The headlines coming out of the 2016 Conservative policy convention in Vancouver May 26-28 was that the Tories became a modern, inclusive party because it accepted same-sex “marriage.” The social conservatives were defeated, if not outright vanquished, according to some pundits. That is a gross over-simplification of a more complex story, in which pro-life and pro-family delegates saw both victories and defeats in a number of policy, constitutional, and national council votes.
The headline-grabbing story from the weekend was that the Conservative delegates overwhelmingly voted to remove pro-traditional marriage language from the policy book. Previously, the Conservative Party recognized that marriage was between one man and one woman, and that only Parliament could change the definition of marriage, not the courts. After being approved in the working session on the Friday morning sessions, it was passed 69 per cent to 31 per cent in the plenary, where almost 1500 people voted. Several MPs joined the debate. Speaking against the change, MP Ted Falk (Provencher) called rescinding the policy “an attack on the values and principles of family and faith.” Meanwhile, MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill) simply alluded to the calendar to argue it is “long past time to pass this resolution.” The final vote was 1036-462, with a majority in favour of the change in every province but Saskatchewan.
In media interviews before the plenary, Jason Kenney (Calgary Midnapore), a favourite of many social conservatives, said it was time to get past the marriage debate as it has been the law of the land for 13 years.
Maxime Bernier (Beauce), a Quebec MP who has already announced he is running for the Conservative leadership, got to a microphone to endorse the change, saying, “It’s about us telling to Canadians you can love who you want, and you can be loved.” But this is not quite true. While the old language was stripped from the policy book, it was not replaced with an endorsement of same-sex “marriage,” although it added a line that the Conservatives “support the freedom of religious institutions to refuse to perform unions or allow the use of their facilities for events that are incompatible with their faith and beliefs.”
Balanced against this defeat for supporters of traditional values were numerous victories.
An endorsement of euthanasia was outright defeated in the working session by a 213-94 vote.
A resolution adding the word “abortion” to the existing policy on sex-selection was passed by the full convention in a 657-550 vote. Several delegates spoke against the proposal saying it foisted an anti-abortion position on the party, but pro speakers said the policy recognized that sex-selective abortions are a form of lethal discrimination. The policy on gendercide was adopted at the Calgary convention in 2013, but the word abortion was mysteriously removed (including the period at the end of the sentence). The restored policy makes it clear the Tories “condemn discrimination against girls through gender selection abortions” (and is now grammatically correct). An analysis by Campaign Life Coalition reported, “The CPC is the only mainstream party to condemn any form of abortion.”
A policy supporting conscience rights for health care workers was passed. With two-thirds of the vote, the Party “supports conscience rights for doctors, nurses, and others to refuse to participate in or refer their patients for abortion, assisted suicide or euthanasia.” After a debate that saw several Calgary doctors speak against conscience rights to insist dying patients had a right to a quick medically induced death, 990 people supported conscience rights compared to 496 who did not. MP Garnet Genuis (Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan) said that requiring doctors to do referrals “violates their conscience rights” and that Canada risks losing physicians if they are not allowed to uphold their moral beliefs in the medical system.
A resolution supporting “maternal and child health” was passed easily. Cecilia Forsyth, a former president of Real Women and a delegate from Carton Trail-Eagle Creek, said the policy would effectively make Stephen Harper’s Muskoka Initiative focusing on providing the necessities of life for pregnant women and their newborn children the party policy.
The vote on adding the guiding principle “A belief in the value and dignity of all human life” to the constitution was passed so overwhelmingly that a recorded vote was deemed unnecessary after a sea of green “yes” signs clearly outnumbered the red “no” signs. Several delegates spoke against the principle saying it sneaks pro-life language into the party without directly addressing the abortion question. CLC’s analysis stated the guiding principle “can and should be interpreted as pro-life, even if it’s not explicit.” Yet, one of the speakers in favour of the principle was pro-abortion MP Michelle Rempel, who said it would guide the party’s opposition to genocide abroad and need for environmental protection at home.
An important constitutional change was endorsed by delegates. Section 13.7 of the party’s constitution permitted caucus to delete sections of the policy book that it deemed “no longer at issue with Canadians.” During debate in the working session, opponents of deletion said MPs had to maintain the ability to “clean up” the policy book of irrelevant policy, but pro delegates said that the grassroots Conservatives could be trusted with this responsibility at policy conventions. The CLC analysis stated, “The strategic importance of passing this amendment cannot be understated.” It is not a stretch to believe that there would be tremendous pressure from caucus to strip pro-life and pro-family ideas from the party’s policy book. A similar proposal to permit more regular caucus review of the policy book was also defeated in the working session.
Social conservatives were hoping to add a constitutional amendment backed by the grassroots Free Your Policy movement, which would allow delegates to bring policies directly to the convention floor, especially if proposals were scuttled by the National Policy Committee. Despite widespread support among party members, as expressed through riding and regional meetings and the party’s Idea Lab website, the amendment was defeated in the working sessions 196-246 after a re-vote. Free Your Policy was added to the list of constitutional amendments approved by the Constitutional Committee after organizers got the required 100 signatures from individuals representing at least 100 different ridings. Considering that it was effectively organized in the two weeks before the convention, it fared well. Jim Karahalios, a National Policy Committee member and an organizer of the Free Your Policy initiative, told The Interim that he would propose a similar idea for the next convention in 2018. He said it was disappointing to lose but the close vote demonstrates there is support for the idea that policy should be able to be introduced at convention, with high thresholds to ensure only policies with some chance of getting passed are considered.
Another constitutional amendment introduced on the floor of the working session would have changed the rules to permit interim leaders from seeking the full-time job. One speaker against the amendment cited an Interim story about interim leader Rona Ambrose (and MP Michelle Rempel) interfering with the National Policy Committee by having several pro-life and pro-family proposals nixed. The amendment was soundly defeated.
In National Council elections, CLC endorsed four Ontario candidates in order to get rid of two incumbents who were socially liberal, Cheryl Bannier and Jai Bhatti. In a seven-way race, ranked ballot election, all four CLC-backed candidates won: Matthew John, Kara Johnson, Joe Preston, and Matthijs van Gaalen.
According to our analysis there could be as many as six or seven pro-life and pro-family members of National Council, out of 19. Furthermore, gay activist former National Council member Brian Mitchell was defeated in his attempt to return to Council; he had announced his intention of running for National Council president if he was elected, but he finished fourth in a five-way race for three spots.
Former MP Pierre Lemieux told The Interim that the presence of pro-life and pro-family delegates at Vancouver ensured several important policy and constitutional victories. He said politics was one way for those who hold traditional moral beliefs “to put their principles into action.” Saying that social conservatives may have been disappointed in losing the marriage definition vote, he urged more Canadians to become involved in their riding associations, attend delegate selection meetings, and commit to going to the next policy convention where some of these issues will be fought over again and new issues will be introduced.
Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes said the Conservative Party is the only one of the parties sitting in Parliament today that permits pro-lifers to attempt to influence policy and take part in the life of the party. “We would prefer to be non-partisan but at this moment, the choice has been made for us: if we want to be involved in politics, the only game in town among the three big parties right now are the Conservatives.” Hughes encourages pro-life Canadians to become active in the electoral district associations of the Conservative Party to influence it at the riding level. Hughes also reminds supporters that the Christian Heritage Party is the only party committed to the protection of all human life from the time of conception to natural death.
Hughes also said that CLC will analyze the new Liberal constitution, passed at that party’s Winnipeg convention the same weekend. Justin Trudeau proposed and the delegates endorsed ridding the party of memberships to open the Liberals to the public. Hughes told The Interim there might be opportunities for pro-lifers to become involved a more open Liberal Party, “if they are honest about their intentions to welcome all Canadians.” In 2014, then the leader of the third place party, Trudeau announced that no Liberal MPs or candidates for MP would be allowed to express pro-life views or vote pro-life.
The year of the 2013 Calgary convention has been corrected. The story previously reported that it was in 2014. We regret the error.