MONTREAL — Andrew Scheer’s Quebec lieutenant acknowledged Monday that he has publicly misrepresented the Conservative leader’s policy on abortion.
Alain Rayes, the MP for Richmond–Arthabaska tasked with recruitment, has been informing candidates and telling the media that the abortion issue is dead and that MPs will be prevented from reopening it — information that Scheer’s office suggested was news to them and a policy that caught social conservative groups working to elect Conservative “pro-life” candidates by surprise.
With Rayes at her side, freshly minted Tory candidate and Olympic medallist Sylvie Fréchette told the Montreal radio program, ”Tout un matin”, Monday that it was “false” that Conservative backbench MPs would be able to reopen the abortion issue. “That’s totally false,” the Rivière-du-Nord contender said.
Watch: Pence, Trudeau talk abortion during Ottawa meeting. Story continues after video.
Jessica Ébacher, the Tory hopeful in the riding of Drummond, told reporter Catherine Lévesque in July that before throwing her hat in the ring, she sought assurances that the abortion debate would not be reopened under Scheer’s leadership.
“Having had assurances that the debate was over, that reassured me,” she said.
Isabelle Lapointe, candidate in La Prairie, said she was also convinced the door to that debate was sealed and would never be reopened. “There is no doubt. If I had one, I am telling you, I would not have run,” she told Lévesque this summer.
Public opinion surveys suggest Quebecers are more supportive of abortion rights than are residents of other parts of Canada. A poll by Léger last year suggested that 86 per cent of Quebecers believe abortion should be legal everywhere in the world. The Canadian average was 71 per cent.
NDP spokesman Alexis Richard said Tory MPs in the province are leading voters to think the Conservatives won’t reopen the abortion debate, suggesting that two different narratives are taking place in the country.
Brock Harrison, Scheer’s director of communications, denied the party is saying one thing in French and another thing in English.
“[Rayes] said it based on something he misheard,” Harrison told HuffPost.
Rayes told Le Journal de Montréal in an interview published over the weekend that “Andrew Scheer has confirmed that he will not allow even one of his MPs to present an anti-abortion bill.”
Late Monday afternoon, he told HuffPost that he was “sorry for any confusion.”
“If I had a different interpretation of what he [Scheer] said, it’s my error and the words of the leader prevail,” he wrote in an email.
Scheer, who became the Conservative leader in 2017 in part by courting the support of anti-abortion activists, has never said he would prohibit or attempt to prevent his MPs from introducing anti-abortion legislation. He has said the opposite.
He has promised free votes to all Conservative MPs on matters of conscience and said backbenchers would be free to introduce the bills they want but that he would encourage them to focus on subjects that unite rather than divide them.
Scheer promised Tories free votes on matters of conscience
“I’ve never been afraid of having conversations and debates, and each individual MP has rights as members to bring forward legislation and to make statements to bring up topics that they care deeply about, either on behalf of themselves or their constituents,” Scheer said back in 2016.
Since the leadership campaign, however, Scheer has often tiptoed around the abortion issue, mostly falling back on the statement, as Harrison repeated again Monday, that “a Conservative government would not reopen this issue.”
Alissa Golob, the co-founder of the anti-abortion group RightNow, believes, as many other Conservatives do and as Scheer himself seemed to outline, that this pledge means only that his cabinet would not reopen the issue. Her group is actively working to nominate and elect anti-abortion candidates who can introduce legislation that would allow for some abortion restrictions.
“I think there would be an outcry from a lot of Conservative MPs, even those who maybe aren’t fully pro-life, who would not agree with that decision made by the leader,” she told HuffPost, of a scenario where Tory MPs’ freedom of speech was restricted.
“The MP is mistaken... we just have to take Scheer at his word,” she said. “I’m not concerned at all.”
From 2017: Founder of RightNow says it’s time federal politicians listen to critics of abortion. Story continues after video.
Scheer is a devout Roman Catholic with an unblemished record of supporting anti-abortion, or what supporters like to call “pro-family,” bills. As leader of the Conservatives, however, he has walked a tightrope, often sidestepping direct questions about the possibility that his party could try to pass anti-abortion legislation.
“With politicians, it could be deceit; it could be a lie,” said Jack Fonseca, spokesman for Campaign Life Coalition, another anti-abortion group. “It’s very possible as well that this individual hasn’t followed Andrew Scheer’s various speeches since 2017 when he was campaigning for leader.”
Rayes, an MP since 2015, initially told HuffPost that Scheer’s position had changed since he became leader and he promised not to reopen the debate.
Fonseca, who is dismayed that Scheer seems to be engaged in what he describes as double-speak, said his group does “not expect Andrew Scheer or an Andrew Scheer cabinet to put forward a pro-life bill to restore legal protection to children in the womb.
“But we do expect that many of these pro-life MPs, backbench MPs, will put forward private member’s bills.”
“Conservative MPs and candidates have repeatedly worked to reopen the abortion debate in Canada, and Andrew Scheer ran on letting his MPs bring forward bills to vote on any issue.”
The Liberals, who recently unearthed a 2005 video clip of Scheer outlining his opposition to gay marriage and are actively trying to remind voters of the Conservative leader’s social conservative positions, called it “alarming” that the Tories would be saying different things to different audiences.
“Conservative MPs and candidates have repeatedly worked to reopen the abortion debate in Canada, and Andrew Scheer ran on letting his MPs bring forward bills to vote on any issue,” Ahuntsic-Cartierville MP and Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly said in a statement. “Scheer needs to explain why he would allow his caucus to roll back women’s rights in Parliament.”
The Liberals, who count some anti-abortion MPs in their rank, have pledged to whip votes on the issue and have insisted that all Grit candidates since 2015 pledge to support a women’s right to choose.
Golob said that, unlike the Liberals, she was glad there is a party in Canada that doesn’t take away freedom of conscience from its elected officials.