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Police officers patrol on foot along Albert Street as a protest against COVID-19 restrictions continue in Ottawa on Feb. 10.Justin Tang/The Associated Press

Preston Manning, founder of a populist precursor to the Conservative Party of Canada, says the sentiments behind this winter’s convoy protest in Ottawa can be an “enormous source of political energy,” if harnessed properly.

The former Reform Party leader was in the capital attending a three-day conference with other party stalwarts, MPs and grassroots members, hosted by a conservative advocacy organization founded by Manning himself.

The Canada Strong and Free Network event took place in the middle of a Conservative leadership race and months after police forcibly removed protesters decrying COVID-19 health measures and the Liberal government following a weeks-long occupation of the city.

Five out of the six leadership hopefuls repeatedly pressed one another in the first unofficial debate Thursday over how much support they did – or did not – show protesters. Patrick Brown, mayor of Brampton, Ont., did not participate.

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Fighting vaccine and mask mandates has become a popular rallying cry for the party, including among leadership contenders Pierre Poilievre and Leslyn Lewis, who are relying on supporters’ opposition to COVID-19 measures to sell memberships and raise money.

Some have described the race as a choice for members between embracing the type of right-wing populism that coursed through the convoy, or trying to populate more of the political centre to defeat the three-term Liberal government.

Of the convoy, Manning told reporters, “I think it’s a genuine expression of this populist sentiment that can be an enormous source of political energy if it’s properly managed and directed.”

He added: “That’s the challenge with populist movements.”

Manning referenced his former Reform Party as an example. Born out of frustrations that had been boiling in Western Canada, the party tried channelling that energy into constructive policies, like balancing the budget and Senate reform instead of saying, “Let’s blow up the country,” he said.

“You have to connect with what’s the root cause.”

The Reform Party later became the Canadian Alliance, which eventually merged with the federal Progressive Conservative Party to birth the current Conservative Party.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and former Ontario premier Mike Harris were among those in attendance at the conference Friday.

Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen, who tested positive for COVID-19 this week, delivered a video speech earlier in the day and also discussed the convoy. She said it was one of the challenges the party’s caucus had to navigate since the majority of its MPs voted to dump former leader Erin O’Toole in early February, not long after protesters rolled in.

Throughout her speech, Bergen hammered home the importance of the party being proud of – and sticking to – its conservative values.

She said an example occurred when Conservatives decided to reject Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s use of the never-before-used federal Emergencies Act during the convoy demonstration. The protest in the capital ended after hundreds of police officers moved in to disperse the crowds, making dozens of arrests.

“We knew it could be tricky, given the impatience that people had with the protests, especially here in Ottawa. But we made a decision to follow our values,” Bergen said.

She also told Friday’s crowd that Trudeau has moved the Liberals further to the political left, leaving some older supporters looking for another option.

Their party can be a new home, but Bergen warned Conservatives they will not attract disaffected Liberals into the fold by being a “Liberal-lite” version of their main rivals.

“We don’t give them a home in our party by becoming Liberal-lite,” she said. “We welcome them to our Conservative home by being consistently Conservative.”

Her path to her current role was paved, in part, with concerns Conservative MPs and party members had with O’Toole’s efforts to grow support for the party. He moderated some of its policies and brand – an approach critics slammed as trying to be “Liberal-lite.”

The interim leader also encouraged leadership hopefuls to heed the advice provided in a letter to all campaigns by Manning for candidates to avoid personal attacks.

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