TORONTO — The last time Conservative party faithful gathered en masse in Toronto it was to hear from former leader and prime minister Stephen Harper.
On Friday, they met in the same location, this time to hear from the 13 people vying to replace him.
Though voting has been underway for weeks and most ballots had already been cast — the winner will be announced Saturday night — some candidates still used their speeches Friday to make last-minute plays for votes.
“The key question for this leadership campaign has been which of us can take the very best of those conservative policies that we all believe in and articulate them in a way that resonates with broader Canadians,” said Andrew Scheer, a Saskatchewan MP who is among the front-runners.
“I reject the idea that in order to beat the Liberals we need to be more like them.”
Another front runner, Maxime Bernier, said not much at all, letting a video of his supporters do most of the talking as they spoke about why they back his campaign and its central focus on removing government involvement in business.
Others fine-tuned their messages; Michael Chong dropped all references to his plan for a price on carbon from his final speech, focusing instead on his economic promises.
Lisa Raitt said what she wanted to ask for wasn’t votes, but party unity.
“When we focus on providing an effective alternative to the Liberals, we govern,” she said.
“When we focus on providing effective alternatives to each other, the Liberals get a free ride.”
Attacks on the Liberals were a clear theme to all the speeches, starting with none other than the event’s master of ceremonies, Caroline Mulroney.
The daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney was once rumoured to be seeking leadership herself.
“Who would want to run for the dad’s old job?” she quipped, a dig at Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose father Pierre was also prime minister.
Whomever does win the leadership is expected to sit down with caucus as soon as Monday morning to rally the troops and begin the long road to the 2019 election.
The Conservatives saw themselves reduced to 99 seats in 2015 and all but shut out of urban Canada.
Among their heaviest losses were in the Toronto-area, and it was there in the waning days of the last campaign the Tories held an event in the same Toronto Congress Centre they gathered in Friday.
The hosts? The Ford brothers — Rob, the controversial mayor of the city and his brother Doug, who used their considerable electoral clout to rally the party for the final Ontario campaign spot of 2015.
But that the notoriously tough-on-crime Harper would allow his campaign to be linked with the Fords, given Rob’s drug-using past, was seen by many at the time as an ill-conceived and last-ditch attempt to save Toronto seats.
Harper would go on to lose the election, and resign as leader, just days later. He was the party’s first chief, elected easily in the 2004 leadership race, but chose not to attend the weekend event, though his son Ben was present.
Many candidates have stood by Harper during this leadership race, taking issue not with him but with the party’s style in 2015.
Erin O’Toole said what Conservatives need now isn’t a fixer, but a champion.
“We need a strong and forward-thinking leader who respects our grassroots and builds a strong team that includes all voices in all parts of the country,” he said.
Still, the populist passion the Ford brothers brought to bear that night in 2015 hasn’t dissipated entirely.
Candidate Kellie Leitch was one of several contenders for leadership who campaigned using similar populist themes; indeed, for a time her campaign manager was the same person who helped Rob Ford secure his mayoral victory.
For Leitch, the fact she could garner so much support for her platform positions on screening newcomers for Canadian values and a stricter immigration policy is proof Canadians want to be having those conversations.
“Millions of Canadians say they are proud of their nation and they are proud of their values and they want them protected, she said in her speech.
“But time and time again the elites have rejected that message — they have said to speak of values is to be intolerant.”
Just over 259,000 people bought party memberships in order to be eligible to vote in the race. Polls will close at 4 p.m. E.T. on Saturday and the first results are expected shortly before six.