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This article was published 6/11/2015 (1501 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa Conservative MP Robert Sopuck was "delighted" to see Rona Ambrose step into Stephen Harper’s leadership shoes Thursday — albeit on an interim basis — as the Tories gathered for the first time since last month’s election demoted them to the official Opposition.
Sopuck has worked with Ambrose on a number of files and believes the 46-year-old Alberta MP has all of the requisite characteristics to be a strong leader.
"She’s a very experienced parliamentarian and MP," Sopuck said.
Ambrose beat out eight candidates vying for the Tories’ top job, which comes with an $80,100 salary, a car and driver and the residence of the official leader of the Opposition — Stornoway.
Sopuck didn’t divulge if Ambrose was on top of his preferential ballot, which was part of a secret vote from 99 elected MPs and 47 Conservative senators.
Sopuck stood over Ambrose’s right shoulder as she addressed the media for the first time after being named interim leader. While he wouldn’t speculate on who would be tapped to critique key portfolios, he did say he hopes that his experience in biology, ecology and environmental conservation is put to use.
Sopuck said the tone of the meeting was upbeat and optimistic, although it was difficult to hear fallen MPs reflect on their time in parliament.
Ambrose, who served as health minister in the last Parliament, campaigned on a promise to bring a respectful and civil tone to debate in the House of Commons.
"I’m excited that we are going to be moving forward with a strong opposition with confidence and optimism," she said, flanked by fellow Conservative caucus members chanting her name in support.
"I am extremely proud to be the new leader of the Opposition."
Ambrose defeated another Alberta MP, Mike Lake; Manitoba’s Candice Bergen; and Diane Finley, Rob Nicholson and Erin O’Toole from Ontario. Calgary MP Michelle Rempel and Quebec’s Denis Lebel ran on a joint ticket.
None spoke to the media after the meeting and while Ambrose was lauded by caucus colleagues for her communication skills, she only took a handful of questions.
One personal challenge she faces is her ability to speak French — while she does speak some, she is not fluent. On Thursday, she deferred to caucus colleague Steven Blaney, although she did attempt to answer one question in French.
But the major political task ahead of Ambrose will be to rebuild the party heading into the eventual formal leadership race, likely still a long way off.
Ambrose said she’s confident the party can enter a new era with a new tone and a new attitude, with sights set on the next election in 2019.
"My colleagues chose me and they put their trust in me," she said. "We feel very optimistic about our chances in the next election."
Brandon-Souris Conservative MP Larry Maguire said Ambrose is a "fresh voice" for the party.
Maguire publicly supported O’Toole in the lead-up to the vote.
"Rona will make a great leader," he said, adding that the party is focused and united.
Maguire said he’s keen to get back to working for the riding, albeit in a different capacity.
"From my perspective, agriculture, trade and any of the infrastructure committees are important for us in Brandon and southwest Manitoba and those are areas that I look to be involved in," he said.
The Conservatives saw their support collapse in last month’s election, losing every seat they held in Atlantic Canada, a lone outpost in the north, dozens of ridings in Ontario and even a few in their stronghold of Alberta.
A number of promises were made prior to the writ drop, including the replacement of the Daly Overpass in Brandon. Maguire fully expects the project to move forward despite a new government.
"I don’t think it’s up for review," Maguire said. "It was on the books and it’s to be started as soon as the First Street bridge is finished and I’m fully expecting it to go forward."
Harper addressed the caucus at the start of the meeting Thursday, speaking for about 10 minutes and expressing regret at the party’s loss but also talking hopefully about its future. He then left for the remainder of the discussion.
The mood in the room was civil and positive throughout, several current and former MPs said, with Harper receiving several standing ovations.
"Everybody credits Stephen Harper with having given our country tremendous leadership through difficult times in the past decade and people are very proud to have served with him and to have campaigned with him," said Peter Van Loan, the former government House leader.
"And I think he is going to go down in Canadian political history as one of our best prime ministers ever."
Harper, who will continue to serve as an MP for the riding of Calgary Heritage, was set to return to his hometown of Calgary, Alta., on Thursday night and is expected to largely take a back seat in his caucus going forward.
» firstname.lastname@example.org, with files from The Canadian Press
» Twitter: @CharlesTweed