OTTAWA — One hundred days into his new job as Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole faces the same questions and challenges his predecessors did: how to expand the party’s tent without alienating those already inside it.
O’Toole, 47, has made it his mission to rebrand the Conservative party.
“My main goal is that in the next election I want more Canadians waking up that morning and seeing a Conservative staring at them in the mirror. More young people, more women, more new Canadians, members of the LGBTQ community, Indigenous Canadians,” he told HuffPost Canada on Sunday. O’Toole made similar comments after winning the party leadership in the early hours of Aug. 24, and he has repeated them in the House of Commons, in public speeches, and media interviews.
He has aggressively courted new constituencies. He has held Zoom calls with members of ethnic communities. Courting union members’ support, he has praised organized labour for helping foster strong communities and good middle class jobs. He has repeated identified himself as pro-choice — a move designed to court women voters and rid the Conservative party of what Peter MacKay called last year the “stinking albatross” that hung around former leader Andrew Scheer’s neck.
Scheer, a religious man and practicing Roman Catholic, handled questions over abortion and same-sex marriage poorly during last fall’s election and sank the party’s chances in Quebec, where questions over women’s reproductive rights were especially damaging to the Tories.
Sunday evening, O’Toole appeared on Radio-Canada’s popular program “Tout le monde en parle” (TLMEP) in an effort to recast his party and introduce himself to Quebecers. He has said he plans to win 30 seats in the province. His party currently has 10.
O’Toole smiled, expressed himself well in French, and appeared to say all the right things to his hosts, Guy A. Lepage and Dany Turcotte. The newspaper Le Soleil suggested after his appearance that those who were anticipating an execution must have been disappointed.
The Conservative leader did his best to avoid pitfalls. He played down a June tweet he’d sent pledging to stand up to «la clique du Plateau», loosely translated as “the Plateau gang,” a term used to describe Montreal’s elites, the intelligentsia, those more on the left — his hosts, for example.
He dismissed questions about his party’s fuelling the “Great Reset” Internet controversy saying he had no time for “conspiracy theories” — this despite party finance critic Pierre Poilievre’s using that very language to gather potential voter information through a petition on his website.
He seemed to leave some viewers confused about his stand on imposing oil pipelines on unenthusiastic provinces, such as Quebec, or on why CBC English TV should be dismantled but Radio-Canada’s programming left intact. But they were sidebar issues.
On key issues, he hit the right tone for many Quebecers.
Although former prime minister Stephen Harper had appointed unilingual English-speakers to the Supreme Court, O’Toole said he was concerned with protecting the French language, including in Montreal. He pledged to support the province’s effort to expand Bill 101 — Quebec’s language law, which imposes French as the working language for companies with 50 or more employees — to federally-chartered companies, such as banks and telecommunications firms.
He noted that he was born in Montreal and called himself “un patriote,” a term in Quebec that suggests he’s opposed to the British Crown, and may have an affinity for the independence movement or republicanism.
O’Toole also said — probably to the shock of many Conservative party members — that a Conservative government would have been just as generous with COVID-19 benefits to citizens as the federal Liberals were this summer had he been prime minister.
“Absolutely, yes!,” he responded.
“Did you mistakenly join the wrong party?” Lepage said, after asking O’Toole about his concern for those in precarious work, noting that his words sounded more like those of an NDP leader.
“We feel your desire to bring the Conservative party to the centre,” his host later said. O’Toole, who ran a “true blue” platform and attacked MacKay for not being Conservative enough, didn’t correct them.
“I am a new leader, with a new approach,” he responded.
“I am pro-choice, I am pro-LGBTQ. I have a clear track record on this —
“You have gay friends, I imagine?,” Turcotte asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” O’Toole responded. “My campaign manager, and some members of my team now — I have a very diverse team, and I will never present a bill, as a government, against abortion, gay marriage, human rights. I am in politics to defend the rights of Canadians and for the well-being of Canadians, and that will be my approach, my style as leader of the opposition, and as prime minister.”
“I have a very diverse team, and I will never present a bill, as a government, against abortion, gay marriage, human rights. I am in politics to defend the rights of Canadians and for the well-being of Canadians.”
O’Toole did not explain what he will do to ensure that no anti-abortion bill becomes law under his Conservative government. By pledging free votes to caucus members — many of whom describe themselves as pro-life, the question remains relevant for many. For some, it is a cause for fear or anxiety — one the Liberals will no doubt exploit. But for others, it represents hope. Social conservatives helped elect O’Toole this August instead of backing MacKay.
Social conservative views
Jack Fonseca, the political operations director for Campaign Life Coalition, recently told “Follow-Up,” HuffPost Canada’s political podcast, that he gives O’Toole a mixed review but that on two key pieces of legislation — the Liberals’ expansion of medical assistance in dying and a bill banning conversion therapy — which Fonseca believes doesn’t exist — O’Toole has been “good.”
Listen: Our Follow-Up podcast on O’Toole’s first 100 days:
“He has largely kept his promise to allow free votes on moral issues,” Fonseca told HuffPost. “I’m reaching perhaps a little bit with this next one to try and say something good about his first 100 days, and it’s not necessarily something that we should attribute to Erin himself, but, you know, the fact is that the Conservative members of the justice committee have done an excellent job in challenging the Liberals on their reckless, dangerous, I would even say murderous, euthanasia expansion.”
But Fonseca, a card-carrying Conservative who says his group is responsible for signing up 20,000 new members this past year, many of whom helped deliver the leader to O’Toole, his assessment is “more negative.”
“He’s trying to drag the party to the left in all areas, not only on moral issues, by identifying himself as a supporter of abortion and supporter of banning conversion therapy and supporter of transgender ideology and all that kind of stuff. But even on economic issues, I mean, it’s not our issues per se, but, you know, he’s buying into spending that would have been unheard of under any other Conservative leader in the past. And it’s just not conservative at all.”
What other Conservatives are saying
Reviews from other Conservatives are much more favourable.
Karen Vecchio, the Ontario MP from Elgin–Middlesex–London, describes O’Toole as “respectful,” someone who is “willing to listen,” but who has a good weathervane and seeks to take a “balanced approach.”
“What we have with Erin is a very blank slate,” she said. “... there isn’t an image that has already been determined of what he is.”
Catherine Swift, the former chair of the board of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said O’Toole has probably done as good a job as he could have done under difficult circumstances.
“Let’s face it, this whole COVID crisis is overwhelming,” she said. “...it’s pretty tough for a guy who did not have a high public profile prior to being elected as head of the Conservative Party.”
She feels he’s done a great job promoting himself and the party’s messages on social media, and holding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to account.
“[O’Toole] has prioritized a number of the issues important to small business — and small business is roughly half of the Canadian economy. It’s not exactly a fringe group out there.
“I think prioritizing that was smart. The Trudeau government has had a very rocky relationship with small business as well, given that they were called tax cheats right from the get-go,” she added, referring to changes the Liberal government attempted to make in 2017 to raise taxes on those using private corporations to shelter some of their income.
What the voting numbers say
Abacus Data CEO David Colletto and Dennis Matthews, a former Harper adviser and current vice-president with Enterprise Canada, both described on “Follow-Up” the challenge O’Toole currently faces.
In public opinion surveys, Coletto noted, “only 44 per cent of Canadians said they’d be open [to] or would consider voting Conservative. And so if we believe that for the Conservative Party to win a majority government in Canada, they have to get close to 40 per cent of the vote, that doesn’t leave much room.
“...You basically have to convert everyone who’s open to voting for you [to] actually to vote for you and make sure that it’s distributed evenly enough that you can win seats everywhere, which was the problem for the Conservatives in the last election.”
The Conservatives won more votes than the Liberals in 2019, but their vote was heavily concentrated in Alberta and in rural parts of the country, Coletto noted.
“[O’Toole’s] electoral coalition right now is too small. However you look at it, there are sort of 60 to 65 per cent of voters in this country who are just not even really considering the Conservative Party as an option,” Matthews added.
“How do Conservatives find a way to be relevant for more voters in this country than they are today? … Maybe it’s the environment, maybe it’s appealing to different demographics than before. Maybe it’s the working class. It’s probably a lot of those things,” he added.
So far O’Toole’s outreach is getting mixed reviews.
Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald told HuffPost that despite O’Toole’s public pronouncements that he wants to work with Indigenous people on reconciliation, she has seen little to suggest he’s serious.
Historically, the federal Conservative party hasn’t put an emphasis on building a relationship with First Nations either when they’re in power or even as an opposition party, she said.
“But this has really changed in Ontario, where we do have a positive relationship with Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet,” she added, hoping the same can be accomplished with O’Toole.
National Council of Canadian Muslims CEO Mustafa Farooq said he’s found O’Toole has tried to strike a tone “that is perhaps somewhat more conciliatory towards diverse communities, including towards members of the Muslim community, while simultaneously, you know, not always, I think from from our perspective, meeting the mark of where any political leader in Canada should be.”
His group would like to see O’Toole take a much tougher position on Bill 21, a law in Quebec that bans wearing religious symbols while working in several government jobs, such as teachers and police officers. O’Toole has said he won’t enact similar legislation federally but respects Quebec’s effort to protect secularism.
Eric Wen of the Chinese Canadian Conservative Association said he hopes his party is reaching out to more ethnic communities. Wen worries a bit about O’Toole’s anti-China rhetoric, saying many in the community are now from mainland China and they would rather hear their leader talk about ways both countries can work together.
“Make sure you tell our leader [to] outreach to ethnic groups too,” he told HuffPost. “If he wants to become a prime minister, he has to go out … reach out to all the ethnic groups too,” he said. “Punjabi votes become more and more important too,” he added.
“He ran on this Conservative platform and all of a sudden he’s a closet socialist, like, give me a break, like, nobody’s going to buy it.”
Unifor’s national president, Jerry Dias, said he just doesn’t believe O’Toole is genuine in his outreach.
“He ran on this Conservative platform and all of a sudden he’s a closet socialist, like, give me a break, like, nobody’s going to buy it,” Dias told HuffPost.
O’Toole, he noted, was part of Harper’s team when the Conservative government brought two “anti-union” bills forward, C-377 and C-525. “So you can’t say and talk about the importance of unions [when] you … do everything possible to weaken them and make sure that organizing new members becomes nearly impossible,” he said.
Dias also blamed O’Toole, who was parliamentary secretary for trade, for the Conservatives’ signing a trade deal with Korea that weakened the auto sector in Canada.
“It’s been a disaster. And so he should at least come clean. He should say, ’Listen, I screwed up. I’ve made it worse for the auto industry. I made it absolutely difficult for Canadian auto workers, the Canadian auto industry to survive.
“And I really love his tough on China talk,” Dias added, sarcastically. “It’s just such nonsense, because he was the guy that did the deal with China that really gave them the right to sue Canada.” The Foreign Investment Protection Agreement with China allows Chinese investors to seek binding arbitration to override Canadian law, and government measures such as buy-in-Canada procurement efforts, Dias noted.
“So he’s either — I’m telling you — he’s either had this new epiphany or he’s a liar. And the reality is, I think he’s a liar,” Dias said.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that O’Toole has said he isn’t interested in courting the support of union bosses but instead has spoken about appealing to the members of private sector unions.
Harper’s former campaign manager, Jenni Byrne, told HuffPost O’Toole should be strategic in how he builds his voter coalition.
“If I’m Erin O’Toole, I’m still trying to find a path to talk to those suburban voters who voted for us in ’08, massive numbers in 2011. And in the last two elections looked more at the Liberals,” Byrne, who now runs her own public relations firm Jenni Byrne and Associates, said.
O’Toole has literally rebranded the party, unveiling on Sept. 22 a new logo, the first update to the centre-right party’s look since the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance merged in 2003.
The capital “C” is still there with a red maple leaf inside, though the “C” is now straight and bold, and the maple leaf is now more slanted, to a 45-degree angle.
It seems designed as a break from the past, yet similar enough to be familiar.
It also resembles the Royal Canadian Air Force’s logo, which recalls O’Toole’s military service with the RCAF, where he spent 12 years before becoming a private-sector lawyer — something he often talks about.
And that’s part of the challenge too. Letting people know who exactly Erin O’Toole is.