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After Pierre Poilievre’s surrogates attacked potential leadership candidate Jean Charest as a “Liberal,” a senior Quebec Conservative is accusing them of sending an exclusionary message that will shrink the party.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Who doesn’t count as a real Conservative? That’s already a divisive question in the Conservative Party leadership race.

After Pierre Poilievre’s surrogates attacked potential leadership candidate Jean Charest as a “Liberal,” a senior Quebec Conservative is accusing them of sending an exclusionary message that will shrink the party.

Richmond-Arthabaska MP Alain Rayes argues Mr. Poilievre’s team is trying to prevent a debate on Conservative ideas by casting out members of the Conservative “family.”

He warns that will send a message to many small-c conservative Canadians – especially in Ontario, Atlantic Canada and Quebec – that the Conservative Party is not for them.

“We see that some people, who are closer to the Pierre Poilievre wing, are trying to determine who is a Conservative – to define it themselves by excluding certain individuals from our family,” Mr. Rayes said in a telephone interview.

“At the very moment when we have to unify the Conservative family in this country, they’re using divisive rhetoric.”

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It is certainly an early point of conflict in the leadership campaign. Mr. Poilievre is the apparent front-runner, and he is running as a champion of the party’s right. Mr. Charest, the former Quebec premier, has yet to officially announce his bid for the leadership, but he has faced a barrage of accusations that he’s not really a Conservative.

There are whispers that that dividing line could get drawn in bold. Montreal’s La Presse published an article, citing anonymous sources who said former prime minister Stephen Harper would oppose a bid by Mr. Charest because he is not a real Conservative. It’s all leading to some testy arguments.

Mr. Rayes pointed to tweets by Mr. Poilievre’s leadership campaign strategist, Jenni Byrne, and his campaign co-chair, Leo Housakos, that insisted Mr. Charest is a Liberal, not a Conservative. Mr. Rayes responded to Ms. Byrne with a testy and insulting tweet of his own.

Several of Mr. Poilievre’s other prominent supporters, such as Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs, have also taken up the charge that Mr. Charest is a Liberal. Last week she tweeted a meme of Mr. Charest and Justin Trudeau smiling at each other. “Our leader must share our values and respect our policies,” she wrote in the tweet.

That’s not an exactly new strategy for politicians trying to win over the Conservative base. Erin O’Toole’s successful 2020 leadership campaign relied heavily on memes that attacked rival Peter MacKay as a near-Liberal.

And it should be no surprise that the Conservative rank-and-file want the choose a leader who can advance conservative ideas.

Yet Mr. Rayes, who was the Conservatives’ Quebec lieutenant and chief organizer in the province when Andrew Scheer was leader, argued that in this race false claims that Mr. Charest is not a Conservative are being used to try to shut down debate on the future of the party before it can take place.

He said the idea that Mr. Charest, a former leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, is not a Conservative because he also once led the Quebec Liberal Party is a message that is damaging to Conservatives in the province. A lot of active Quebec Conservatives supported the Quebec Liberal Party.

Mr. Rayes also noted that Mr. Harper’s erstwhile foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, had previously been a Quebec Liberal Party cabinet minister. “Does that mean Lawrence Cannon was not a real Conservative? Am I not a real Conservative because I support Jean Charest?” he said.

Mr. Rayes argued that Conservatives are sending exclusionary messages when it should be trying to attract the many small-c conservatives who have drifted away from the Conservative Party or don’t see themselves in it.

“Not only in Quebec, but in Ontario and the Maritimes. The party has to understand that we can have certain differences on certain elements, but if we want to govern, we can’t exclude Quebec, and we have to make gains in Ontario and the Maritimes,” Mr. Rayes said. “And we haven’t succeeded for two elections. Three, even.”

That’s an argument for the party members to settle, of course. But the question of who is Conservative enough to get in the race is sparking clashes even before it begins.

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