‘Everyone has exhaled’: Candice Bergen brings steady hand to Conservative caucus
Published February 3, 2022 at 4:52 pm
OTTAWA — The new interim leader of Canada’s Conservatives hails from a small Mennonite community and is no stranger to leadership.
Candice Bergen was picked Wednesday evening to take over from Erin O’Toole, who was ousted by his own MPs following weeks of anger and disappointment about his leadership since last year’s election loss.
Bergen, born in the southern Manitoba community of Morden, has been on Parliament Hill since 2008 when she was elected to represent Portage-Lisgar, a staunchly Conservative rural riding outside of Winnipeg that borders with the United States boundary.
Back then, Bergen went by the last name Hoeppner, but while in office announced she would be going by Bergen, which was the name she was given at birth.
“If you hear on the Hill that Candice Bergen is here, it’s not Murphy Brown,” she told the House of Commons in 2012, referring to the Hollywood actress who played the iconic ’90s sitcom character.
“It will be me.”
Bergen assumes the party’s top job after a tumultuous few weeks that culminated with 60 per cent of Conservative MPs forcing out their leader in hopes that would bring a fresh start and greater unity.
As it enters a period of transition and prepares to embark on the intense process of picking a new permanent leader — for the third time in five years — the last woman who did the job and a former colleague said Bergen brings what it needs right now: “Calm.”
“Just a calmness. I think everyone has exhaled,” Rona Ambrose said in an interview Thursday.
Ambrose and Bergen worked alongside each other in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government. Ambrose stressed that the new interim leader has the experience and the steady hand needed to stabilize the party.
As an MP, Bergen gained prominence in 2009 for fighting to end the long-gun registry with a private member’s bill. That bill died, but after Harper won a majority government in 2011, Bergen assisted in dismantling the registry.
Harper first appointed her to be the parliamentary secretary to the former public safety minister, before picking her to serve as his minister of state for social development.
When Harper lost the 2015 election to the Liberals and he stepped down, both Ambrose and Bergen put their names forward to become interim leader. Ambrose won and in assembling her leadership team selected Bergen to be her House leader.
“She was shocked when I asked her,” Ambrose said, adding that Bergen was among Conservative women who had served in Harper’s cabinet, but never in high-profile roles.
Working as House leader meant Bergen not only had to work closely with the leader, but House leaders and whips of different political stripes for negotiations on different pieces of legislation and priorities within Parliament.
“They knew that when she gave them her word, it meant something,” Ambrose said.
“She was the best House leader that I’d ever worked with, and she rose to the occasion to become a very strong leader in her own right in caucus.”
As interim leader, Bergen will get perks like being able to move into Stornoway, which is the official residence of the Opposition leader and a pay bump.
Conservative MPs look to Bergen for guidance, said Ambrose, which is why she said O’Toole picked her to serve as his deputy once he took over the party in 2020 from former leader Andrew Scheer, who Bergen also worked with as the party’s House leader.
The No. 1 issue for a caucus, especially one with more than 100 MPs with various passions and personalities, is trust, said Ambrose, which is what they have in Bergen.
“She is a someone with a lot of character that I have a lot of time for and a lot of integrity.”
Bergen’s time in Parliament has not been without its own controversies.
After supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, critics demanded answers from Bergen who was seen wearing in an undated photo wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Bergen at the time condemned the mob’s actions.
More recently, Bergen has been a forceful defender of an anti-vaccine mandate protest that has parked itself on Parliament Hill in the middle of downtown Ottawa and doesn’t appear to be budging.
Protesters have caused complete gridlock in the city’s centre and headaches for surrounding residents and businesses with constant honking from semi-trucks and reports of individuals flouting public health rules.
Local officials are urging the protesters to leave. There has also been sharp rebuke of the convoy for some involved wielding Nazi symbols including swastikas.
Under party rules, the interim leader cannot enter the race to become the Conservatives’ permanent leader.
Ambrose said in the last leadership race she and others tried convincing Bergen to take a stab at the top job, which would have meant the Manitoba MP having to improve her French, but she didn’t want the position.
“The last time she was at my house for coffee, which wasn’t that long ago when she came to Calgary, I tried again to convince her and she then turned to me and said, ‘How dare you ask me that question, when I’m going to be asking you the same in five minutes?'” recalled Ambrose.
“We go back and forth giving each other a hard time about why each of us doesn’t want to do it.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Pressinsauga's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising