Newly elected Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has rolled out the welcome mat for Canadians in search of a political home, while touting himself as a pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ politician.
“Canadians haven’t always seen themselves in our party. I’m going to change that,” he said in Ottawa Tuesday at his first press conference as party boss.
O’Toole, who won the Tory leadership race over former minister Peter MacKay on the third ballot early Monday morning, said Canadians can expect to hear a lot of “Liberal spin” about him and his record. “Don’t buy it,” he said.
Watch: O’Toole says he’s bringing fighting spirit to Tory leadership
O’Toole gave the broad strokes of his priorities as leader of the Official Opposition, including pushing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to address national unity issues and Western alienation, and said his party will be ready to fight another election if the Liberal government falls after the throne speech set for Sept. 23.
“Justin Trudeau would rather play politics than do his job. Even now, with our country still in a crisis, he may be trying to trigger an early election,” he said, referring to Trudeau’s prorogation gambit. “Because of that, I may soon be asking Canadians for the chance to serve as prime minister, so we can get this country back on track.”
O’Toole did not give any indication if his party would support the throne speech, but said he will “put the interests of Canadians first” and collaborate where possible while pushing for “better solutions and faster responses” for Canadians rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much of his remarks were focused on his pitch that there is room in the Tory tent for Canadians of all backgrounds and walks of life. To hammer that point home, he repeated lines from the victory speech he delivered “in the wee hours” Monday, after results were delayed for hours due to malfunctioning ballot-opening machines.
“Whether you are Black, white, brown or from any race or creed, whether you are LGBT or straight, whether you are an Indigenous Canadian or have joined the Canadian family three weeks ago or three generations ago, whether you are doing well, or barely getting by, whether you worship on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, or not at all... you are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada,” he said.
Yet he won the job after scoring down-ballot support from the social conservatives in the race, Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis and Ontario MP Derek Sloan, who were eliminated in earlier rounds. Both Lewis and Sloan pledged during the race to reopen the abortion debate, and Sloan compared banning conversion therapy to child abuse.
O’Toole, the MP for the Greater Toronto Area riding of Durham since 2012 and a former veterans affairs minister, said he has a “clear track record” of standing up for women’s rights and the LGBTQ community.
“I won the leadership of the Conservative Party as a pro-choice Conservative MP, one that won with a strong mandate,” he said. “That’s how I’m going to lead as the leader of the Opposition and that’s how I’ll be as prime minister. I’m in politics to defend the rights of Canadians to secure a brighter future.”
But he was pressed over his 2016 vote in favour of a private member’s bill from Tory MP Cathay Wagantall to amend the Criminal Code of Canada to “make it an offence to cause injury or death to a preborn child” while committing a violent act against a pregnant woman.
Opponents of the legislation saw it as a backdoor attempt to restrict abortion rights by giving legal recognition to fetuses, when the Criminal Code defines a human being as one who has “completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother.” Three Conservative MPs, including current members Michael Chong and Peter Kent, joined the Liberals and other parties in voting it down.
O’Toole told reporters in French Tuesday that legislation was about public safety and criminal sentencing, denying it would have put cracks in the rights of Canadian women.
‘I’m going to be a bit of a sea change’
He also noted he was one of 18 Tory MPs to vote for a former NDP MP’s private member’s bill in 2013 to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination. O’Toole did not vote on the Liberal government’s transgender rights legislation that became law in 2017, which both Lewis and Sloan promised to repeal.
The new Tory leader denied he was moving his party to the middle after a leadership race where he fashioned himself as the “true blue” option.
“I’m going to be a bit of a sea change for Canadians because, you know what, I respect people even when I don’t agree with them. I won a mandate not hiding my track record, all my voting records… pro-choice MP, pro-LGBT,” he said.
In a split from former Tory leader Andrew Scheer, whose personal opposition to abortion and record on LGBTQ issues dogged him on the campaign trail last fall, O’Toole promised during the leadership contest that he would march in Pride parades. But he said he would not participate in the Toronto Pride parade because of its ban on uniformed police officers marching.
O’Toole’s platform also said he would “end the discriminatory blood ban,” calling it a human rights issue. The Canadian Blood Services will only accept blood donations from men who have sex with other men if they have abstained for three months. Though Liberals have shortened the deferral period since coming to power, they pledged in 2015 to eliminate the ban entirely.
But in June, a video was leaked to media outlets that showed O’Toole asking social conservatives in Quebec to select him as their second choice on their ranked ballot. In the same clip, O’Toole expressed concerns about Liberal bills to expand access to medically assisted dying and ban conversion therapy. After the story broke, O’Toole tweeted, in French only, that conversion therapy has no place in Canada.
O’Toole suggested Tuesday he was not indebted to social conservatives for his victory, but would treat all members of the party with respect.
The new Tory leader was also asked about how he would deal with Sloan, the first-time MP for the Ontario riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington, who also sparked controversy by questioning the loyalty of Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, and calling for her to be fired.
Earlier Tuesday, Liberal MP Pam Damoff issued a media release calling on O’Toole to remove Sloan from caucus and to refuse to sign his nomination papers as a Tory candidate.
“Mr. O’Toole has an important decision to make, which will help Canadians understand his vision for the future of our country: he can stand up for the rights of all Canadians, or he can condone racism, misogyny, and bigotry within his own caucus,” she said in the statement.
O’Toole said he had some “very stark differences” with Sloan, but suggested he will stay part of the party fold. “In a leadership race, there’s always some pressure… there’s a contrast of ideas. And that’s finished,” he said.
If he becomes prime minister, O’Toole said he will lead a government that “rebuilds the economy with ambitious national projects, infrastructure, and federal programs to make it easier for people to get ahead.” O’Toole also pledged to promote free trade but not spend time “chasing trade deals with predatory countries like Communist China.”
‘I’m not famous. I’m not well-known’
O’Toole spoke with Trudeau by phone Monday and said he has also touched base with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who said Monday he wouldn’t campaign with federal Tories in the next election.
O’Toole added that he is seeking an in-person meeting with Quebec Premier Francois Legault and will announce his shadow cabinet soon.
He also conceded he has work to do to make himself better known to Canadians, saying that, despite not having a famous last name, he worked his way from the backbenches to cabinet to his party’s leadership.
Asked how he will be different from Scheer, O’Toole said he respected his predecessor’s service to the party but said he has a track record of serving Canada and getting things done.
“That’s why I’m not famous. I’m not well-known,” he said. “I get things done. I don’t drop the ball.”