The federal Conservative party defended its decision Wednesday to oust a candidate from a local nomination race, as an anti-abortion organization alleges that the move was unfair —a tiff reminiscent of tensions that previous party leaders faced with the social conservatives in their base.
Party spokeswoman Sarah Fischer confirmed that Gerrit Van Dorland has been disqualified from running to become the party's candidate in Oxford, a reliably Conservative riding in southern Ontario.
She said he was barred for failing to provide information such as a list of social media accounts and comments he made online or in media interviews, and the party is only commenting publicly to offer "clarification and context."
But a spokesman for Van Dorland's campaign says the party did not provide it with a reason for his disqualification, and it is appealing the move.
"Gerrit has fully disclosed all information requested as a part of the application process," Bas Sluijmers, his campaign manager, told The Canadian Press in a statement.
"The Conservative party maintains that they are a party of open and fair nominations, and as such, we will be appealing this decision to the Conservative Party National Council. Gerrit remains optimistic that National Council will vote to respect the grassroots and allow his candidacy."
Van Dorland, a former staffer on Parliament Hill, was running on a pitch of "faith, family and freedom," and earned endorsements from Conservative members of Parliament including Leslyn Lewis, who twice ran for party leadership as a social conservative.
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Anti-abortion organization RightNow released a statement calling Van Dorland's ousting unfair — suggesting it happened both because of his "pro-life" views and because of his perceived popularity.
The organization suggested that Van Dorland stood a good chance of winning against Arpan Khanna, who is Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre's national outreach co-ordinator.
For his part, Khanna took to social media to express his disagreement with the move, asking the party to reverse course.
"My strong view is that everyone should be allowed to freely and fairly contest this nomination, and that local members should decide who their candidate will be," he said in a statement addressed to the party.
The seat in Oxford opened up after David MacKenzie, a longtime member of Parliament for the Tories, announced he was stepping down in December. His daughter is among the candidates looking to replace him.
MacKenzie, who officially left his post earlier this year, had already voiced concerns of favouritism in the nomination race after former party leader Andrew Scheer, who is currently Poilievre's House leader, endorsed Khanna and campaigned with him.
Khanna had run as a candidate for Scheer in Brampton, Ont., during the 2019 federal election. In an endorsement video, Scheer says he's known Khanna for years. He had helped the Regina MP clinch the party's leadership back in 2017, before assisting Poilievre in the most recent race.
In the wake of the disqualification decision, Rick Roth, another candidate running for the nomination, said the party is setting "a dangerous path of ignoring the grassroots" in favour of what he called "a preferred parachute candidate."
"Whether the party sees it or not, Gerrit represents and has the support of a massive community here in Oxford," Roth said in a statement.
"I know this because I've spoken to thousands of residents in the past few months, and many have told me their stories and connection to Gerrit and his family, through church, school or other community organizations."
The idea Conservative grassroots felt ignored by central leadership had been a common refrain during the tenure of Poilievre's predecessor, Erin O'Toole.
The Ontario MP was ousted by his caucus in a vote last year following months of tension behind closed doors, and complaints from large camps within the party's base — particularly social conservatives — that he flipped-flopped on key policy positions.
Poilievre enjoys a much heavier backing from the party's base and caucus than O'Toole ever did, after winning the leadership contest with nearly 70 per cent of the vote in September.
But he has not avoided criticism during his early tenure, with some in the party's socially conservative wing urging him to expand the party's message beyond a current focus on inflation and cost-of-living issues.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2023.