OTTAWA – As Conservative leader Stephen Harper prepped for the federal leaders debates during last fall’s election, someone needed to be chosen to play the role of his chief opponent, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Conservatives were keenly aware the debates might be the best chance for Harper to show up a man the Conservatives dismissed as a young pup incapable of leading the country.
But they also didn’t want their leader, 57, to come off as an old dog — a tension that still ripples through the party as they head into their first post-election convention and attempt to rebuild public support.
To give Harper a chance to practice debating with someone many years his junior, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre took a turn playing Trudeau’s part.
Poilievre was only 25 when first elected in 2004, one of many Conservatives who took a seat in the House of Commons while still in their twenties and who are still in those seats today. There are currently 18 Conservative MPs younger than the current prime minister, who is 44.
So it’s frustrating to many young Conservatives that people think about Trudeau first when it comes to who can appeal to young voters, said Justin Burton, who first joined the Conservatives when he was 18.
“When we were in power we had a ton of candidates and a ton of MPs that were young Canadians,” Burton said.
“And we never talked about it, ever. We never advertised it,” he said.
Now 30, Burton has started a think tank called Future Leaders of the CPC to connect young Tories to the current MPs. Up until a year before the fall election, he would rarely get his calls to MPs returned.
Then came a deluge as the party realized the youth vote was going to be a key component of the campaign as the Tories prepared to battle the Liberals.
The party needs to start reaching young voters far sooner, Burton said, including people who might not be eligible to vote today but will be in 2019. To do so requires a mix of a far more savvy communications strategy, a strong leader and a refresh of party policy, he said.
But if that’s what young people want, they need to take responsibility too, said Natalie Pon, 24, who sits on the executive of the Edmonton West riding association.
Pon said she got involved in her electoral district association on her own and has received nothing but support from the start, not just from her local MP but also party officials.
“I forced myself to speak out, I earned that response and I earned my spot at the big kids’ table,” she said.
She is one of the co-sponsors of what could be one of the hottest debates at this weekend’s Conservative party convention — the issue of deleting references in existing party policy that oppose same sex marriage.
She brought it forward because she wanted a contemporary policy that reflected the actual laws of Canada, she said.
Two pieces of legislation currently in the works from the Liberal government have their roots in policies brought forward by young Liberals at their convention — assisted suicide and the decriminalization of marijuana.
The Liberals, however, have an official youth wing of the party that has long had an activist role. No such body exists within the Conservatives though there are proposals at the convention to change that.
There is already a network of Conservative youth clubs across the country, including one at McGill university.
There, members organized an online fundraising campaign to send as many people as they could to this weekend’s convention.
The fact that money has been pledged from Conservative MPs — including at least two people thinking about running for leader — is a sign the party recognizes youth need to be part of the party’s rebuilding process, said Adam Wilson, 20, the president of the Conservative Association of McGill University.
Young voters have been written off in the past because of the perception they don’t engage; but turnout in 2015 was higher than ever, he pointed out.
A preliminary survey from Statistics Canada said in 2015 voter turnout for those between the ages of 18 to 24 increased to 67 per cent from 55 per cent in the 2011 vote.
“(The party) needs to make it clear they are welcoming to youth,” Wilson said.
“Everyone always thinks the Conservatives are the old white male party of the right, but in reality that’s not true.”