This weekend's Conservative convention needed to do more than debate policy. Party supporters needed to believe again.
"We needed to have a party," said Sabrina Zuniga, who had run in the last federal election in the downtown Toronto riding of Spadina-Fort York, "to celebrate, to talk and vent and re-energize."
And they appear to have succeeded. Despite their disappointment over losing the last election, Conservatives left Vancouver united and reasonably certain of the party's direction: committed to small government and individual freedom, but less encumbered than before by the baggage of social conservatism.
Even former cabinet minister and possible leadership candidate Jason Kenney – seen as a standard-bearer for the social-conservative movement within the party – supported a resolution to drop opposition to same-sex marriage from the platform, calling the decision a "no-brainer."
Justin Trudeau ridiculed the Conservatives for finally accepting a reality that has been in place for more than a decade.
"Better late than never," the Prime Minister told delegates at the competing Liberal convention in Winnipeg. "And it gives one hope. Perhaps 10 years from now, they might finally be willing to admit that climate change is real."
But Conservatives are conservative. They embrace respect for family, tradition and a cautious approach to social engineering. For the base of the party – the people who pay their own money and take their own time to travel thousands of kilometres, in some cases, to debate policy and renew ties – accepting same-sex marriage came gradually. One encouraging sign for Conservatives was the large number of young delegates at this convention, which in previous gatherings had seemed older and greyer.
Delegates also voted to support the effective decriminalization – though not legalization – of marijuana. Yet lest anyone believe the Tories were entirely abandoning their social-conservative roots, the party also went on record condemning gender-selection abortions – any reference to abortion, whatever the context, was seen as catering to pro-lifers – and strengthening the rights of gun owners.
But it could hardly have been coincidence that the delegates moved on pot and gay marriage after Stephen Harper stepped down as leader. Though Mr. Harper made no effort as prime minister to reopen the marriage issue, neither did he support updating party policy. And his Conservative government steadfastly opposed decriminalizing marijuana possession.
The party's send-off for its founding leader on Thursday night was genuinely warm. Mr. Harper united the conservative movement, defined the party's principles and served longer as prime minister than any Conservative since John A. Macdonald. Still, after the tribute and Mr. Harper's typically bland speech, his name was almost never mentioned, in front of a microphone or away from it. The party has moved on.
As for the leadership race that is sort of, kind of under way, the popularity of Mr. Kenney's hospitality suite on Friday night suggested he has a large base of support. Former cabinet minister and Progressive Conservative party leader Peter MacKay – the other marquee name contemplating a bid – kept a much lower profile.
Michelle Rempel, a longer-shot potential candidate, was all over the convention, speaking to numerous resolutions and helping to lead the charge to drop opposition to same-sex marriage.
"Our party has always been the party of rights and equality for all Canadians," she said after the vote. "Today I have never been more proud of our party."
In case anyone was wondering whether interim leader Rona Ambrose's able performance in recent months might serve as a springboard for a leadership bid, delegates vetoed a proposal to change party rules that would have made her eligible to run.
But the leadership convention is a year away. Last weekend, the goal was to "reaffirm the unity and show that we still have momentum as a party," said Andre Hannoush, a Quebec delegate. And "to be the voice of the common person. We lost that over the last years of government."
This weekend's convention, then, may be remembered as the time the Conservative Party got its voice back.