The sharply dressed crowd mingling on the fourth floor of Ottawa's Westin Hotel Wednesday included conservatives old and young, all keen to connect, strategize and discuss the very essence of what it means to be conservative.
This week, conservative Canadians from across the country are gathered in Ottawa for the annual Canada Strong and Free Networking conference, where panellists unpack strategy and key issues and attendees build connections. Formerly called the Manning Centre, the Canada Strong and Free Network works to advance conservatism in Canada by providing research, advocacy and training for those committed individuals.
The political advocacy group is working to turn avid young conservatives into “political animals” and capable leaders, says Leam Dunn-Opper. The 22-year-old is among almost a dozen mentees from the Conservative Values Tomorrow program who are in attendance, all under 30 years old.
Dunn-Opper was in high school during Stephen Harper’s tenure. Back then, he saw conservatism as “suits and being well-composed,” with conservative politicians appearing as “just a robot on stage.”
He feels differently now. Leader Pierre Poilievre and the Conservative Party of Canada are “making it fun and exciting to be a conservative again.”
Dunn-Opper's not the only one who thinks so: A December 2022 Mainstreet Research poll found 46.5 per cent of decided and leaning voters between 18 and 34 favoured the Conservative Party.
This recent change in perception shows “we have a lot more to us than just economic policy,” says Dunn-Opper, who lives in Calgary. “We can take stands on things.”
Under the Liberals, no one can say life has gotten better, says Dunn-Opper, especially when it comes to housing: a key issue for the young people he talks to, along with inflation.
Similarly, 20-year-old Noah Jarvis says the conservatives can be an alternative to the Liberals, who “are making life harder for young people.”
Leader Pierre Poilievre and the Conservative Party of Canada are “making it fun and exciting to be a conservative again,” says one young conservative at the annual Canada Strong and Free Networking conference. #cdnpoli
Jarvis, another Conservative Values Tomorrow mentee, launches head-on into a hot-button social policy debate: “critical race theory.” This academic theory, which first emerged in the United States, broadly examines racism as a systemic problem as well as the ongoing harm caused by racist policies and institutions. More recently, it has become a political issue south of the border, where conservative politicians and pundits have linked the term to activities like diversity training and acknowledging historical racism in schools, with prominent Republicans referring to it as “activist indoctrination.”
Jarvis says conservatives in Canada need to tackle the issue of “critical race theory being introduced into our schools and just in our society in general.”
He thinks viewing the world through a lens of race is “very harmful … not just to the Black community but social cohesion in general.” It’s “how you create ethno-nationalism and ethnic conflict,” he adds.
The economy is another key issue for Jarvis, but he feels the conservatives have that one under control. Patriotism, on the other hand, is a severely underlooked issue given the divides between English Canada and Quebec as well as the historical rift between Protestants and Catholics, he says. This is exacerbated, says Jarvis, by a federal government that “continues to alienate certain parts of the country in order to appeal to other parts of the country.”
In a panel on how to communicate conservative messages to everyday people, moderator Emma Haynes talked about how the younger generation fits into the picture.
“I think young people really want to be a part of something,” Haynes says. “They want to feel like they're working towards something, to making a better future, and I think the left is so successful with this and they can make you feel like you're being a part of a grander movement.
“I think that's something conservatives need to work on.”
Tackling climate change is another opportunity for the conservatives, Jarvis says. He thinks conservatives are capable of pushing the issue forward.
“I think there's been a hesitancy within the conservative movement to push on the environmental issue because the left has really owned that issue,” says Jarvis. “And maybe … some conservatives have a misguided idea of what climate change is and isn't.”
Many young people are “very anxious about climate change,” Jarvis adds. He understands climate change is real and that we need to address the issue. But instead of policies like the price on pollution, the government should incentivize the development of technology like carbon capture to grow the economy while fighting climate change, he says.
Last budget, the federal government proposed an investment tax credit worth an estimated $8.6 billion to cover half the cost of equipment used for such projects. The budget before that earmarked $319 million for research, development and demonstrations to advance the commercial viability of carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies.
The federal Conservatives do not currently have a climate plan.
At the 2021 Conservative Party convention, 54 per cent of eligible delegates voted against a motion that would include the phrases “We recognize that climate change is real” and “The Conservative Party is willing to act” in the party’s policy.
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer