The West Block — Episode 52, Season 9

The West Block: One-on-one with Erin O’Toole
Watch The full episode of the West Block from Aug. 30, 2020


Episode 52, Season 9

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole

Panel: Natalie Pon, Sarbjit Kaur

Location: Toronto, Ontario

[Crowd cheers and applause]
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Unidentified Male: “All right, next prime minister!”

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Re-tooling the Conservative Party.

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: “I believe in this country and I’m running to serve you as Prime Minister.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Erin O’Toole, one-on-one. Will he try to force a fall election?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: “If Mr. Trudeau thinks he can play some games with the new leader and force an election, we will be ready.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And his plan to re-shape Canada.

Heather McPherson, NDP MP: “This is a man who was a key part of Stephen Harper’s team.”

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: “The world still needs more Canada. It just needs less Justin Trudeau.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Hello. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block coming to you today from downtown Toronto, a key battleground in the next election. We’re here to meet with the new Conservative leader Erin O’Toole.

O’Toole swept to victory in a leadership campaign that looked like no other in Canadian history, defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite the damper on traditional campaigning, there was historic voter turnout. Nearly 175,000 Canadians cast their ballots with the unexpected result of O’Toole beating out Tory superstar, Peter MacKay.

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But now the real work begins. O’Toole must unite the party, introduce himself to Canadians, and be ready for a snap election that could come as early as this fall. Can he balance the budgets, social conservative views in his caucus, appeal to urban voters and lay out his vision for Canada as the man who wants to become the next prime minister?

Erin O’Toole, congratulations. Welcome to The West Block, here first time as Conservative leader.

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: It’s great to be here in Toronto on Cherry Beach, Sugar Beach, for my first interview in a region I’m very proud to be from.

Mercedes Stephenson: And this is going to be a key region in the next election. It’s one the Conservatives have really struggled with in the past. What is your message to voters in places like the GTA, especially suburban voters, especially women who have not traditionally been Tory voters in the last couple elections?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: Well, the speech I gave at 1:30 in the morning, I said it’s time for a lot of Canadians to take another look at the Conservative Party, including many voters in the GTA, here in the 416. More women, more new Canadians, we actually have a very diverse talented and passionate caucus. We’re going to be growing that and we want to fight for the interests of Canadians, particularly after the pandemic. Small businesses, start-ups here in Toronto are having trouble and they’re going to see a Conservative Party really putting forward a plan for the future with a new generation of leadership who is focused on the wellbeing of the country and not images and selfies as we’ve seen with Mr. Trudeau.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And people hear that and it all sounds great, but I guess I’m wondering, you ran as a true blue Conservative. What does true blue Conservative, Erin O’Toole’s conservatism look like? What’s your vision for Canada?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole:  Well true blue is trust. It’s professionalism and it’s about delivering. Everyone knows I’m very pro-rights. I was in the military to defend Canada to defend our rights. I’m going to stand up for LGBT rights, women’s rights. And then once people know that’s the position of the leader, then they can focus on the economic plans we’re going to roll out. They know the Conservatives are strong on job creation, the economy, safe communities, and a principled approach in the world. I’m not about dressing up and making everything about me as Justin Trudeau is. I’m about making it about you, about Canadian families who are worried after the pandemic. So I’m inviting people, take a look. We’re going to win the next election and I want to earn people’s trust.

Mercedes Stephenson: So, what kind of policies is that, though, because people think Conservatives and fairly or not, they think cuts.

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: The Liberals have no plan after the CERB. We were putting out plans for emergency assistance in the EI in February, long before the government even acted to reduce the risks from the coronavirus. So we’re going to make sure the economy’s growing again, that capital comes to Canada, that there’s jobs and investment. And you’re going to see a series of policies rolled out that I’m very excited about because I was in the private sector here in Toronto for 10 years, after my military time but before politics. As I said, I’m not a celebrity. I’m here to fight for Canadian interests and Canadian families, and that’s what I think particularly in the GTA, people want, someone who understands what we need to do as a country and will fight for them.

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Mercedes Stephenson: So Erin, you’re obviously very critical of the government. It’s your job. You’re the leader of the Opposition, but you also haven’t overtly called for an election and I asked you the last time you were on the show if you wanted one and you said well, we have a leadership, you know, convention that still has to happen. You’re now the leader. Do you want an election this fall?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole:  My focus is on the economy and on job creation for Canadians. The Liberals are rattling the sword, trying to maybe force an election. They’re playing some games. We’re sharpening our sword. We’ll be ready to fight. But that’s not my priority. My priority is to make sure that the full impact of the first wave of COVID is understood, both from a health perspective: are we ready for a future wave? But the job creation piece, the CERB and all the programs they’re winding down, I have a plan to save small business. A lot of small business didn’t qualify for rent assistance, didn’t get some of the business assistance loans. We have to make sure that we see jobs for Canadians as the emergency programs wind down. That’s going to be our priority.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is there a poison pill? A red line for you that if it’s in the throne speech or if it’s in the budget, you will try to take the government down?

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Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: We can oppose what the government’s doing without allowing them to try and take advantage of a pandemic and a crisis for an election. Let’s not kid anybody watching at home. This is what Justin Trudeau is doing. Why do you think he prorogued Parliament because Pierre Poilievre, Michael Baird, our team were destroying them at committee.

Mercedes Stephenson: You don’t think that they wanted to hit the reset on something that they haven’t had a budget for because it was a pandemic?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole:  The reset? They just lost their finance minister who was manipulating the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars to help their friends in a pandemic. This is endemic for the Liberals. It’s always who you know in the Liberal Party, whether it’s big companies like SNC-Lavalin or even charities like WE. Liberals always put themselves and their insiders first. So, I’m a military guy: truth, duty, valour. I’m going to run an ethical government that’s focused on the wellbeing of Canadians, not on the wellbeing of Liberal lobbyists.

Mercedes Stephenson: If there’s another wave, do you think the CERB should be brought back, though? You’re talking about small businesses, but what about people at home who are afraid that if they lose their jobs, Conservatives won’t support them?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole:  I was always a big fan of the wage subsidy. We need to preserve as many jobs. If there’s a wave, put the jobs into hibernation.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Is that no to CERB?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: We will have supports for everyone. But the government got the CERB entirely wrong. They created the CERB early and screwed up the wage subsidy. So why do you think so many employers let their people go and push them onto the CERB? Because the Liberals got it wrong. Save the jobs first. Put the jobs into hibernation for when we get through the wave. That lets people return to something. The challenge with CERB and why Justin Trudeau wants an election, they have no plan for people to work in a few months and they’re hiding the full extent of their mismanagement from Canadians. So, we’re going to be ready for an election, but I’m in this for Canadians, Mercedes. Not, not—I’m not a career politician, and I think that’s what we need at this time in our country’s history. 

Mercedes Stephenson: In your first press conference, you said that you are pro-choice. You’re the first Conservative leader in the party’s history to say your personal belief is pro-choice. At the same time, you have people like Derek Sloan in your caucus, and that creates concerns, especially for urban voters that maybe the Conservative Party is going to allow abortion to be reopened or gay marriage to be reopened. So, while I know your personal position, as leader, will you whip those kinds of votes and will you allow private members bills that deal with abortion or same sex marriage to be introduced?

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Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole:  I’m proud that I was elected not hiding who I am. I’m pro-choice. I’ve always voted for rights, including the gay community, LGBTQ, women. As I said, when I was in the military, I’m about defending the rights of Canadians. They will never be removed with Erin O’Toole as prime minister. Never. So let’s concentrate on the wellbeing of women, the wellbeing of the LGBTQ.

Mercedes Stephenson: But that doesn’t answer the question of whether you will whip the vote or whether you won’t allow them to introduce it.

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: People in Parliament can talk about whatever they want. I also believe in the freedom of speech. We should have respectful and informed debate. And so if an MP wants to talk about their own faith perspective in Parliament, I think that’s great. We’re the only party that is actually a real cross-section of Canadians. All their hopes and aspirations, all their backgrounds, all their faith perspectives, the other parties don’t even allow you to have different points of view. So I said in my first press conference, people are going to be surprised by Erin O’Toole because I have respect for people even if I don’t agree with them. But as leader, I will be crystal clear. There is no removing of rights from Canadians. We’re here to defend the country and make it stronger.

Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things that a lot of folks are talking about is the change in tone in politics. It’s become divisive, it’s become nasty. There are leaders, and I don’t know about your experience with this but I’d be interested to hear, who are receiving threats and people are really concerned that at some point, someone is going to get hurt. What is your responsibility as the leader of the Conservative Party to tamp down that kind of inflammatory rhetoric on the right?

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Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: Well I received threats when I was Veterans Minister and I don’t think anyone getting into public life—Michelle Rempel has received threats. I don’t like seeing threats on Catherine McKenna, on anyone. There’s going to be a zero tolerance for that. And I always say people cannot allow their frustrations to make them do criminal things and break the law and there has to be zero tolerance. We can have a strong and respectful debate. That’s what they’re going to get with me. I’m tough, but I’m fair. And as I’ve said, I’ve worked with other parties on veterans issues and defence issues as you know. And when there’s a time to put the sword away, I will. But if the Liberals want to force an election, I’m ready for that as well.

Mercedes Stephenson: But in terms of tone, I mean you had Jeff Ballingall on your campaign and he’s sure, really, really good at getting clicks online, but he also is Canada proud and Ontario proud, which puts out some of the most inflammatory rhetoric out there. Is that the tone you want to take into the campaign?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: I think their tone is actually they use humour more than anything else. What I find with journalists often, is it disagrees with their own point of view. I’m not sure if that’s your case, but when I see—when Trudeau said Canada is back. What did that mean? That meant the Conservatives were doing a bad job.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Okay let me—

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: So when I say let’s get Canada back on track or whatever, it’s because people don’t agree with our point of view. I would rather them just say that. Look, the Conservatives are a free market party. We want to see more job creation. We’re proud of the energy sector. We’re proud of forestry, mining, agriculture. We think to grow our economy we need every sector firing on all cylinders and that will be our economic approach.

Mercedes Stephenson: But Erin, when you say take Canada back, some people say that sounds Trumpian. So what does take Canada back mean if you’re trying to have a big tent where everybody’s welcome? Who are you taking it back from?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: Everyone that is worried about their future in Canada right now. And I would invite anyone to go out to Alberta and see how people are losing confidence in their own country because of an ideological approach of Mr. Trudeau with bills like 69, the tanker ban, cancelling pipelines. Tens of thousands of people were out of work in Alberta before the pandemic because of ideology. There’s a separatist movement in Alberta. The Bloc Québecois is the third party. We’re not respected on the world stage anymore. So what I’ve said is we’ve got to get Canada back on its footing, respected on the world stage for human rights, standing up to China, standing up for the things we believe in, not just Liberal insiders and the almighty buck. We also have to make sure we heal national unity in this country and have prosperity post-COVID. That means a strong resource sector with an environmental plan. It means a soft wood lumber deal.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Does that mean a carbon tax?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: No. Carbon tax is not an emission reduction plan. It’s a plan to tax people hoping emissions will go down.

Mercedes Stephenson: That potentially affects their behaviour and therefore causes it to go down.

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: It does not. The Parliamentary Budget Officer said they would need to quadruple it to have any impact on behaviour. So why don’t we do what Doug Ford, what Jason Kenney and other premiers are doing: partner with industry to get emissions down over time, support carbon capture and sequestration, nuclear power like here in Ontario, that’s why we were able to get off coal. So, I worked on environmental issues as a lawyer in some buildings just down the way. I care about our environment, but let’s have a real plan, not just a tax plan.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, more on the future of the Conservative Party under Erin O’Toole. Our interview continues.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. We’re coming to you today from downtown Toronto, where I’ve been speaking to Conservative leader Erin O’Toole just one week into his new job. Here’s more of that interview.

Let’s talk about international affairs. If you become the prime minister, you may have to deal with Donald Trump, pending the results of the election in November. Peter Navarro came out, said some pretty nasty things about Canadians in Afghanistan. You know, you are a former member of the air force. How would you deal with the Trump administration?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: Well I’ll tell you. Whether it’s Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden, both know the importance of Canadians as their allies. And if we have to educate a few people about it, I’m happy to.

When I went to Arlington to lay a wreath at the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice, I reminded some people that Americans died serving with Canadian units in World War I. We were in both wars before the United States. Kandahar, in Afghanistan, was one of the toughest, riskiest provinces. Canada has always stood up, commensurate with our size and abilities for things that we believe in and our allies. And I think Canada needs to have a real voice in the ear of the U.S. president, not someone on Twitter telling them what to do. The Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau, is not serious. There isn’t a single world leader that views him as serious. They will see this military—

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Mercedes Stephenson: How do you know that?    

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: Because I’ve talked to ambassadors over many years. They want a serious Canada back. And I’ll tell you every relationship he’s touched, from the trip to India which you can put up some film footage of that, to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, the U.K, and the U.S. This is about representing our interests abroad, not about vanity. And that’s what we see with the prime minister too often, whether it’s dancing, whether it’s Twitter. I will be there to fight for Canadians, not fight for attention.

Mercedes Stephenson: Speaking of fighting for Canadians, a lot of Canadians have been out protesting. Protesting for their rights, protesting over how they’re treated. The Black Lives Matter protests have really shaped our summer in many ways. You were asked after the debate if you thought there was systemic racism in Canada. It wasn’t really a clear answer so I’m going to put it to you again now. Do you think there’s systemic racism in Canada, particularly in the institutions of government and the RCMP?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: Until someone defines what that is, Mercedes, I’m always going to say I think there is racism and I want to stamp it out. But I wore a uniform. I fight for people that wear a uniform. And when you use a term like systemic, some of those people feel that you’re calling them racist. So, can we improve community-based policing? Can we improve training? Can we make sure that communities that are losing faith in the public services or the RCMP, can have that faith restored? I’d invite you what is the definition of systemic racism? There is no definition, it’s tossed around.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Well, there are certainly definitions out there. It’s not the indication necessarily individuals are racist but that a system itself is operating in a way that is oppressing people or is discriminating against them.

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: So is anyone in that system therefore racist? That’s what some frontline officers feel. And what we have to do is work with everyone to make sure we fix it. We stamp out—there’s got to be a zero tolerance to racism, anti-Semitism, any form of division and intolerance. As Conservatives, as liberty-minded people who believe in a meritocracy, somebody should be able to come to Canada tomorrow and have success. If there’s any barriers, if there’s any racism, we’re going to send a real message that there’s zero tolerance.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’re a father. A lot kids are heading back to school after this weekend. A lot of parents really worried about what’s going to happen when their kids go back to school. Are you sending your children back?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: Yes. And my daughter’s starting high school, so there’s as much trepidation about COVID, going back, being away, but I will tell you, I have a lot of faith in Premier Ford, Minister Lecce here in Ontario. I know all provinces are working hard to get this right. And as I say to my own kids, and Rebecca and I tell them, the great thing is children are shown to be very, very resilient with respect to risks to the virus. So let’s take the precautions. Let’s have the distancing. Let’s have the sanitization. But I’ll tell you, any parents have known their kids’ being away from school for months was impacting their wellness, too. So let’s learn from the first wave and let’s make sure they get back to school safely.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Erin, we wanted to take a look into your past because people are wondering who is Erin O’Toole. We actually came up with some footage from our archives that I think shows a side of you a lot of people may not know. So we want to take a look at that now and get your reaction.

[Footage from The West Block, ‘Plane Talk’ with host: Tom Clark]

Tom Clark: Ladies and Gentlemen, Erin O’Toole with Greased Lightning.

Erin O’Toole: Go Greased Lightning – you’re burning up the quarter mile. Greased Lightning—

Tom Clark: Go Greased Lightning. Sorry—

Erin O’Toole: Yeah, Greased Lightning – you’re coasting through the heat lap trial.

Tom Clark: Greased Lightning, go Greased Lightning.

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Erin O’Toole: You are supreme.

Tom Clark: Supreme.

Erin O’Toole: The chicks’ll dream…

Tom Clark: The dream.

Erin O’Toole: For Greased Lightning. Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go. That’s it. [Laughs]

Mercedes Stephenson: Are we going to see that on the election trail? Are we going to see a different Erin O’Toole?

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: Well, I will sing and dance. I will do anything for the wellbeing of Canadians, even—and I love—I loved my time in high school drama plays. And I was Kinickie, and as I told Tom, the guy who played Danny, is now one of the top performers at Stratford. So out of small town Ontario, in the suburbs of Toronto, big things can happen.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Erin, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole: Great to be with you on such a beautiful day.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, from west to east, we take the political pulse of the country on the new Conservative leader.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back to The West Block. We are joined now by our panel from west to east: Natalie Pon, someone who has supported Erin O’Toole in the Conservative leadership campaign joins us. She was with us all through our election coverage for the leadership, that eight hour marathon that we did on Sunday night last week, and Sarbjit Kaur, who is here in Toronto, not far away from me, who is a Liberal supporter and activist on social media. Thank you both for making time for us.   

Natalie Pon: Thanks, Mercedes.

Sarbjit Kaur: You’re welcome.

Mercedes Stephenson: So Sarbjit, I’m going to start with you. We just did an interview with Erin O’Toole here in downtown Toronto. I have to tell you, he was getting stopped by people who knew his name. I did not expect that necessarily in downtown Toronto. How do you think his first week has gone as Conservative leader?

Sarbjit Kaur: The first week has gone rather well. He’s an affable gentleman for sure. I think obviously, the challenge will be when it comes time to fight in a general election and really show what he stands for and there’s still going to be a lot of questions around trust, what values he brings to the table. You know, people, I think, will still be a little bit weary of things—some of the tactics and the social conservatives within the party that he still very much caters to.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Natalie, that’s one of the things people are saying. It was remarkable when he came out and said I am pro-choice. He’s the first Conservative leader to do that, but people say look, don’t you have to dance with the one who brung ya? And there were a lot of social conservatives for the reason why he won and not Peter MacKay. 

Natalie Pon: Look, I think that’s a valid concern that a lot of people are raising. But O’Toole’s done a really great job trying to mitigate those concerns. He’s coming out and saying what his values are, which is more than we can say Andrew Scheer ever did during his tenure as leader. And if we look at the MPs that actually support him, you’ve got MPs on all parts of the Conservative spectrum that backed O’Toole. On one end, you’ve got Garnett Genuis from Alberta. On the other you’ve got Erik Duncan from Ontario. Both very different types of Conservatives but endorsing the same guy And I think that really should speak volumes about the type of person O’Toole is and how he’s going to govern should he be elected prime minister of Canada.

Mercedes Stephenson: Sarbjit, you know a lot of folks are wondering if there’s going to be an election this fall. The Liberals almost seem like they’re daring the opposition. What are you hearing from your Liberal sources about the chances of that happening?

Sarbjit Kaur: Well they’re certainly ready. They’ve done a fantastic job of steering our nation through one of the most difficult collectively traumatic times in the history of our country with, you know, COVID-19 and the challenges that we faced and making sure that every Canadian had a safety net, whether they were a senior citizen, a student, or a person who lost their job. So they’re certainly ready. They’ve got exciting people, whether it’s women or young people, candidates, a strong cabinet. I think they’re ready to go.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Natalie, how quickly do the Conservatives have to organize to be able to do that? Because if there’s one thing, I think a lot of folks think they’ve learned, is that it can’t be a campaign of well we’re not Justin Trudeau. It has to be who the Conservatives are if they want to give a valid option to voters. But potentially, we could be looking at a month or a couple of months before they’ve got to have that platform ready to go.

Natalie Pon: Exactly. And I think the main goal that Erin O’Toole and his team are going to need to accomplish here, is introducing Erin to the country. Making sure that he has clearly defined what a Conservative government would do and why it’s a valid alternative to the Liberal government. The biggest thing the Conservatives have failed to do in past elections is show that they are a valid alternative. So number one, O’Toole needs to do that and introduce himself. And secondly, I mean they need to get ready for the campaign and they need to be fundraising. They need to get their voter ID ready to go and I think because they just came off of a really successful get out the vote campaign relating to the leadership election and Mr. Delory, I think they are fairly ready to go on that front. It’s going to be a matter of making sure Canadians know who Mr. O’Toole is before they head to the polls.

Mercedes Stephenson: Natalie and Sarbjit, that’s all the time we have for today. But thank you for joining us and for your insights.

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And that’s all the time we have for the show today, too, but we’ll be back next week in Ottawa with all your biggest political headlines. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Have a great day.