Erin O’Toole Is the New Conservative Leader of Canada. But Who Is He?

His voting record suggests he’s a moderate. But his leadership campaign was largely aimed at the angriest online Conservatives.
Mack Lamoureux
Toronto, CA
August 24, 2020, 4:57pm
The Canadian Conservatives have a new leader and Justin Trudeau has a new foe in Erin O’Toole.
Newly elected Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole delivers his winning speech following the Conservative party of Canada 2020 Leadership Election in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Canadian Conservatives have a new leader and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a new foe in Erin O’Toole.

At the end of a long, botched online leadership convention early Monday morning that saw the results delayed over six hours, the party declared O’Toole its new leader, beating Peter MacKay, the perceived frontrunner when the race started. The victory comes as the increasingly embattled Trudeau faces down several scandals and the resignation of his finance minister during the biggest economic crisis in a century.

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O’Toole, 47, is a military veteran and former lawyer who has been an MP in a Toronto area riding since 2012. During his time in office, O’Toole served as the minister of veterans affairs under Stephen Harper and the shadow minister of foreign affairs. The leadership vote was decided via ranked ballots and O’Toole won on the third ballot with 57 percent of the votes. MacKay, despite winning the first ballot, finished with only 43 percent of the vote.

The leadership race had been on since December after former leader Andrew Scheer decided to step down following a disappointing showing in the 2019 election and questions about his use of party funds, including to pay for his children's private school tuition. During the race, O’Toole ran as the “true-blue” candidate and positioned himself to the right of MacKay, whom he repeatedly cast as “Liberal-lite.”

Despite his campaign, which was largely run by Jeff Ballingall—one of the top right-wing agitators in Canada—O’Toole has the voting history of a moderate. O’Toole said during the race that while he'll let his MPs vote their conscience on social issues he is still supportive of progressive causes like gay marriage and abortion.

Multiple political beat reporters have written that O’Toole’s shift further-right was because it was politically expedient to win over the party’s social conservative base and that it plays better online. Now that the leadership election is over, it's expected that O’Toole will pivot back to his moderate ways. Political commentators say this was evident in his victory speech.

"Whether you're doing well or barely getting by, whether you worship on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or not at all … you are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada," O’Toole said Monday.

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Helping O’Toole gain traction from the online conservative base was Ballingall, who served as the O’Toole campaign digital director since the start of the year.

Ballingall, dubbed “The King Of Canadian Conservative Shitposting” by Canadaland in 2017, is remarkably influential with younger conservatives and Facebook users who are into memes. He created and helped create several well-funded (and criticized) online right-wing endeavours. He’s the man behind the network of “Proud” Facebook pages, including Ontario Proud, which has over half a million members, and Canada Proud, which currently has over 200,000 members. The pages have been described as meme factories and post a plethora of anti-Trudeau and anti-left content.

While Ballingall said that his online platforms would remain neutral, the Proud pages started pushing for O’Toole only days after Ballingall joined the campaign. Typically, the pages would wholesale repost O’Toole campaign messages to their large audiences. Ballingall likewise tapped into a large database of conservative supporters he had built over his years as a conservative activist.

Ballingall is also a co-owner and chief marketing officer of the right-wing news outlet the Post Millennial, which has been criticized for running partisan “disinformation” on the Australian wildfires and Black Lives Matter. In May, MacKay issued a libel notice against the Post Millennial for a story about polling numbers that insinuated MacKay’s campaign was failing. The Post Millennial pushed back on claims it was providing slanted coverage in favour of O'Toole.

After O’Toole’s victory, Ballingall posted an image of him taking a swig from a bottle of champagne with the caption, “Did we win?”

The results of O’Toole’s victory were expected on Sunday but were long-delayed and not announced until the early Monday morning hours. The party said that the machine opening mailed in ballots actually damaged thousands of them and it forced scrutineers to either tape up the damaged ballots or remark them entirely. The party received 175,000 votes, the highest in its history.

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