After Andrew Scheer resigned as the leader of the Conservative Party, a leadership election began and the man who would win and take over the party was a former soldier named Erin O’Toole.
O’Toole was born in Montreal on Jan. 22, 1973, the oldest of five children but his family would move to Port Perry, Ontario when he was only one. His father John was of Irish descent and his mother had come to Canada after the Second World War as a toddler.
He would attend elementary school in the community but after the tragic death of his mother from breast cancer when he was nine, his father moved the family to Bowmanville.
As a young man, O’Toole would become interested in acting, and he would appear in several theatre productions at the Bowmanville High School, although he never had the lead.
After high school, O’Toole decided to attend the Royal Military College in Kingston.
He would state quote:
“I just really sort of fell in love with the mystique of pushing myself physically, learning leadership skills.”
Upon his graduation, he had earned an Honours Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science. At this point, he became a commissioned officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
O’Toole made the decision to serve with the military because of his grandfathers, both of whom served in the Second World War. His mother’s work with Vietnamese refugees also played a large role in his decision.
The same year that O’Toole went to attend the Royal Military College, his father was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, where he would serve as a Progressive Conservative MPP for 19 years.
After earning his wings in Winnipeg, he was assigned to the 12 Wing in Shearwater, Nova Scotia with the 423rd Squadron. With the squadron, he would serve as a tactical navigator on Sea King helicopters, performing search and rescue missions with the Royal Canadian Navy. He would earn the Sikorsky Helicopter Rescue Award for rescuing an injured fisherman at sea.
One of the first times O’Toole appeared in print was when his Sea King made an emergency landing in April 2000. The chopper began leaking oil and was forced to land on a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia.
By 2000, O’Toole transferred to the Reserve Force upon reaching the rank of captain. He would remain with the reserves for three years.
As a training officer with the 406 Squadron, he would attend Dalhousie University and earn a law degree. It was also in Halifax he would meet his wife Rebecca and together they would have two children.
In 2003, O’Toole graduated with a law degree and the family moved to Toronto. Specializing in corporate law, he would work for several firms handling litigation cases, and advised management on environmental, competition and commercial issues.
As his law career grew, O’Toole would serve on the board of the Royal Military College. It was in that position that he would start the Clarington Youth and Community Leadership Dinner that raised money to build schools in Africa. He would also co-chair a project to protect fish habitat and to create a recreation area along Bowmanville Creek.
He would also lead efforts to create a memorial to Canadians who served in Afghanistan. As an ambassador with the Vimy Foundation, he helped commemorate the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017.
In 2012, O’Toole ran in a by-election to become the Member of Parliament for Durham. He would win in a landslide victory, taking 50.7 per cent of the vote. This was also the provincial riding his father held, making the first time that a father and son represented the same riding on either the provincial or federal level.
In September 2013, O’Toole was appointed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade.
In 2014, O’Toole, with Senator Romeo Dallaire, hosted the first Samuel Sharpe Memorial Breakfast, which honoured MP Samuel Simpson Sharpe, a former First World War soldier who committed suicide in 1918 upon his return to Canada from the front. O’Toole would put forward a motion four years later to have a plaque honouring Sharpe on Parliament Hill, which passed unanimously.
In January 2015, he was appointed the Minister of Veteran’s Affairs. He would say of his appointment, quote:
“It is an honour for me to serve our veterans. I served, myself, and they’re some of our finest.”
The Royal Canadian Legion would state they were happy a veteran was in charge of the portfolio but questioned whether or not anything would change.
At the time, veterans were suing the government over benefit cuts. O’Toole would work to rebuild trust between veterans and the government.
O’Toole would say quote:
“I want to create an informed and respectful dialogue about the opportunities and challenges facing our veterans. In the last few years, we haven’t always seen that, and that’s not serving veterans.”
After the Conservatives lost the 2015 election and Harper resigned as leader, O’Toole was re-elected, and he made it known he would like to be interim leader. In the end, he did not become interim leader, but new interim leader Rona Ambrose made him the shadow cabinet critic for public safety.
In 2016, O’Toole was one of 13 Conservatives who ran to lead the party. Announcing his candidacy, he would say quote:
“As we look to the future, our priorities are clear. We need to reconnect with Canadians. We need to show Canadians that government can, and must, be so much more than sunny way, slogans and photo ops”
While O’Toole was relatively new in Parliament compared to others he was running against, and had only briefly held a cabinet position, he believed he had the experience for the position. He would say quote:
“I believe that I have the experience and track record to help our Conservative team win back the trust of Canadians. From my years in uniform and my time in the private sector, to my experience as an MP and cabinet minister, I’ve learned what it takes to lead, and to succeed.”
Presenting himself as part of the progressive wing of the party, he would finish third in the race despite having endorsements from 31 MPs, 12 former MPs and 17 provincial politicians.
New leader Andrew Scheer appointed O’Toole as the foreign affairs critic. After the 2019 election, O’Toole once again won his riding, even though the Conservatives did not defeat the Liberals. When Scheer resigned, O’Toole put his name in to be the new leader of the party.
This time, he did not run on a progressive campaign, and instead stated he was the only candidate who was a True-Blue Conservative. His slogan was Take Back Canada, which was meant to take the country back from the spending policies of the Liberals, but many compared it to the Make America Great Again slogan of Donald Trump.
O’Toole would make a video on Feb. 14, stating that CBC was out of control and promising to slash the funding to the public broadcaster, while adding he would maintain funding of Radio Canada and CBC Radio. He would say quote:
“Taxpayer dollars should not pay for things like a Canadian version of Family Feud. Nor should they fund CBC News Network, a channel no different from its private sector competitors.”
On March 23, 2020, O’Toole called for the leadership vote to be postponed due to Covid-19. He would state quote:
“I’m asking the leadership committee of the Conservative Party of Canada to delay the Conservative leadership contest to ensure that all time and resources of our Conservative caucus and our grassroots members can be focused on helping our constituents and the needs of our communities in the fight against Covid-19.”
In the end, the election would be held through mail-in ballots and postponed until Aug. 23.
On June 20, 2020, O’Toole would accuse the campaign of his main rival, Peter MacKay, of obtaining stolen internal campaign data and video strategy conferences by gaining log-in data for Zoom conferences.
On Aug. 24, O’Toole emerged as the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada with 57 per cent of the vote on the third ballot.
O’Toole would state in his victory speech, quote:
O’Toole came in as the Leader of the Opposition during a very strange time in Canada as the country dealt with a difficult economy and a worldwide pandemic. O’Toole would work during this time to unite the party and bring in new voters from groups that typically stayed away from the Conservative Party including Francophones and LGBTQ individuals.
When statues of Sir John A. Macdonald were toppled amid protests against systemic racism, O’Toole would state that doing so would quote:
“Be dooming Canada to forget its history.”
He would also be criticized for defending Egerton Ryerson, when he said that the Residential School System was created to provide education. He would later retract his comments.
On the environment side of things, O’Toole stated that climate change was a global problem that needed a global solution. He would commit to meeting the Paris Agreement targets. Prior to the 2021 election, O’Toole would attempt to convince members of the party to support a serious agenda aimed at curbing climate change, stating he did not want the party to be labelled as climate change denying. The party rejected this motion, with 54 per cent voting against recognizing that climate change was real.
O’Toole also supported same-sex marriage and pledged to walk in pride parades under the condition that uniformed police officers could do so as well. He also supported ending restrictions on gay men donating blood and banning conversion therapy.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Toole would criticize the Trudeau government for not having rapid and at-home testing options, arguing that the economy would be unstable if a vaccine was not available. When vaccine rollouts began, he criticized the government for not providing them to citizens as quickly as countries such as the United Kingdom and United States.
In September 2020, he would test positive for Covid-19, and his wife would test positive soon after. He would remain in self-isolation until the end of the month.
Under O’Toole, the Conservative Party began trying to attract working class people to the party, citing his support of unions. Despite his support of unions, most union leaders were skeptical due to his Parliamentary voting record.
On Aug. 15, 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an election. Soon after, O’Toole released a 160-page Conservative Party platform. The platform included promises to take action on climate change, a child care tax credit, funding for health care and business support during the pandemic.
While the Liberal started the campaign high in the polls, by Sept. 8, polls had the Conservatives at 35 per cent compared to 32 per cent for the Liberals.
In both the French and English debates, O’Toole did well, and he would focus on giving a centralist message to voters. He would announce that the Conservatives would have a carbon pricing policy, and he would distance himself from Conservative views on abortion and LGBTQ issues.
As the final week approached, O’Toole started to see the Conservative numbers fall as O’Toole was criticized for allowing several Conservative candidates to be unvaccinated. As COVID-19 infection rates rose in Alberta and hospitalization rates increased, support in the province for the Conservatives took a dip. O’Toole had previously praised Alberta’s policy of opening everything up for summer, which was now hurting the province dearly.
On Sept. 20, the Liberals won another minority government and the Conservatives once again finished second and continued on as the Official Opposition. The party lost two seats from the previous election.
After the election, O’Toole announced that he would stay on as leader and would rebuild the party. While many praised his push to move the party to the centre, a petition began calling for a referendum to remove O’Toole from leadership. Within a few days, it had 2,400 signatures.
Throughout the autumn and winter, pressure mounted on O’Toole to resign as the leader of the party. Denise Batters, a Conservative Senator, called for a confidence vote on his leadership to be held. In response, O’Toole removed Batters from caucus.
On Jan. 31, 2022, anti-vaccine protests descended on Ottawa and the far right of the Conservative Party took advantage of this to announce that they had received several written requests for a leadership review.
On Feb. 2, 2022, a secret ballot on O’Toole’s leadership was held. O’Toole would say on Facebook quote:
“There are two roads open to the Conservative Party of Canada. One is angry, negative and extreme. It is a dead-end, one that would see the party of Confederation become the NDP of the right. The other road is to better reflect Canada of 2022. To recognize that conservatism is organic not static and that a winning message is one of inclusion, optimism, ideas and hope.”
When the 118-member caucus voted, a majority voted for O’Toole to be removed from leadership. In response to this, O’Toole resigned as leader of the party. He would be replaced by Candice Bergen, who was voted an interim leader until a new leader was chosen.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Windsor Star, Wikipedia, Whitehorse Daily Star, The Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Sun, National Post, Calgary Herald,
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