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Politics Conservatives take steps to end official opposition to gay marriage

Delegates at the at Conservative Party of Canada convention in Vancouver hold up vote cards as they vote to change the current wording of the party’s same-sex marriage policy.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Rank-and-file Conservative Party delegates are wrestling over potentially fundamental changes to their policies in the wake of Stephen Harper's departure, including a move at their Vancouver convention to finally, and officially, embrace gay marriage.

Canada legalized same-sex marriage more than 11 years ago under Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, but the federal Conservative Party has so far refused to accept this. Tory policy still defines marriage "as the union of one man and one woman."

On Friday, however, it appeared as though the post-Harper Tories may be preparing to change that position as they seek to reboot the political machine and chart a path back to power.

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Delegates voted 279-143 to strike the traditional definition of marriage from party policy. The issue will go to the full convention floor on Saturday for all 2,300 delegates to decide.

A rift was evident on Friday as delegates, including Members of Parliament, fought over the gay marriage amendment, resolution No. 422.

Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost warned the move could alienate socially conservative supporters. He said the change would "fly like a lead brick" in some parts of Canada.

"It still matters to some people, and those are our constituents, so why would we make that political mistake?" he said. He added that he has voted in favour of the traditional definition of marriage twice in the Commons and does not believe in abandoning his position. "I got in politics because I believe that certain things are good and right for Canada, and I'm not here to change that just because it's a new year."

When the same concern was raised in the packed convention room where delegates were voting on Friday – that embracing gay marriage could drive away voters – one heckler yelled out: "Where would they go?"

Quebec MP Steven Blaney said he is happy to see the Conservatives end their restrictive definition of marriage. "We're enlarging our Conservative tent," he said.

Asked why it is taking so long, Mr. Blaney said it is "because we're evolving." He noted that, in 2007, he voted in the Commons for the traditional definition of marriage. "I felt at that time it was reflective of the view of the people in my riding."

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Greater Toronto-area MP Lisa Raitt, a potential leadership contender, said it is time for the Conservatives to move on.

"Even my 75-year-old aunt in Cape Breton tells me, 'Lisa, we don't care about that stuff any more,'" she said. "Nobody does. We're reflecting what our constituents want."

Chad Rogers, a Conservative volunteer from Toronto, described the tussle over the gay marriage resolution "as more of an effort to clean up old language than a debate."

"As a proud, openly gay Conservative, I have always felt at home in the party and been treated with respect," he said. "I think the debate has been healthy – no one is scared to talk about issues like this any more."

Conservative delegates also voted in favour of a change to party policy that would embrace decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, but it did not get enough support to move forward to Saturday's plenary session.

Top Conservative fundraiser Irving Gerstein told delegates the party is debt free and had surpassed the Liberals in fundraising in the first quarter of 2016, taking in $5.7-million.

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Tories also voted down a proposal that would have changed Conservative Party policy to embrace doctor-assisted suicide.

A protracted battle over the direction and leadership of the party lies ahead with a leadership vote scheduled for May, 2017.

The Conservatives decided on Friday that interim leader Rona Ambrose will not be among those allowed to compete for the permanent post. Delegates overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to rewrite party rules to allow her to run.

She had not publicly endorsed a campaign by several MPs to put her on the ballot, but Parliamentarians such as Jason Kenney had said they would support her candidacy.

The list of declared candidates is still short. Potential contenders with big name recognition and clout, such as former justice minister and co-founder of the Conservative Party Peter MacKay, and Mr. Kenney, the former defence minister, remain undecided as Tories mull over their chances in the next federal election.

The convention wraps up Saturday.

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