The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Erin O’Toole, once called a ‘dud’ by fellow Conservatives, pulls into a tight race with Canada’s Trudeau

Canadian Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole speaks during a campaign visit to North Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sept. 3. (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters)
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TORONTO — In the weeks and months before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap federal election, the reviews were rolling in for Erin O’Toole, the newish Conservative Party leader and Trudeau’s main rival — and they weren’t great.

What’s more, some of his most biting critics were in his own party.

“Let’s face it — Erin O’Toole is a dud,” wrote one conservative columnist in the Toronto Sun in April, about seven months after the former Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter navigator became party leader. Weeks later, he offered a reassessment: “Erin O’Toole is not just a dud, he’s a dishonest dud who is driving Conservative voters away from the polls.”

But now, with under two weeks left until a Sept. 20 vote once thought to be a sure thing for Trudeau, polls show the Liberals and the Conservatives deadlocked. Analysts credit public irritation with Trudeau’s decision to call an election during a pandemic in what critics have seen as a cynical bid to regain a majority.

But they also said that O’Toole’s campaign has exceeded expectations.

“It turns out that he seems to be not a bad campaigner,” said Richard Johnston, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of British Columbia. “He has a relatable quality that his two Conservative predecessors really didn’t have.”

The questions now are whether O’Toole, 48, can take advantage of his unexpected success and ratchet up the gains in the final stretch — already, a flip-flop on his position on guns could be stalling his momentum — and grow a “big blue tent” without alienating any of its factions.

“The Conservatives so far have run a pretty good campaign, and Erin O’Toole has framed himself as a more progressive Conservative,” said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. “He has moved the party toward the center. This has created some issues within his party … and people further on the right are not always happy, but during the campaign they have been quite disciplined.”

O’Toole, speaking last week to supporters in Nanaimo, British Columbia, slammed Trudeau for calling a “reckless” election in the middle of a pandemic. He said Canada was at “a crossroads.”

The Conservatives “will focus relentlessly on creating jobs, giving families a break, tackling the housing and cost of living crisis and getting our country back on track,” he said. “This election is about who has a plan to get our country back on track, heal the unity divisions and bring a little pride back to Canada again.”

O’Toole did not respond to a request for an interview.

Canada’s Trudeau calls snap election in bid to regain parliamentary majority

O’Toole, a relative unknown outside political circles before he won his party’s leadership contest last summer, took the reins during a pandemic in which Trudeau has seized the spotlight. Introducing himself to voters has been a challenge.

He succeeded Andrew Scheer, whose Conservatives won the popular vote in the 2019 elections but finished second in the seat count behind the Liberals.

With Trudeau dogged by a string of scandals, including the revelation that he wore blackface as a younger man, some party members thought that election was Scheer’s to lose. But he drew criticism for struggling to define himself to voters, for presenting a weak climate-change plan and for failing to expand support for the party outside its traditional strongholds in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Peter MacKay, a former defense minister who squared off against O’Toole in last year’s leadership race, said Scheer’s socially conservative views on topics such as abortion and same-sex marriage “hung around [his] neck like a stinking albatross.” Scheer resigned the leadership several weeks after the loss.

In the 2017 Conservative Party leadership race, O’Toole ran as a moderate and finished third. In the 2020 race to replace Scheer, he cast himself as a “true blue” Conservative, pledging to “take back Canada,” railing against “cancel culture” and the “radical left,” and promising to slash funding to some elements of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Analysts say O’Toole won the contest in part by securing the ranked-ballot votes of social conservatives and gun rights advocates in Quebec. In his victory speech, he sought to pitch himself to a broader swath of the country.

“Whether you are Black, White, Brown or from any race or creed,” he said, “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 … you have a home in the Conservative Party.”

Canadian Conservatives choose Erin O’Toole to lead fight against Trudeau

Since then, he’s dropped the angry tone of the leadership race and tacked to the center. His signature phrase is no longer “take back Canada”; it’s “I have a plan.” His platform is a laundry list of proposals that are more moderate and centrist than those of his recent Conservative predecessors.

Its pledges include treating the opioid epidemic not as a law-and-order crisis but “the health issue that it is,” creating a mental health action plan, balancing the budget over a decade and implementing a price on carbon — albeit one that is far less than what the Liberals have announced.

The platform also makes a play for working-class voters targeted by the Liberals and New Democrats with vows to include worker representation on boards of directors in federally regulated sectors and to ban executives from paying themselves bonuses while a company is restructuring if its pension plan isn’t fully funded.

O’Toole judges Canada’s relationship with the United States as “neglected” and “decaying.” He has promised to resolve a long-standing dispute over softwood lumber, to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and to work with the United States on countering Russian and Chinese threats in the Arctic.

This shift to the center could present challenges on the right, where the right-wing populist People’s Party of Canada stands to benefit.

“One has to wonder how that’s going down with base,” Johnston said. “Maybe they’re just saying that’s what you have to do to win and they’re sucking it up. But it is a strikingly centrist platform … and completely at variance with O’Toole’s own appeal when he was seeking the leadership of the party. The guy has done the most blatant bait-and-switch pretty much in Canadian political history.”

O’Toole has clashed with party members over climate change. He told a party convention in March that “the debate is over” on climate change and that Canadians deserved a “serious” plan to tackle it. The next day, members voted down a motion to add the words “climate change is real” to the party’s policy book.

His platform included a pledge to repeal a Liberal ban on 1,500 makes and models of “assault-style” weapons. With questions about his position dogging him on the campaign trail, he reversed his position, saying he would keep the ban in place but order a review of the government’s firearms classification system.

O’Toole’s opponents have seized on the shifts to argue that he will say anything to get elected.

“The problem with [O’Toole’s] strategy, of course, is that your past statements follow you,” Béland said.

A series of attack ads released by the Liberals feature various clips of O’Toole during the leadership campaign pledging to “take back Canada.”

“The Conservative Party and Erin O’Toole — Don’t let them take Canada backwards,” the ads say.

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O’Toole was born in Montreal and raised in Bowmanville, a town some 50 miles east of Toronto, where he said he was a “middle-class kid.”

His mother, Mollie, a teacher, died of breast cancer when he was 9 years old. His interest in politics was nurtured in part by his father, John, who worked for several decades as a manger for General Motors before becoming a Progressive Conservative provincial lawmaker in Ontario.

O’Toole attended the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, and served as a navigator on a Sea King helicopter. He retired from the military, attended law school and spent a decade working as a lawyer, including as in-house counsel for Procter & Gamble. He founded a veterans charity.

O’Toole entered federal politics in 2012 and was named to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet in 2015 as veterans affairs minister.

His wife, Rebecca, and two children, Jack and Mollie, have often appeared by his side on the campaign trail. His social media pages often feature photos of him running.

Conservative strategist Tim Powers, chairman of the public affairs consulting firm Summa Strategies, said there’s “an opportunity” for O’Toole to make gains as the race winds down, with some voters expressing a desire for change and giving him a look.

“I would never write off the Liberals with two weeks to go in a campaign. They’re a fearsome political opponent,” Powers said. “For O’Toole, it’s about: ‘Is he believable? And do we have comfort with him as a voter that he will live up to the words he’s now uttering?’”

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