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Erin O’Toole defends ‘pro-choice’ stance in pitch for more inclusive party

O’Toole’s stance on issues unlike past Conservative leaders
WATCH: O'Toole's stance on issues unlike past Conservative leaders

New Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says the only way for the party to move forward is to make sure more Canadians see themselves, their rights and their families reflected there.

In his first press conference as party leader, O’Toole faced questions on how he plans to address Western alienation and what his approach will be on supporting abortion rights and respect for LGBTQ2 Canadians.

Questions about the latter dogged his predecessor on the campaign trail last fall and have been cited by party insiders as significant factors in why Andrew Scheer failed to make greater inroads with swing voters in Ontario and Quebec.

“Canadians haven’t always seen themselves in our party. I’m going to change that,” O’Toole said in his opening statement at the press conference.

Erin O’Toole says he’s pro-choice, defends past voting record on abortion rights
Erin O’Toole says he’s pro-choice, defends past voting record on abortion rights

He was quickly asked several times about his position on defending abortion rights and LGBTQ2 rights.

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“I won the leadership of the Conservative Party as a pro-choice Conservative MP, one with a strong mandate. That’s how I’m going to lead as the leader of the Opposition,” O’Toole said.

‘I’m in politics to defend the rights of Canadians — to secure a brighter future.”

Read more: Party unity, election prep top priorities for new Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole

O’Toole defeated Peter MacKay, former leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, in a vote that stretched into the early hours of Monday morning in Ottawa.

Machines that were supposed to open the mail-in ballots cut into them instead, forcing hours of recounts and close scrutiny of the results.

MacKay had criticized Scheer’s social conservative views on abortion and same-sex marriage as a “stinking albatross” that hung around the neck of the party in the last election.

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Trudeau slams Scheer: It’s not enough to reluctantly support same-sex marriage, abortion

And while O’Toole billed himself as a pro-choice candidate and leader, he has also said he would allow his cabinet members to have free votes on matters of conscience if elected.

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He also voted in support of Bill C-225 in 2016, which sought to make it a criminal offence to “cause injury or death to a preborn child while committing or attempting to commit an offence against a pregnant woman.”

The bill failed and was widely criticized as a backdoor attempt to impart legal rights on a fetus, which critics warned would have the effect of granting a legal foothold for broader efforts to restrict abortion.

Erin O’Toole says Trudeau trying to trigger an early election during a crisis
Erin O’Toole says Trudeau trying to trigger an early election during a crisis

O’Toole was asked in French about his support for that bill on Tuesday and defended it.

“It was a bill on public safety, in fact, and I voted in favour to have debate in committee on that bill because it was on safety for women. That is my approach. It’s possible to listen to people and be a pro-choice MP,” he said.

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The reporter pushed back in French: “But women’s rights advocates will tell you that’s the kind of bill that tries to open up cracks to reopen the abortion debate.”

“That was a bill on criminal sentencing, actually,” O’Toole insisted. “I have a clear record.”

Read more: A look at the new Conservative leader and what he is promising

O’Toole also defended his voting record on equality issues for LGBTQ2 Canadians.

He pointed to the fact he was one of 18 Conservatives MPs to support C-279, an NDP private members’ bill introduced under the Stephen Harper government that sought to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

It’s often cited as an early model of a bill later passed by the Liberals that enshrined gender identity as a prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 2017.

O’Toole abstained from that later vote on the Liberal legislation.

He has also said he will march in Pride parades, but will not march in the Toronto Pride parade specifically until police officers are allowed to march in uniform as well.

Uniformed police officers were barred indefinitely from taking part in the Toronto Pride parade last year.

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Reporters also asked O’Toole whether he will allow social conservative Derek Sloan to continue sitting in the caucus and sign his nomination papers in order to run again in the next election.

Read more: Ontario Tory MPs pressed Sloan to apologize for questioning top doctor’s loyalties. Instead, he defended himself

Sloan supported an early leadership candidate who espoused the false view that being gay is a choice, and faced intense criticism earlier in the year after he publicly questioned the loyalties of chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam, asking: “Does she work for Canada or for China?”

O’Toole said he has “very stark differences” with Sloan on a number of matters and suggested he plans to speak with Sloan, but did not specify about what.

“In a leadership race there’s always some pressure, there’s ideas, there’s a contrast of ideas and that’s finished,” he said.

“Certainly within a pandemic, within the race we were in, a lot of things were said.

“We’re united as a caucus.”

Erin O’Toole highlights ‘western alienation’ as Conservative Party’s top priority
Erin O’Toole highlights ‘western alienation’ as Conservative Party’s top priority

O’Toole said he plans to focus on working to work together with people he disagrees with, including saying he “will collaborate” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if possible this fall.

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“I’m going to be a bit of a sea change for Canadians because you know what? I respect people even when I don’t agree with them,” he said.

“I’m not afraid to fight for things I believe in and I’m not afraid to respect people with a different point of view.”

But he said over the last four years, an “Ottawa knows best” attitude has alienated many Canadians, particularly those in Western provinces where resource production has historically been a major source of jobs.

Because of that, he said he wants to see a plan from the government in the throne speech on Sept. 23 that addresses the need to get resources to market.

“We need to make sure Canada’s strength in natural resources is part of that plan.”

Kenney confident Erin O’Toole will be good for Alberta
Kenney confident Erin O’Toole will be good for Alberta