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Natalie Pon is a CPA and political activist based in Edmonton.

Once again, the future of the Conservative Party of Canada is in the hands of its membership. And once again, I find myself needing to make a desperate plea to my fellow party members.

As was the case in the leadership race in 2017, the party faces an existential debate about its post-Stephen Harper identity. Andrew Scheer tried to forge one, but he failed to win an election that was his to lose.

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And as was the case in 2017, the Tories will vote in a leadership contest in which some of the more bigoted tenets of social conservatism are part of the discourse.

I have been involved in partisan conservative politics off and on since 2013. In 2016, I successfully advocated to remove the traditional definition of marriage (between one man and one woman) from our policy declaration. I did not think I would have to debate the topic in 2016; I did not think it would be an issue in 2020.

I believe individuals like Richard Décarie, who declared his candidacy for the leadership and stated that being gay is a choice, represent a very small minority within the party; I am relieved that party HQ ultimately barred him from running when the window for applications closed last week. However, I’m left to wonder why people like him feel at home in my party.

And it’s forced me again to wonder whether, despite the constant platitudes around renewal, energizing young voters and incorporating more colour into the face of conservatism in Canada, the party might be more concerned about maintaining its aging base than losing a conservative, university-educated millennial professional and visible minority like me.

To enact real change, we need a leader with a clear vision for this country and for the future of conservatism. I consider myself a small-c conservative in ideology, but I often struggle to explain to my peers why I am a big-C Conservative when the Tories project themselves as little more than the party of boutique tax credits and blanket opposition to the carbon tax.

We need a leader who is focused on building strong communities and families, but doesn’t care what your family looks like. In our future leader, we should expect so much more than a declaration of support for same-sex marriage or empty chest-thumping about how blue you are. Let’s define what conservatism is for, and not let it become what we are against.

Still, our next leader must encourage a diversity of viewpoints within the party and a healthy respect for those who you do not agree with. This does not collide with my relief at Mr. Decarie being prevented from running; believing that being gay is a choice indicates a desire to roll back the hard-earned rights of others while believing that, say, a consumption tax may be a valid policy solution is a fact-supported idea that’s worth considering in the pursuit of fresh thinking.

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That wasn’t my experience. When I worked to change the Tories’ policy declaration regarding the definition of marriage, it was out of a belief that conservatism does not mean things must stay the same forever; rather, it’s about looking to conserve what is good while working to continually make things better. But my efforts were met with intense criticism from fellow party members, simply because I dared to have a different opinion from traditionally held policy views.

Party members shouldn’t have to endure the same level of verbal abuse I did. We need a leader who will not tolerate attempts to bully our members – not by those on the left, and certainly not by our own.

To that point, the next Conservative leader needs to speak out against Quebec’s Bill 21, which bars some public servants from wearing religious symbols and clothing, and advocate for us regardless of race, religion or creed. Real leaders don’t stand idle while others have their rights threatened. Canadians deserve a leader who will defend all of us, without weighing the risk of alienating certain voters.

And we need a leader who will not let party members be tolerant of bigotry and racism – pure and simple. Such people will always exist in Canada, and they will loudly espouse their views. But silence on these issues in the name of free speech is no longer acceptable. For me, and many like me, this is non-negotiable. It will be either me, or them.

So, my fellow party members: What will it be? Will we elect a leader who will grow the party base by fighting to keep disillusioned young conservatives like me? The alternative – a party content to drift down the same, identity-less path as it has for the past three years – is too dispiriting to consider.

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