How a Conservative party BBQ became Pierre Poilievre’s red-meat cookout

At a fundraiser for today’s federal Conservatives, nearly everything is designed to be an applause line. Even the take-home party favour gift bags.

Visitors to the Conservatives’ 1,400-person Stampede barbecue Saturday night were offered gift bags, or tiny little gauzy pouches to be more specific.

They contained Canada flag lapel pins, a couple of Lifesaver breath mints, and the ticket-holder’s choice of buttons.

One said “get your hands off my six shooter,” another one went with the intriguingly (given that this is a federal party) anti-federal slogan “more Alberta, less Ottawa.” The other two took swings at Justin Trudeau: “All hat no cattle,” and “Buck off, Trudeau.”

Serving up red meat’s a no-brainer, both on the paper plates and from the podium. One can never go wrong with this Calgary crowd praising oil and gas, mocking the Liberals and Trudeau, and taking a few swings at the media.

The introduction of politicians at the start of the pre-supper ceremonies can seem designed to get partisans’ handclaps and hoots going. Premier Jason Kenney got a solid standing ovation from this crowd, a reaction that may have seemed elusive among his provincial United Conservatives as they pushed him from office.

If this sort of audio straw poll turns out to be indicative of the result of a leadership contest that won’t be settled until October, then early congratulations go to future United Conservative Party leader Danielle Smith, who earned cheers far louder than the rest of the provincial pack, including distant decibel-level runner-up Rebecca Schulz, perhaps enjoying a tad of momentum from Rona Ambrose, the former federal interim leader, becoming her new campaign chair.

Hometown hero

And then there was Pierre Poilievre, the widely perceived federal leadership front-runner whose reception among this crowd rivalled the intense, leap-to-their-feet enthusiasm for Stephen Harper, back in the days when he was prime minister and both the hometown host and keynote speaker for the Conservative’s marquee annual summer fundraiser.

The reaction to Poilievre’s presence at times made it difficult to distinguish this party-sanctioned fundraising event from a Poilievre campaign rally, the ones that began attracting attention to him as a phenomenon of a candidate.

Attendees lined up across the Heritage Park field to meet or take pictures with him.

During his six-minute speech — all federal leadership candidates got six minutes of stage time or so — they cheered him introducing his mom. They cheered him recalling a teenage summer job, picking up trash at the Stampede grounds. Cheered his promise to “make this the freest nation on earth” (it remains unclear which nation Canada would wrest this title from).

He induced laughter or clapping almost every 10 or 15 seconds, leading to a crescendo, his quoting former Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker: “I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear … This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.” The audience’s hoots and whistles nearly drowned out his “thank you very much” salutation.

Two leadership rivals, Leslyn Lewis and Roman Baber, spoke before Poilievre, and Scott Aitchison was a last-minute scratch. So the unenviable task of following the apparent front-runner fell to Jean Charest, the former Quebec premier and one of the only men in attendance who bucked the cowboy dress-up tradition and arrived in a political standard-issue navy blazer.

The contrast between urban cowpokes and out-of-province politicians becomes more stark when Stampede visitors like Conservative leadership candidate Jean Charest don’t dress western. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

He doffed the suit jacket to speak in his white dress shirt, and Conservatives greeted him with several boos peppered in among the applause. He’s been booed before, when he called February’s convoy protest “illegal” at a think-tank conference in Ottawa. In Calgary, the hostile response came before he even spoke.

It wasn’t widespread jeers, but enough that his first words were: “I’m happy to see you, too.”

How does a Quebec politician make booing give way to nicer treatment? Filling a speech with broad promises to do things Albertans want Ottawa to do, things that are at the heart of Charest’s “Alberta Accord” he shared in pre-Stampede columnist interviews

‘Do we need to pigeonhole ourselves?’

Early in the evening, the spectre of intra-party hostility figured prominently in the speech by interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen, including a lengthy section that drew quiet from the crowd. It was about the risk of applying labels to Conservatives one doesn’t agree with, and it was advice she’d given privately to caucus that she was trotting out in public in Calgary, in likely her last major speech as fill-in leader.

“These labels are getting old, they’re getting boring and frankly they’re getting obsolete. Do we need to pigeonhole ourselves?” Bergen asked.

“He’s a Red Tory, she’s a Blue Tory. He’s a libertarian, she’s a social conservative, and on and on it goes.” (Unmentioned by Bergen: the populist label, which often gets attached to Poilievre, as it does to former U.S. president Donald Trump, outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.)

“Diversity of thought makes us stronger,” she continued. “Diversity of thought makes us wiser, and diversity of thought reflects what Canadians are really like.”

Conservative Party interim leader Candice Bergen attends a party barbecue in Calgary, Alta., on Saturday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Bergen’s warning could cut a few ways. Some Conservatives worry about an ideological purity test to follow a Poilievre victory, after his campaign pilloried the more moderate Charest early for having been a premier for the Quebec Liberal Party, though during his reign that brand was the province’s leading right-of-centre option, much like the ideologically-conservative B.C. Liberals. Veteran MP Ed Fast, a Charest backer, quit his role as party finance critic in May after he felt Poilievre supporters tried to “muzzle” his comments that Poilievre’s vow to fire the Bank of Canada governor would hurt the Conservatives’ credibility on economic issues.

Alternately, it’s a caution to the moderates who may question their desire to stay in a Poilievre-led party. A point Bergen made a little later pointed toward that sentiment: “If you want to do identity politics after September 10th, you will be left behind.”

A smattering of Alberta Conservatives sported Charest buttons, most of them loyal to the former premier and Mulroney-era cabinet minister, and aware that his narrow path to victory doesn’t include much western support. In many observers’ minds, that path narrowed further with the disqualification of Patrick Brown, a no-show at the party’s Stampede fundraiser (along with Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who had backed Brown and recently wrote a blog post criticizing the cultures in both the CPC and UCP caucus).

Quietly, many Charest fans in the crowd said they could see themselves getting behind Poilievre if he won. Would they all, however?

As Bergen herself noted, rumblings of a rift have kept emerging since the CPC fused the Tories and Canadian Alliance in 2003, but never amounted to much. But of the three post-Harper leadership contests, this one has featured both the most apparent front-runner and some of the most hostile rhetoric between camps.

All that’s known for now is this: the boos for Charest were very noticeable. When Poilievre stepped up, among this crowd, nothing could be heard but excitement.

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