Updated: Jan 22
By Luke Montalbano
Image via le Droit
Who is Erin O’Toole? This is the question on many Canadians’ minds as we draw nearer to a speculated Spring election that pits the untested leader of the Conservative Party: Erin O’Toole against scandal riddled Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Erin O’Toole is a fairly new face to politics, only being elected in 2012 - fairly recent for most Conservative MPs - and has only held the cabinet position of Veterans Affairs between January and November of 2015, before the Liberals swept to power. In 2017, he ran for the Conservative Party leadership placing a surprising 3rd place, outpacing many veteran MPs and card-holding Conservative members.
His campaign in 2017 was strictly run as a progressive conservative - a “Red Tory” - and because of this, he drew significant support from the moderate wing of the party. His social policies were aligned with the “centre” as he openly supported pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ legislation, alongside further action towards reconciliation with the indigenous communities of Canada. Nonetheless, the social Conservatives, who were aligned to the right of the party, still held a hefty majority of the votes, leading to his defeat against Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier - two Conservatives who were staunchly “right wing” social conservatives. Since 2017, Mr. O’Toole has slowly but surely worked his way up through the ”Tory” ranks, eventually being appointed Official Opposition Critic for Foreign Affairs. He has become one of the leading voices in opposition to the appeasement policies of the Trudeau government, towards dictatorial nations such as China and Sudan. During his time as Foreign Affairs Critic, he took a strong stance against human rights abuses across the globe and advocated for further international cooperation in multiple areas of governance, and opposed what he believed to be weak policy by the Trudeau government in dealing with nations that violated international laws. He most notably called for the creation of CANZUK, an alliance between Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, that would allow free movement of citizens, closer economic integration and greater foreign policy and military cooperation.
His policies on National Defense and Foreign Affairs have often been shaped by his service in the Canadian Armed Forces where he operated as a Captain in the 423 Maritime Helicopter Squadron. He says that serving in the Canadian Armed Forces taught him the value of serving and protecting Canadians and gave him a different perspective than traditional politicians.
O’Toole has voiced serious concerns that Canadian sovereignty, especially in the north, has been continually undermined by major powers such as Russia, compounded by an almost complete capitulation of any significant Canadian development and actions of ownership of the Northwest Passage. Mr. O’Toole has stated that he supports the construction of deepwater ports in Churchill (Manitoba) and Baffin Island (Nunavut) to spur economic growth and has advocated for the Canadian Armed Forces and Coast Guard to protect Canada’s arctic from foreign aggression and pollution causing foreign vessels.
In 2019, after a disastrous outcome in the federal election by Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Party sought a new leader. Although many were speculated to run - Rona Ambrose, Jean Charest, Pierre Poilievre - none of these expected frontrunners did. Four candidates ran for leadership and three of four had little name recognition (including Erin O’Toole). Very quickly, Mr. O’Toole found himself in a 2-way race with the former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Peter MacKay. Despite Mr. MacKay being a household name, a famed minister and the former deputy to PM Stephen Harper, he had created too many gaffes and ran a poor overall campaign, which led to dwindling support, and as time went on his campaign lead vaporised.
This put Mr. O’Toole in a good position to win. He strategically recognized that he could not maintain the same strategy that he had pursued in 2017. This time he had to run on issues to satisfy the socially right-wing of the party, while still maintaining the support of the progressive centre. With Peter Mackay stumbling and losing votes quickly, vote splitting became a serious concern which could very well have led to the up and coming social conservative Leslyn Lewis, the first female person of color to run for Conservative Party leader, to win the leadership race. For this reason, O’Toole continued to shift his policy platform to increasingly appeal to the Party’s social conservatives/blue tories, which were very clearly identified in his slogan of “True Blue”.
His policies revolved around Stephen Harper-era populist conservatism. Mr. O’Toole’s campaign conservatism specifically supported “industrialization-at-all-costs” by demanding a complete repeal of the Carbon Tax as well as opposition to two current bills in parliament with aims to combat climate change by obstructing the construction of pipelines and the movement of oil.
His social policy platform for this Conservative Leadership race was radically different than what he supported in 2017, especially on abortion. His view on the matter became quieter in his support for pro-choice legislation and he even went as far to say that he would cancel foreign aid spending for safe abortions - a dangerous policy that could diminish Canada’s prominent role in social policy advancements on the world stage.
Ultimately, his strategy paid off, he won the leadership race by a fairly wide margin, outpacing both Leslyn Lewis and Peter MacKay in total points allotted (although Ms. Lewis won the popular vote, her support was so condensed into a few provinces that it did not translate into points). He had successfully garnered the support of the religious right within the party, something that he was unable to do in 2017.
With the Conservative leadership race behind him, Erin O’Toole has taken a dramatic U-turn on his parliamentary campaign platform. O’Toole, once again, is openly stating that as a future Prime Minister he is Pro-Choice, Pro-LGBTQ and supports drastic action against climate change. His tone towards unions has surprisingly shifted, calling them essential to the Canadian economy and way of life - an attempt to appeal to new voters. On the other hand, his economic policy has stayed fairly consistent; he is supportive of cutting taxes for small businesses and individuals, while ensuring that he wipes out the deficit within a decade of taking power.
Although popular opinion would suggest that Erin O’Toole has done well in his early days as a Conservative leader, the fact is he has reversed his platform position from his Conservative leadership race specifically related to social issues on women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and immigration. Who is the real Erin O’Toole?
Although Erin O’Toole is fairly unknown, he has effectively positioned himself in a way that only he will be able to define himself to Canadians. Erin O’Toole has seemingly exceeded expectations in most areas of political stewardship. He has begun revolutionizing the party by focusing on attracting people from all sides of the political spectrum -- union workers, Quebec nationalists, centrists and Indigenous.
Only time will tell us who Erin O’Toole really is, and more importantly, what modern Conservatives truly stand for.
Written by writer Luke Montalbano