Bad Tweets and Anti-Abortion Advocates Pose Challenge for New Canadian Conservative Leader

Erin O’Toole has promised to make the Conservatives more mainstream and thus more electable. But he’s already dealing with anti-abortion groups and MPs tweeting out conspiracy theories.
August 31, 2020, 5:29pm
Erin O'Toole, Conservative party
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds his first news conference as leader on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Erin O’Toole became the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada one week ago, declaring: “It’s time for more Canadians to look at the Conservative Party again.”

To help with that, O’Toole has tried to pitch himself, and the party, as open to all Canadians.

“Whether you are Black, white, brown or from any race or creed, whether you are LGBT or straight,” O’Toole said during his victory speech. (Although he wouldn’t say whether he believes systemic racism exists in Canada during an interview on Sunday with Global News.)

And O’Toole is already grappling with a number of tests to his leadership, including balancing the social conservative base that contributed to the downfall of former leader Andrew Scheer, dealing with a Twitter controversy involving caucus members sharing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and introducing himself to Canadians, and the world, as a serious alternative to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with the possibility that an election could be called as early as this fall.

After O’Toole became leader, the more progressive wing of the party rejoiced that O’Toole repeated his pro-choice stance, and said that he would champion LGBTQ+ rights. It was starkly different from Scheer who had refused to march in Pride parades and had previously opposed same-sex marriage.

Moments after O’Toole won the leadership race, Conservative Alberta MP Michelle Rempel Garner tweeted she was “feeling renewed and excited.” O’Toole “clearly articulated his position on women’s and LGBTQ rights right up front—full support and proud of his voting record. YASSS! More of this!” she said.

Yet O’Toole made a concerted effort to court the party’s social conservative base throughout his leadership campaign, leaning as far right as possible, and vowing to “Take Back Canada.”

Now that he’s leader, the so-cons have high expectations that O’Toole and the party will support their goals when it comes to a range of moral issues, including restricting funding for abortions abroad. But this vocal cohort is likely a stumbling block for O’Toole as he tries to unite the party and attract support from the majority of Canadians who may not share these same moral preoccupations.

“There's this real dissonance between the party members, particularly the social conservatives within the party, and the broader electorate,” said Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary. And O’Toole’s allyship with them could make him vulnerable.

One of the groups that’s keeping a close eye on O’Toole and the party is the anti-abortion group RightNow, formed in the wake of the 2015 election with the sole mission of electing federal candidates who identify as “pro-life.” RightNow claims they sold at least 10,000 Conservative Party memberships during this leadership race alone.

Leslyn Lewis, a Toronto lawyer and unabashed social conservative who ran on an anti-abortion platform, was the group’s first choice for leader followed by rookie MP Derek Sloan, who’s also anti-abortion and known for spouting far-right rhetoric. O’Toole was propelled to first place because half of Lewis’ 60,000 supporters named him their second choice over perceived frontrunner Peter MacKay, who earlier this year described Andrew Scheer’s social conservatism as a “stinking albatross” around his neck.

Scott Hayward, RightNow’s co-founder, told VICE News that O’Toole has the backing of social conservatives—in spite of being pro-choice—for a number of reasons: he didn’t insult them like MacKay did; he’ll allow MPs to raise issues that are important to them, including “pro-life” ones; he would allow MPs to vote freely on “pro-life” matters; his Conservative government wouldn’t allocate any foreign aid for abortion services; and he would oppose the Liberals’ attempts to expand the criteria for medical assistance in dying.

“Those five things are the red line for pro-lifers in the party,” Hayward said. He pointed to O’Toole’s interview with RightNow earlier this year in which O’Toole said: “I do not think that abortion services should be part of our foreign aid funding in any way.”

I think he's going to present a formidable challenge to Justin Trudeau

Last year, Trudeau announced his government would increase international aid for women’s health to $1.4 billion a year, half of which would be earmarked for safe abortion and reproductive health services.

In that same interview with RightNow, O’Toole said he values “the pro-lifers in our party” and respects “their important role in our movement.” Hayward clearly agrees, adding that the social conservatives aren’t going anywhere.

“It’s alive and well. It’s growing,” he said. “We'd much rather work with (O’Toole) and his team on those five points, accomplishing them, than having to deal with them backtracking on it, which at this point, we have no indication they would.”

Another anti-abortion group, Campaign Life Coalition, the largest in the country, claims it brought in more than 26,000 members, and has launched a petition calling on O’Toole to put Sloan in his shadow cabinet. Lewis announced she’ll run for the party during the next election somewhere in Ontario or Western Canada, and will announce which riding sometime this week.

Last weekend, O’Toole and the party faced a flare-up over a now-deleted tweet by British Columbia MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay who had retweeted a 2009 clip of Liberal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland interviewing billionaire philanthropist George Soros when she worked as a journalist with the Financial Times.

On Saturday, Findlay tweeted that Canadians should be alarmed by the “closeness” between Freeland and Soros, who is Jewish, and frequently referenced in anti-Semitic and far-right conspiracy theories.

After hours of outcry, Findlay, the party’s environment critic, deleted the retweet and apologized.

“I thoughtlessly shared content from what I am now learning is a source that promotes hateful conspiracy theories,” she wrote. “I have removed the tweets and apologize to anyone who thinks I would want to endorse hateful rhetoric.”

MP Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative’s finance critic, re-tweeted Findlay’s now deleted tweet, but it’s gone from his page and he hasn’t commented since.

However, Findlay’s apology was not enough for Charles Adler, a high-profile conservative radio host who chastised O’Toole, a frequent guest of his, for not condemning or sanctioning Findlay. It should be noted that O’Toole’s campaign was largely led by Jeff Ballingall, a political consultant behind the vehemently anti-Trudeau Ontario Proud and Canada Proud Facebook pages and co-owner of right-wing media site The Post Millennial, which has been criticized for spreading misinformation.

“The Erin O'Toole I used to know would have unhesitatingly condemned the old #antisemitic libel about wealthy Jewish financiers controlling governments around the world,” Adler tweeted in a 19-post thread on Sunday.

Adler had been disillusioned with the party for years, but said this was the end.

“It's now blindingly obvious to me that calling myself a Canadian conservative is nothing more than an exercise in self delusion,” Adler wrote. “And so on this day, August 30th 2020, let's make it official. I am no longer a conservative.”

When asked about Findlay’s tweets and Adler’s thread, O’Toole spokesperson Kelsie Chiasson sent VICE News a single sentence by email: “MP Findlay has removed the tweets and apologized.”

Garnett Genuis, Conservative MP for Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, told VICE News that “if we want to move forward together and effectively deal with problems of misinformation online, I think we need to work to identify those problems when they happen while extending grace to people, instead of cancelling anybody who makes an honest mistake.”

Although he doesn’t have much brand recognition within the Conservatives, let alone outside of it, O’Toole’s next moves will make or break his reputation, and determine whether he can succeed where his predecessor failed. While the party won the popular vote, it did not garner enough support in Ontario and Quebec, where the majority of the seats in the House of Commons reside. Critics blamed party infighting and Scheer’s history of conservatism as the main reasons why Scheer was unable to overtake the Liberals, especially as they were embroiled in the SNC-Lavalin controversy, and multiple images of Trudeau in blackface emerged during the campaign.

For University of Saskatchewan political science professor Greg Poelzer, O’Toole’s platform signals O’Toole is taking a different direction from Scheer with promises that include guaranteeing clean drinking water “for every Indigenous community in Canada” and proposals on the environment. However, O’Toole has also promised to “fight the carbon tax with every last breath.”

“He is moving the Conservative Party much more to the mainstream than it was under Andrew Scheer,” Poelzer said.

Poelzer added O’Toole has the potential to be more successful than Stephen Harper, who served as Conservative Prime Minister for nearly 10 years before Trudeau.

“I think he's going to present a formidable challenge to Justin Trudeau. The challenge he's got, of course, is most Canadians don't really know him,” Poelzer said.

An Ipsos survey conducted just before the leadership race found that 68 percent of Canadians didn’t know enough about O’Toole to come up with an informed opinion about him—and a majority of party members were not familiar with him.

Alanna Clark, a senior consultant at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and organizer for O’Toole’s leadership campaign, told VICE News that the most important thing for O’Toole now is to be able to define himself before his opponents have the chance to do so.

“In the last election, we saw the Conservatives completely shut out of basically every major urban centre in the country,” Clark said, adding that O’Toole will have to find ways to appeal to urban and suburban regions.

“That’s going to mean having an answer to climate policy. It’s going to mean… not being a scary conservative with a hidden agenda, which he is not, but finding a way to communicate that to people.”

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