." He criss-crossed the country several times, fundraising and meeting with thousands, placing a heavy focus on growing Conservative support in immigrant and newcomer communities in large cities.

He enters the convention fresh off the road from a summer spent touring, often with his wife, Anaida, while testing a new, more casual look without glasses or suit jacket. The hope is to get more Canadians, including women over 50, to warm to the idea that he could become the country's next prime minister.

"We have wind in our sails now," said Geoffrey Turner, who failed to win a seat for the party in 2021 in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre and is a current policy chair with the nearby riding association of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. "There's this sense that our hard-fought efforts are about to pay off."

Poilievre's first convention as leader is expected to involve far less drama than previous ones. During the 2021 virtual event, Erin O'Toole suffered a humiliating blow when delegates rejected adding the phrase "climate change is real" to the party's policy handbook. He was rebuffed after delivering a speech in which he told the party it needed a serious plan to tackle climate change if it hoped to win.

The last in-person convention was in Halifax five years ago, when Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer was at the party helm. Maxime Bernier, having lost the party leadership race, announced just before the event he was quitting the federal Tories. He would soon lead the People's Party of Canada.

Poilievre will address delegates and others at the convention in a speech Friday meant to energize the grassroots to fight in the next election and show himself as a prime minister-in-waiting.

Conservatives in the room want to hear a message of hope, said Garry Keller, former chief of staff to Rona Ambrose, who served as the party's interim leader after it lost government to the Liberals in 2015.

"We've seen Mr. Poilievre sort of road test some of that over the course of the summer … (and a) convention is also a great opportunity to test drive some more messaging."

Asked about the polls that show the Liberals trailing the Conservatives, federal Tourism Minister Soraya Martinez Ferrada dismissed the results.

"Our government is governing right now and we'll see what happens on the election day."

Over the next few days, riding associations and delegates will also push their varying priorities. While issues such as crime and housing affordability match Poilievre's focus as leader, others draw the party into more controversial debates of a cultural nature.

That includes the suggestion a future Conservative government prohibit "life-altering medicinal or surgical interventions" related to gender for anyone under 18 years old, protecting rights for those who refuse vaccination, and cutting funding to both the English- and French-language programming of public broadcaster CBC.

On Wednesday, before the convention even got underway, Poilievre told reporters in Quebec City that, as leader, he is not bound to accept the ideas of his party.

But an amendment some are pushing to its constitution this weekend seeks to make it a rule that party leaders not "deviate substantially" from policy declarations come election time. That was a major issue in 2021 when O'Toole adopted a carbon price in the face of the long-standing opposition.

For Turner and other party members, like those in British Columbia, there's a desire to include more in the policy handbook on the environment, which is why he and others helped advance a proposal that the party commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Our policy declaration is currently silent on that critical issue," he said.

While the economy is top of mind for most Canadians, former Conservative candidate for the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Agincourt Mark Johnson says the party still needs a convincing climate change plan if it hopes to win over swing voters in big cities.

"It will still be a tough road for Conservatives to win in the (Greater Toronto Area)," he said.

"I still think we need to make a lot more inroads."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press