'Hijacked': Riding officials quit after heated Conservative nomination fight
Two Conservative riding association leaders in the stronghold of Oxford have resigned, saying national party members stacked the deck to help one candidate win the nomination for a looming federal byelection.
Catherine Agar and Brian Kaufman were president and vice-president, respectively, of the party's Oxford riding association. They've quit since Arpan Khanna won the party's riding nomination last weekend.
"I started out very excited to be a part of the Oxford Conservative nomination but these past two months have been very troubling," Agar wrote in a letter announcing her resignation, a copy of which was obtained by The Free Press. "The nomination process is full of problems; the rules were repeatedly ignored and my concerns dismissed by the party."
A spokesperson for the Conservatives, Sarah Fischer, says it was Agar and Kaufman who "had a specific outcome in mind" for the race. Khanna, she noted, "won by a significant margin on the first ballot."
Dave MacKenzie held the Oxford seat for 19 years until he retired in late January, triggering a tight nomination race that ignited a series of spats and controversies in recent weeks.
Khanna, a lawyer, ran unsuccessfully for the Tories in Brampton in 2019 and served as Ontario co-chair of Pierre Poilievre's successful leadership campaign.
Khanna drew criticism early in the race from other candidates about his ties to the largely rural Southwestern Ontario riding. His candidacy was thrust under an even harsher spotlight when MacKenzie waded into the contest and penned a letter to the House of Commons speaker, the Elections Canada commissioner and the Conservative party, crying foul over what he deemed inappropriate endorsements by party heavyweights for Khanna.
Khanna received an endorsement from Andrew Scheer, former Conservative leader, last month. His campaign website also features an endorsement from Poilievre.
Agar and Kaufman said the party favoured Khanna to win the nomination from the onset.
"The Party, through their action and inaction, showed favouritism towards Mr. Khanna as their preferred candidate and they delayed the approvals which only left the other two approved candidates one week with a membership list to campaign," Agar wrote.
The nomination race caused "deep divisions" in Oxford's membership, she wrote. "It is my personal opinion that the Oxford nomination was hijacked by people from Ottawa and Brampton who crafted a win for Mr. Khanna with a small sample of the Oxford Conservative membership."
While parachuting an out-of-town candidate into a riding is nothing new, the problem is how the party decided to go about it, Kaufman wrote in his resignation letter, obtained by The Free Press. "There are too many instances to list here but suffice to say every rule was broken to facilitate the outcome Ottawa wanted."
Agar said the "worst criticisms" of nomination races occurred in the riding, referring to the use of membership sales to fill party coffers.
"Huge numbers of memberships were sold along cultural or religious lines," and there was concern over the residency of some buying memberships, she said.
The other two candidates facing Khanna for the Conservative bid in Oxford were Deb Tait, MacKenzie's daughter and a veteran Woodstock city councillor, and Rick Roth, vice-president of communications for Global Affairs Canada and former chief of staff to Ontario’s environment minister.
Gerrit Van Dorland, an executive assistant to a Saskatchewan MP, was disqualified by the party a week before the nomination meeting because of what it described as a failure to disclose "required information" in his application.
A Conservative Party spokesperson had said the recommendation to disqualify Van Dorland was brought forward by the local nomination committee. But Kaufman said the party was quick to break its promise of keeping matters confidential and instead blamed local organizers for the decision.
In hindsight, Agar wrote, she believed the Tories had no intention of letting Van Dorland run.
The federal byelection in Oxford must be called before July 29.
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press