During a campaign stop in downtown St. John's on Wednesday, Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis said she's the right choice to unify Canada in the face of division that she blames on the federal Liberal government, COVID-19 mandates and the mainstream media.
About 70 people, mostly seniors, gathered to listen to Lewis on Wednesday evening at the Hilton Garden Inn. She painted a picture of a nation being torn apart at the seams due to "wokeism" and "cancel culture."
"I've met families where parents aren't speaking to children. Neighbours aren't speaking to each other because of their vaccination status. And we had a prime minister that used — as a political strategy — COVID, to divide and to demonize." she said.
Lewis said employment, the doctor shortage and the province's aging population are some of the main issues she's heard about during her four stops in Newfoundland.
Lewis said Newfoundland and Labrador's oil and gas industry should be used to displace what she called "dictatorship oil" imported from other countries, and could also be used to fill the void left by Russia in the European oil market.
"We should bring our supply chains home," she said.
She voiced her support for the proposed Grassy Point liquefied natural gas project in Placentia Bay, which is currently under environmental review. Proponents say the project will bring tax revenue and hundreds of jobs to the province, while critics say the project isn't worth the fossil fuel emissions.
The crowd at Lewis's event was far smaller than the hundreds who showed up to fellow candidate Pierre Poilievre's event in St. John's in mid-May. Poilievre also has the support of Newfoundland and Labrador's only Conservative MP, Clifford Small.
Though she panned the federal Liberal government, she didn't criticize the provincial Liberals, instead saying that both levels of government should collaborate.
Lewis stands apart: Supporters
Supporters told CBC News that Lewis's message of unity sets her apart from other candidates.
Julie Bilton, a self-employed mother of two from Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, said she swore off voting Conservative until she heard of Lewis.
"Here's the candidate who's actually talking about the things we need to talk about, is talking about bringing people together, is talking about ending some of the mandates and policies that have been hurting our country, hurting our economy," she said.
Jeremy Lawlor said his beliefs line up with Lewis's on every issue, citing her views on abortion and drug decriminalization.
Earlier this week, the federal government announced it would allow British Columbia to decriminalize possession of illicit substances up to 2.5 grams. Medical professionals and harm reduction experts have voiced their support for decriminalization.
Lawlor, who said he's in recovery from cocaine addiction, asked Lewis for her views on the issue.
Like other Conservative candidates, Lewis said she doesn't agree with decriminalization.
"I don't see anything compassionate just about feeding their drug addiction," she said. "I would look for a way to restore these people and not give up on them and bring them back into our family."
Lawlor said he also supports Lewis's anti-abortion policies.
Unity and division
Despite her message of unity, Lewis spent much of her speech on hot-button topics like abortion, vaccine mandates and the Freedom Convoy.
A social conservative, Lewis said she's the only pro-life Conservative leadership candidate — others either are pro-choice or haven't stated their views. She's received an A-grade from anti-abortion organization Coalition for Life.
Lewis reiterated her support for the self-styled Freedom Convoy, which occupied Ottawa for weeks last winter, and criticized the federal government's use of the Emergencies Act.
"Never again will our government be able to do what it did to the tractor convoy."
Lewis's call to defund the CBC — which she called a "propaganda machine" — received raucous applause. She specifically pointed to the public broadcaster's coverage of the Ottawa convoy and a story about her opposition to Canada's participation in the World Health Organization Pandemic Response Treaty.
"They do not even have the capacity to represent divergent views across a wide spectrum of Canadian ideology," she told the crowd.
However, she later told CBC News she's heard from some Newfoundland and Labrador residents who do find value in the public broadcaster.
"They need to get back to their local broadcasting roots because on a national level there is a lot of alienation," she said.