Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer won’t discuss a Tory backbencher’s broadsides against Dr. Theresa Tam, which have been blasted as “race-baiting,” because that member of Parliament is a leadership candidate.
Scheer had some chippy exchanges with reporters in Ottawa Thursday when pressed about an email and video released this week from Ontario MP Derek Sloan, one of four candidates left in the Tory leadership race, targeting Canada’s top doctor.
UPDATE: At a press conference in Ottawa on April 27, Tory Leader Andrew Scheer said Derek Sloan was wrong to question the “loyalty” of Canada’s top doctor.
In an email to supporters Tuesday, Sloan called for Tam to be fired over her advice to the government during the COVID-19 pandemic as the country’s chief public health officer. He accused Tam of prioritizing the World Health Organization, which has faced questions over its data and its relationship to China, “over the health of Canadians.” He charged that the United Nations agency covered up the COVID-19 virus “at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Sloan accused Tam, who was born in Hong Kong and has served as an international expert on WHO committees, of “dutifully” repeating China’s “propaganda” by not, among other things, supporting travel bans for travellers arriving from virus hotspots months ago.
“Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer needs to work for Canada. Not for the WHO or any other foreign entity,” Sloan said in the email.
He repeated those accusations in a short clip posted online that sparked backlash, but also brought attention to his long-shot leadership bid. “Does she work for Canada or for China?” he asks, at one point.
NDP MP Charlie Angus tweeted Wednesday that Sloan’s slur against Tam was “vile,” and he asked Scheer to “call on his caucus members to refrain from race-baiting attacks at a time of unprecedented pandemic.”
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he fully supports Tam and that “this is not the quality of dialogue Canadians expect from our Parliamentarians to keep Canada safe.
But the outgoing Tory leader refused to say Thursday if he agrees or disagrees with Sloan, a rookie MP first elected in the Ontario riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington this fall.
“As a rule, I don’t comment on leadership candidates or on policy announcements or positions leadership candidates have taken,” Scheer said. “I’ll leave it to each leadership candidate to speak for themselves and explain their views. And ultimately it will be up to members to select the next leader of the party.”
The Liberal government needs to be held accountable for its decisions during the pandemic, he said, including its reluctance to close the border until mid-March.
“I don’t believe that we should allow this government to have a scapegoat, to pin the blame on anybody else,” he said. “These were ministers who chose to ignore some advice and chose to listen to other advice.”
A reporter noted that Sloan is a current member of the Conservative caucus and is facing criticism for “peddling conspiracy theories.” Asked directly if he felt Tam should be fired, Scheer again refused to weigh in and said his focus is on keeping ministers accountable.
Scheer took the same approach when asked if Sloan is still welcome in the caucus he intends to lead until the Tory leadership race — currently suspended— produces a replacement.
“I have not, and nor will I in the future, comment on individual positions or statements by leadership candidates. I have just explained what our caucus position is,” he said. “Our caucus position is that the government needs to be held accountable for its decisions. That is what we will continue to do.”
Scheer also ducked a question about whether he stands by welcoming Sloan into the party fold. The Tory leader ended his press conference by walking away from a reporter asking again if Sloan is still welcome in caucus.
Watch Scheer’s exchange with reporters, starting at around the 37:46 mark:
This is not the first time Tam has faced public criticism from a conservative politician. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also raised eyebrows during an appearance on CBC’s “Power & Politics” last week.
“This is the same Dr. Tam who is telling us that we shouldn’t close our borders to countries with high levels of infection and who in January was repeating talking points out of the (People’s Republic of China) about.. no evidence of human-to-human transmission,” Kenney said.
Tam responded at the time by touting the “incredible collaboration” she has with chief medical officers across the country, including Alberta.
On Thursday, Tam suggested she is far too busy to be rattled by those who might question her loyalty.
“I’m a pretty focused person and I work really, really hard. Probably over 20 hours a day. My singular focus is to work with all of my colleagues to get this epidemic wave under control,” Tam said. “I don’t let noise.. detract me from doing that.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also asked at his press briefing in Ottawa Thursday to respond to anti-Asian violence in the country linked to the COVID-19 crisis, including an attack on a 92-year-old man in Vancouver with dementia, as well as Sloan’s remarks.
Trudeau condemns remarks
Intolerance and racism have no place in Canada, a country that succeeds because of its diversity, Trudeau said.
“The millions of Canadians of all different backgrounds who are working together... many, many of them on the front lines to help their fellow Canadians, deserve better than this from all of us,” Trudeau said. “We need to continue in our resolve to be an open, welcoming, respectful country. And I think all Canadians expect that of every politician.”
The Conservative leader’s reluctance to weigh in on Sloan’s comments appears to clash with what he told party supporters in an election-style speech in May. Scheer said at the time that there is “absolutely no room in a peaceful and free country like Canada for intolerance, racism, and extremism of any kind.”
Scheer’s refusal to weigh in on the comments of a fellow MP running for his party’s leadership is also a different approach than the one taken by Rona Ambrose, the former interim Tory leader, during the last contest.
In 2016, Ambrose told the media that she did not agree with a controversial proposal from Kellie Leitch, at the time an MP running for Tory leader, to screen immigrants for so-called “anti-Canadian values.”