“That is Batshit Crazy”

Former B.C. premier Christy Clark calls out Danielle Smith's support of the Alberta Sovereignty Act

Former British Columbia premier Christy Clark’s speech is over. She’s taking the final few questions from the audience.

Then, the question comes. Without naming names, an audience member asks Clark what she thinks of an Alberta UCP leadership candidate who supports the implementation of the Alberta Sovereignty Act, a bill that would give the province the authority to shirk federal mandates and laws.

Everybody knows who the questioner is talking about. Clark knows. The audience at the Centre Ice Conservatives’ Edmonton conference all know. It’s Danielle Smith, who has been campaigning strongly on the notion that Alberta needs to enact its own legal protection from Ottawa.

“I think that is batshit crazy,” said Clark, to applause from the audience.

Clark was the keynote speaker at the Centre Ice Conservatives’ event, held Thursday in downtown Edmonton. Her repudiation of Smith’s populism is maybe the best description about what this conference was about — a gathering of so-called centrists and small-c Conservatives who are looking for alternatives as both provincial and federal Conservative parties move to the right and the Liberals move to the left. There were panel discussions on everything from inclusion to national defence to natural-resource extraction. Real Talk host Ryan Jespersen, the Edmonton Journal‘s David Staples and The Globe and Mail‘s Andrew Coyne all appeared on panels. And, while the discussions were conservative in nature, from more equitable tax systems to stronger national defence, many of the speakers spoke of the need for the majority of Conservatives to shrug off the far-right extremists and populists that have become the hallmark of their movement.

No one running for the UCP leadership was present for this gathering of “centrist” Conservatives, but it should be noted that seven candidates appeared at a June debate held by the Free Alberta Strategy, a group that promotes provincial sovereignty.

The Centre Ice Conservatives are a four-month old group that claims they are looking to bring nuanced conversation back into the political realm.

“We are not a very united country. I can’t remember a time in my life when Canada seemed less united than it does now,” said Clark. “It’s time for people across the country to recognize how hard it is to keep this country together.”

Clark, who is supporting Jean Charest’s bid to become federal Tory leader, said Canadians need leaders who tell us what we have in common, not hammer away at what divides us. We need to put the brakes on a political culture that drills down, riding by riding, where pockets of support might be for a certain party. She said leaders need to get back to the idea of building broad-based support around the country.

“We’re trying to have deeper conversations that don’t lend themselves well to the environment of a political campaign or political messaging,” said Azim Jiwani, the executive director of the Centre Ice Conservatives. “We’re creating an environment where people are coming together and we’re talking about the common-sense problems that maybe aren’t as exciting, but are really, really important.”

That means going deeper than social media will allow. It means agreeing to disagree. It means not thinking of a person as a sum of his or her opinions, which has become almost impossible in these soundbite-driven times.

“I can only speak for myself, but I’d say that in Conservatism, what tends to generate the headlines is the sharper rhetoric, the more populist rhetoric,” said Jiwani. “And if you’re a small-c Conservative who is more interested in the policy issues and the substance and moderation, it can definitely be hard to find a place for your voice… It doesn’t mean we’re not welcoming to people of all stripes. We absolutely are. We’re not partisan. It’s more about creating a space for serious conversations that we think are sometimes missing.”