Kellie Leitch wasn’t wasting any time.
“I have common interests with Mr. Trump,” declared the Conservative Member of Parliament for the Ontario riding of Simcoe-Grey on Nov. 9, at the party’s first leadership debate before a vote in May.
She was referring to United States president-elect Donald Trump, who won the U.S. presidential election the night before in a staggering upset, at least according to pundits who had largely portrayed him as a long shot. The Republican candidate ran a campaign based in part on an uncompromisingly hardline stance on immigration, promising to build a wall on the Mexican border and indefinitely shut out Muslims from the country.
For months, Ms. Leitch’s bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party has been based on her controversial policy proposal that immigrants should be screened for “Canadian values” and only in “face-to-face interviews” with immigration officials.
Soon after the first of five leadership debates got underway, with 12 candidates battling it out on stage in Saskatoon, it was clear Ms. Leitch sees her idea of screening as in line with the views of America’s next president.
Over and over she sought to tie herself to Mr. Trump. “Mr. Trump and I have a few things in common,” she said at another point in the debate. “We have some common ideas,” she repeated another time. She won’t be “bullied” into political correctness, she said, echoing a common sentiment among Mr. Trump’s supporters. She sought to portray herself as in touch with the grassroots Conservative Party membership rather than elites.
After the debate, she told reporters that though she agrees with Mr. Trump in some respects that she was not endorsing him, and disagreed with his thoughts, for instance, on people with disabilities and women. Mr. Trump has been criticized for appearing to mock a reporter who is disabled and for making offensive comments about women.
Ms. Leitch’s efforts in the debate were attacked by Michael Chong, the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.
“I’m the kid of immigrant parents,” Mr. Chong said, “so I understand the immigrant experience.” On a question about the topic, he said the party should “quit playing politics with this issue.”
Some candidates made sure to keep their position firmly in the middle of the road. Andrew Scheer, the MP for Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask. and the former House speaker, said Canada has economic needs and a problem with an aging society. “We need to arrive at numbers based on logic and facts and evidence,” he said.
“We need immigration,” said Andrew Saxton, a former MP for North Vancouver and former parliamentary secretary to the finance minister, but “we need the right kind of immigration.”
In another standout moment, the Alberta MP for Calgary Forest Lawn, Deepak Obhrai, who has been elected to the House of Commons continuously for longer than any of his caucus colleagues, also raised his own experience to address the issue of immigration.
“Let me talk about the elephant in the room,” said Mr. Obhrai, first elected in 1997. Canada has no room for Sharia law, he said, referring to the body of Islamic law banned in 2006 in Ontario for family law arbitration, but which still drives some conservative debates today. But wearing the niqab—a hotly contested issue during the 2015 Canadian federal election—is okay, he said.
Throughout the debate, the moderator posed many straightforward questions for conservatives to answer: their stances on interprovincial free trade, for example, or their support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a carbon tax, or building pipelines.
Most on stage agreed with one another on these topics: support for free trade, TPP, and pipelines, and opposition to a carbon tax. One outlier was Brad Trost, the MP for Saskatoon-University, Sask. who said “the TPP is dead.” He later explained to reporters that it’s dead because there’s not enough support for it in Washington, and that’s crucial to the deal being implemented by all countries that negotiated it.
Immigration and agricultural trade policy were two areas where there were clear differences on stage.
Steven Blaney, the MP for Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, Que. and the former public safety minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government, took perhaps the closest stance to Ms. Leitch on immigration.
“The Liberals have a big problem: they are obsessed with numbers,” said Mr. Blaney, referring to the Liberal government’s effort to boost immigrants and refugees admitted to Canada.
Mr. Blaney also took issue with the MP for Beauce, Que., Maxime Bernier, who is running on a libertarian platform that involves privatizing Canada Post and airports, as well as getting rid of Canada’s broadcasting regulator, and ending the system of supply management of dairy, poultry, and eggs.
“I’m the only candidate here” who believes in free trade in agriculture, said Mr. Bernier, including abolishing supply management.
“Maxime, your plan is a disaster blinded by ideology,” Mr. Blaney shot back.
Supply management is a hot topic especially in their common province, Quebec, where there are many farmers from supply-managed sectors.
Other sections of the debate dealt with economic issues. Many candidates like Mr. Chong, Mr. Blaney, and Chris Alexander, a former diplomat and immigration minister, were in favour of lowering taxes and freezing federal spending.
Mr. Chong in particular pushed a large income tax cut of $14-billion or 10 per cent, according to his statement, as well as cutting corporate taxes. Mr. Alexander said there would be an “immediate freeze on spending.”
Others said they would reduce red tape. “There’s lots of rules and regulations” that prevent Canadian workers from working across the country, said Milton, Ont. MP and former transport minister Lisa Raitt. “I will cap government spending,” said Ms. Leitch.
But the debate couldn’t seem to get away from Mr. Trump’s victory. A question about how Canada can work with the United States was conducted under the shadow of the president-elect.
“It’s a relationship like a big brother and a little brother: sometimes you don’t get along but you’re still part of the same family,” said Mr. Saxton.
The Hill Times