POLITICS
08/24/2020 01:08 EDT | Updated 08/25/2020 17:10 EDT

Erin O'Toole Wins Conservative Leadership Race

He beat Peter MacKay on the third ballot to take the top Tory crown.

Conservatives have elected Erin O’Toole, an Ontario MP pledging to “take back Canada,” to lead their party into the future.

O’Toole upsetPeter MacKay, the perceived front-runner, on the third round of the party’s leadership vote count, a process that stretched into the early hours of Monday morning in Ottawa.

Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis, the first Black woman to run for the party’s leadership, finished third. Ontario MP Derek Sloan finished fourth, after falling off the first ballot after obtaining 14.4 per cent of the points required, compared to Lewis’ 20.5 per cent, O’Toole’s 31.6 per cent, and MacKay’s 33.5 per cent.

O’Toole was able to blow past MacKay on the third ballot, winning 57 per cent of party support to MacKay’s 43 per cent.

The results were delayed for hours Sunday because of malfunctions with the machines used to slice envelopes containing ballots. Thousands of ballots needed to be to be replicated by hand under the watch of scrutineers. More than 174,000 ballots were cast in the contest.

O’Toole, 47, has represented the Greater Toronto Area riding of Durham since 2012 and briefly served as veterans affairs minister under Stephen Harper. He also ran for leader three years ago, finishing third.

Tijana Martin/CP
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Erin O'Toole speaks during the English debate in Toronto on June 18, 2020.

Speaking after the results were announced at Ottawa’s Shaw Centre, O’Toole addressed the millions of Canadians that he hoped were still awake and watching. 

“Good morning, I’m Erin O’Toole,” he said. “You’re going to be seeing and hearing a lot from me in the coming weeks and months. But I want you to know from the start that I am here to fight for you and your family.”

O’Toole said he had been given a “clear mission” to unite Conservatives and defeat Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberals. But rather than just point out Liberal “failings and corruption,” he said, the party will present a vision of a stronger, more prosperous country.

“Canada can and must do better,” O’Toole said.

He also noted Conservatives “could be in an election campaign as soon as this fall,” referencing the throne speech Liberals will introduce next month that will be a confidence measure. 

The Tories’ leadership race, held during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, saw more Canadians than ever participate in a leadership contest, and showed, O’Toole suggested, that the party is ready for the writ and “will win.” 

O’Toole said it was time for a leader who is more interested in keeping Canadians safe and united than in “his personal image” and the interests of insiders. “The world still needs more Canada. It just needs less Justin Trudeau,” he said.

The new Conservative leader also made it clear he wants Canadians of all walks of life to consider voting blue. “Whether you are LGBT or straight,” from any race or creed, or joined the “Canadian family” three weeks ago or three generations back, “you are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada,” he said.

Though O’Toole had gracious words for his rivals, including MacKay, and outgoing leader Scheer, he ended his remarks with another reminder of who he is and what he’s after.

“My name is Erin O’Toole. I believe in this country. And I’m running to serve you as prime minister.”

He took down MacKay with a markedly different strategy than he used in his speech and in his previous leadership bid.

In 2017, O’Toole pledged not to personally attack his rivals for the top Tory crown, even while conceding that doing so would be tempting in “an environment where the loudest and most outrageous statements win the most attention.” In the end, the happy warrior finished well behind Maxime Bernier and Scheer, the eventual winner.

O’Toole’s 2020 bid had a different flavour.

He styled himself as “true blue,” in a dig at MacKay’s red Tory roots. O’Toole painted MacKay as yesterday’s man, unable to handle the pressures of leading the Official Opposition at this moment. His campaign released an online ad in May saying Trudeau would eat MacKay alive. “With Peter MacKay as leader, the next election is already lost,” the narrator stated.

The only French-language debate of the contest saw the two repeatedly exchange rhetorical blows. “He is the only one who is running attack ads against other Conservatives,” MacKay said of O’Toole, whom he pressed repeatedly to share his views on abortion.

Things got so ugly between the heavyweights that the police were contacted. In June, O’Toole’s campaign filed complaints with the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, and Toronto police, alleging that MacKay’s team stole confidential campaign data. The O’Toole camp alleged that its top rival obtained login information for campaign meetings over the Zoom video conferencing application.

MacKay’s staffers denied the accusations.

“It is not surprising that this is a tactic being trotted out the same week that Erin O’Toole performed very poorly in the debates in front of party members and Canadians,” the MacKay campaign said in a statement at the time.

Days later, Calgary MP Greg McLean — who endorsed O’Toole in the contest — fired a summer student over what his office called a “breach of trust” that he said was linked to the allegations against MacKay’s campaign. 

Much of O’Toole’s punchy social media posts throughout the campaign were red meat to the base, urging them to join an ill-defined movement to “take back Canada.” Many posts took on so-called “cancel culture,” with O’Toole shown defending everything from John A. Macdonald to the Canadian flag.

Jeff Ballingall, founder of the popular right-wing Ontario Proud and Canada Proud social media groups and chief marketing officer for conservative politics website The Post Millennial, was O’Toole’s digital director.

O’Toole, who rebuffed HuffPost Canada’s interview requests in the weeks leading up to the vote, has denied elsewhere that he adopted an edgier tone in this race. 

Raquel Dancho, a rookie MP from the Manitoba riding of Kildonan-St. Paul, told HuffPost Canada this summer that O’Toole’s social media game showed he could tap into something Conservatives tend to undervalue.

“So seeing him take it very, very seriously and understand that this is the future of communication, well, that’s how you reach people my age,” she said. “So he has done, by far, the best job on that.”

Dancho, 30, was one of several younger Tory MPs who explained their endorsements of O’Toole in a campaign video. “We’re going to make him prime minister of Canada,” she says in the clip.

Dancho told HuffPost that from the moment she set foot in the caucus room, O’Toole kindly offered his help and encouragement. “I think that really resonates with young people. They want to feel like they have a voice, a seat at the table, and they’re collaborative.”

The respect O’Toole has shown for newer members from across the Conservative spectrum is paying dividends, she suggested.

“He’s done that with younger MPs, who are living as millennials, and some of us in Generation Z like Eric Melillo … and some who are LGBTQ2, like Eric Duncan, who is our first openly gay MP,” she said. “And then people like Garnett Genuis, who is a very vocal social conservative. So, we have all these young people from different facets of the party that are saying, ‘this guy is listening to us and I think he’s going to represent us well.’”

O’Toole’s campaign also touted his appeal as someone who is not a “career politician,” again a subtle shot at MacKay’s nearly 20 years as an MP before opting not to run again in 2015.

Born in Montreal on Jan. 22, 1973, O’Toole and his family moved to Bowmanville, Ont. when he was one after his father’s job at a General Motors assembly plant in Sainte-Thérèse, Que., was transferred to Oshawa. His mother died of breast cancer when he was nine.

“Right now, I wish she were here to see her child succeed, but I know she is here tonight because I can see her in my daughter, who shares her name,” O’Toole said Monday of his mom.

His dad, John O’Toole, went on to become a Progressive Conservative member of Ontario’s legislature from 1995 to 2014.

Frank Gunn/CP
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Erin O'Toole arrives for the start of the French debate in Toronto on June 17, 2020.

After earning a bachelor of arts degree in history and political science at the Royal Military College in Kingston, he was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He flew on Sea King helicopters as an air navigator, including on search and rescue missions in Nova Scotia.

After 12 years of service to the regular Canadian Forces, he transferred to the reserves in 2000 and attended Dalhousie University’s law school in Halifax, the city in which he met his future wife, Rebecca. After graduation, he returned to Ontario to work in corporate law. He and his wife have two children: Mollie, 14, and Jack, 9.

O’Toole was easily elected in his Greater Toronto Area riding in a 2012 byelection sparked by the resignation of former cabinet minister Bev Oda, best known for expensing a $16 glass of orange juice. Oda endorsed MacKay in this contest.

O’Toole was named veterans affairs minister in early 2015, at a time when the veterans community was enraged by the department’s shuttering of regional health offices and its handling of benefits for injured vets. 

The former minister, Julian Fantino, was seen as a liability in the file as the Tories prepared for an election.

After Harper and the Conservatives were defeated, O’Toole served in key critic roles for his party, including public safety and foreign affairs, when not running for the top job.

O’Toole’s pre-politics military experience impressed another 30-year-old Tory MP, Dane Lloyd of Alberta’s Sturgeon River–Parkland. Lloyd told HuffPost this summer that, as someone who has served as a military reservist, he thinks O’Toole’s service will make him a more effective leader.

Fred Chartrand/CP
Erin O'Toole speaks with a veteran after taking part in the National Peacekeepers' Day ceremony in Ottawa on Aug. 9, 2015.

I know Erin is somebody who has that military leadership background, and that’s the kind of background that you can’t teach in university,” he said. “It’s the kind of leadership skills that I think would be tremendously valuable in a leader.”

Lloyd said that while O’Toole “absolutely” ran to the right of MacKay, he thinks the strategy was both smart and authentic.

“When you look at the race… we have two hard social conservatives running, one just elected [Sloan], one who doesn’t have that much political experience [Lewis]. And then we have Peter MacKay running, who is like the arch red Tory,” Lloyd said.

“So I think it’s very strategically smart for Erin to run to the right of Peter MacKay, because that’s where our membership is. So, he’s running based on what our members want.”

O’Toole also cast himself as the best contender for the Tories in Western Canada without a standard-bearer. He scored arguably the biggest endorsement of the race when he won the backing of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, a former senior Tory minister. “No one will have their deeply held beliefs dismissed as ‘stinking albatrosses’ under Erin O’Toole’s leadership,” Kenney said in a March email, a reference to MacKay’s earlier comments on how social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, “hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck” in last year’s campaign.

O’Toole wasn’t shy about courting the support of social conservatives while on the hunt for down-ballot support. In the contest, the support of the last-place candidate in each round was redistributed to the second choices of their supporters, ultimately pushing O’Toole over the top.

A video leaked to CBC in June showed O’Toole asking social conservatives in Quebec to select him as their second choice. In the same clip, O’Toole expressed concerns about Liberal legislation to expand access to medically assisted dying and to ban conversion therapy. After the story broke, O’Toole tweeted in French only that conversion therapy has no place in Canada.

Frank Gunn/CP
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Erin O'Toole, left to right, Peter MacKay, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis wait for the start of the French-language debate in Toronto on June 17, 2020.

A regional breakdown of first-ballot votes showed O’Toole finished first in Quebec. O’Toole’s campaign included a Quebec-specific platform.

O’Toole also made a point of playing nice with the two avowed social conservatives in the race. Like MacKay, O’Toole spent a lot of time praising Lewis during the official, English-language debate. In May, he announced on Twitter he would not accept the endorsement of the Association of Black Conservatives because it caused disunity in the party and “within the greater Black community.” The candidacy of Lewis was a “historic moment for our party,” he said.

When Sloan sparked controversy by questioning the loyalty of Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, and calling for her to be fired, O’Toole reportedly had his back behind closed doors. During a phone conference of the Ontario Conservative caucus in April, veteran MP Scott Reid put forward a motion calling on Sloan to apologize. According to both CBC News and The Toronto Star, O’Toole and Sloan were the only MPs to vote against the motion.

Sloan alluded to the incident during a virtual debate last month hosted by Vancouver Centre Conservatives.

“I’ll say it again. Dr. Tam should be fired. Since that time, my comments have been vindicated through many sources,” Sloan said. “And I’ll say, actually… Erin O’Toole didn’t ask me to say this, but I will say that he defended me repeatedly on that front, and I want to thank him for that.”

O’Toole was stone-faced during the exchange.

Policy, House seat key to pitch

Setting aside the tweets and social-conservative strategy, O’Toole also focused on policy, releasing a 50-page platform. It calls for tougher criminal justice positions, including invoking the notwithstanding clause to impose mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes, cutting funds for the CBC, a tougher foreign policy when it comes to China, and a “pay-as-you-go” rule requiring the government to find a dollar in savings for every dollar in new spending.

He promised to scrap the Liberal carbon pricing regime, but raised the eyebrows of some Tories with his call for a “national industrial regulatory and pricing regime across the country.” MacKay said it amounted to a carbon tax, something O’Toole dismissed as a “lie.” Just a day after releasing his plan, O’Toole walked back a pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies.

In the final stretch of the campaign, O’Toole repeatedly stressed that he had something his main rivals, MacKay and Lewis, lacked: a seat in the House of Commons.

“I will hold Trudeau to account on Day 1 as leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons. I’m the only one that can do that,” O’Toole said in a clip released online in late July. 

“And from there, we will whittle down their credibility and defeat them in the election that will likely come in the next six months. We don’t have time to miss holding them to account in the House of Commons. We don’t have time for leaders to find their footing over several years and learn how to lead.”

O’Toole said he’s ready to go on day one. Now, he’ll get his chance to prove it.

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