OTTAWA — Black Conservatives energized by the rising star of Leslyn Lewis hope to use her unexpectedly robust leadership bid to bolster Black representation in the party's ranks.
The relaunch of one formal group of Black Conservatives and the ramped-up efforts of another come as the Conservative Party of Canada faces pressure to more firmly denounce those within its ranks who display, or even appear to display, extreme right-wing positions similar to those on full and deadly view during the riots in Washington, D.C.
Party leader Erin O'Toole's promise to get more "Canadians to see a Conservative when they look in the mirror" requires acknowledging the party falters when talking about race, said Akolisa Ufodike, the national chair of the Association of Black Conservatives, a group that formed last year.
"High level, he's saying that we need to be seen as a more inclusive party so how does he get there without confronting the issue?" he said.
Ufodike said one reason his group formed is to highlight what he sees as a long and proud history of inclusivity by the movement, which he said is a message some within the Black community might be more open to hearing when it comes from Black Conservatives themselves.
The group ignited a firestorm during the leadership race last year, when Lewis was making history by becoming the first Black woman to run for leadership of the party.
Despite entering as a relative unknown, she saw her campaign steadily increase in support thanks in no small part to the throngs of social conservatives attracted to her positions on topics they hold dear.
But her candidacy also suggested to many the party wasn't entirely the bastion of what former prime minister Stephen Harper once infamously referred to as "old stock Canadians."
The association, however, endorsed O'Toole instead of Lewis. That led to Lewis publicly slamming the group, a heated conversation between her campaign and O'Toole's campaign and a decision by his team to decline the endorsement.
Ufodike said to have endorsed Lewis solely because she was Black would be reducing the issue to identity politics.
"We look more at how their policies, their readiness and ability to lead can best serve Canadians, including marginalized communities such as the Black community," he said.
Lewis ultimately finished third in the race, though in certain regions of the country she had more support at one point than either O'Toole or party stalwart Peter MacKay.
Among her efforts to remain in political life, which includes running in the next election in a safe Ontario seat, was work to revive a group she helped form in 2009: the Conservative Black Congress.
Its chair, Tunde Obasan, denied the group was set up solely in response to leadership race politics.
"Our main focus is to support candidates, even if they are not front-runners," he said.
" … The more we do that, and the more we get candidates who are from the Black community, the more people who are not currently fine with the party, the more they begin to see the party as for everyone."
At its formal relaunch Jan. 24, the group plans to unveil a parliamentary internship program named after retired senator Donald Oliver, the first Black Canadian man appointed to the Senate.
The Association of Black Conservatives, meanwhile, has been busy setting up provincial chapters to also support community and civic participation at the local levels.
It is not uncommon, both groups said, to find themselves forced to answer for the Conservatives' past perceived sins and its more contemporary ones.
Among them, the "barbaric cultural practices" tip line the Harper Conservatives proposed in the 2015 election campaign, O'Toole's refusal to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism during the leadership race, and those who leap at any chance to infer the same vein of intolerance running through the U.S. Republicans also runs through Canadian conservatives.
Recently, O'Toole's office engaged with right-wing organization Rebel Media, sending answers via email in O'Toole's name. Many Conservatives cut ties with the organization several years ago after inflammatory and derogatory comments by its staff.
Among its more recent reporting has been the repetition of the discredited claims the U.S. election was stolen from the Republicans, claims that led to the deadly riots in D.C.
O'Toole's office said this week he won't speak to Rebel Media in the future.
The strength of the party's right wing is likely to become evident at the upcoming March policy convention. Conservative MP Derek Sloan, who finished the leadership race in fourth place, was actively encouraging his own social conservative supporters to turn out in large force to have a role in the debate.
For now, neither Black organization has committed to getting formally involved at the convention, despite it being a potential avenue to influence policy decisions or the nuts and bolts of the party's operations.
Both groups said they are looking for direct and clear leadership from O'Toole on putting his promise of making the party more inclusive into practice.
"What I would like to see him do is to be deliberate about it, on how to support more participation from the racialized community, not only in the Black community, from the entire racialized community," said Obasan.
"That will go a long way."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press