Politics

O'Toole vows to ease regional alienation, build diversity within Conservative Party

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said he will work to address regional divisions in Canada and build a more inclusive political party that better reflects the country's population.

Political experts say new leader must broaden support base, deal with suspicions around social conservatism

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole is holding his first news conference as leader Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said today he will work to address regional divisions in Canada and build a more inclusive political party that better reflects the country's population.

During his first news conference since winning the leadership on Monday, O'Toole said Canadians haven't always seen themselves reflected in the party.

"I'm going to change that," he said.

O'Toole won the leadership on the third ballot early Monday morning after a long night of delays caused by technical glitches in the ballot processing system. Final results, which were expected before 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, weren't announced until after 1 a.m. Monday.

On his first day on the job, O'Toole dealt with transition issues and spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about Western alienation, emergency pandemic funding and the government's decision to prorogue Parliament until Sept. 23.

O'Toole would not say today how his party intends to proceed on the confidence vote on the throne speech — which could trigger an election — but said it's critical for the government to address western alienation in its plan going forward.

"If they continue to leave out the ability for our resource sector to get Canadian resources to market, we're going to see more Western alienation, we're going to see less jobs and opportunity for Canadians in Ontario, in Atlantic Canada," he said.

"So we need to make sure that Canada's strength in natural resources is part of that economic plan. We can do that while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we have to be proud of what we produce here in Canada."

O'Toole said he wants to collaborate with the provinces instead of taking an "Ottawa knows best" approach.

In his acceptance speech early Monday, O'Toole said he would work to heal any internal rifts in the party and broaden the party's base of support.

"I believe that 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're doing well or barely getting by ... you are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada," he said.

O'Toole repeated a similar line today.

O'Toole says he has 'clear track record' on human rights

During the fall election campaign, his predecessor Andrew Scheer was dogged with questions about his social conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. O'Toole said today he has a "clear track record" when it comes to human rights.

"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 will be as prime minister. I'm in politics to defend the rights of Canadians to secure a brighter future."

O'Toole also noted he also was one of only 18 Conservative MPs to vote in favour of a bill advancing transgender rights.

Acknowledging he has work to do in getting Canadians to know him, O'Toole emphasized his middle class roots.

"I'm not famous, I'm not well known. I get things done. I don't drop the ball and I've always fought for Canadians," he said.

"I have no famous name. I just fight for Canadians. And after the pandemic, with record deficits, with the challenges we face in the world, we need a fighter. I think we're tired of a directionless, divisive and ethically challenged liberal government."

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said O'Toole will be a strong voice for his province and said he's confident he'll work to address regional alienation.

"One of the reasons I endorsed Erin is because he has been a consistent, long-time leader on real priority issues for Albertans around oil and gas, pipelines, fairness in the federation, jobs and the economy," he said.

'Bold efforts' required

Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, said O'Toole will need "bold efforts" to bring the Conservatives back to government.

He said that while Stephen Harper's strategy of assembling the minimum number of voters necessary to win worked to ensure a unified and well-funded party, it proved insufficient in the 2019 election.

"This is beyond appealing to specific groups of voters and policy areas — it's a mindset that sees growth and inclusion as a good, not just grudgingly necessary, thing," he said in an email response to questions from CBC News.

"In particular, the party must cultivate a more positive and collective vision, rather than the resentful individualism of its 2019 election slogan: 'It's time for you to get ahead.'"

David Stewart, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said one big challenge for O'Toole will be to appeal to voters who might have suspicions about the social conservative views of many within the party.

"The party can't win an election without overwhelming support from social conservatives, but it can't win if it is unable to reach out more broadly," he said in an email.

While leadership contender Peter MacKay had a narrow lead on the first ballot, O'Toole ended up taking 57 per cent of the votes, scooping up support from those who had supported social conservatives Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan. 

Liberal MP calls for Sloan's expulsion

Ontario Liberal MP Pam Damoff issued a news release calling on O'Toole to condemn "racism, misogyny and bigotry" within his caucus by removing Sloan from his team and refusing to sign his nomination papers for the next election.

She cited past statements from Sloan criticizing Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam that many people considered racist and pointed out that he supported conversion therapy.

"I am proud to be part of a caucus that believes in protecting LGBTQ2 rights and women's rights and sees Canada's diversity, including within our public service, as our greatest strength," she said in the release.

"If Mr. O'Toole wants to prove that he only pandered to far-right groups in order to win the leadership, and not as part of his vision for the next campaign, he has a lot of work ahead of him. However, the first item on his list needs to be removing Derek Sloan from his team."

O'Toole said he and Sloan have some "very stark differences" in positions, though there are some areas of overlap, such as shared concerns about China. O'Toole said he didn't agree with the way Sloan characterized some of his concerns.

"But certainly within a pandemic, within the race we were in, a lot of things were said. We're united now, we're going to talk together as a caucus soon," he said.

As leader of the Official Opposition, O'Toole is entitled to a salary top-up of $87,200 in addition to an MP's annual salary of $182,600, and the use of the official residence at Stornoway. Scheer has moved out of Stornoway already but there's no word yet on when the O'Toole family will take up occupancy.

Key appointments for leader's team

O'Toole also made some key appointments and announced one nomination today:

  • Tausha Michaud, a long-time political staffer who served as O'Toole's senior adviser when he was Veterans Affairs minister, becomes chief of staff.
  • Fred DeLorey, who led O'Toole's leadership campaign and has worked for the Conservative Party, former prime minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, was named national campaign manager.
  • Alupa Clarke, a former Conservative MP who served as O'Toole's Quebec campaign chair, was appointed senior adviser to the leader.
  • Janet Fryday Dorey, former president of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party, was nominated for the position of executive director of the Conservative Party of Canada. The nomination must be ratified by the party's national council.

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains was asked by a reporter if he had any concerns about O'Toole's appointments of Harper-era staff.

"They seem to be stuck in the past, stuck in divisive politics, stuck in a view that they need to muzzle funding for innovation. We've seen that film before," he said.

About the Author

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections.

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