Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole was the latest federal politician to stop in New Brunswick with a visit to Fredericton on Friday, after a rotating carousel of Liberal ministers have arrived in the province over the past few weeks.
O’Toole has spent parts of three days in New Brunswick, spending time in Saint John, Fredericton and Miramichi. During his Fredericton visit O’Toole announced, in a campaign-style promise, that a Conservative government would ensure the city received a new aquatics centre, a piece of infrastructure near the top of city council’s wish-list.
“The physical and mental wellness of young Canadians will be a top priority for Canada’s Conservatives, because the lingering impacts of the pandemic will not just be economic,” O’Toole said.
The visit from the leader of the official opposition comes after prime minister Justin Trudeau stopped by earlier this week. Trudeau was in Moncton on Tuesday to announce the country had received enough doses of COVID-19 vaccine to vaccinate every eligible Canadian. Last Friday, deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland was in Fredericton to tour Clinic 554 with Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin, a new arrival to the Liberal party.
In the weeks prior, immigration minister Marco Mendicino and veterans affairs minister Lawrence MacAulay visited Fredericton alongside Atwin.
It’s a level of attention that demonstrates the importance of several New Brunswick ridings to both the Liberals and the Conservatives.
“I think they’re going into New Brunswick before the writs dropped because they’re testing the water,” said Jamie Gillies, a professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University.
During his three-day New Brunswick swing, O’Toole spent time in the ridings of Saint John–Rothesay, Fredericton and Miramichi–Grand Lake. Those three will likely be important battlegrounds for each party. For the Liberals, holding all three is important as they look to gain enough seats to turn their minority government into a majority. For the Conservatives, they’re three that they need to flip in order to have a shot at forming government at all.
“They’re looking a New Brunswick and thinking can we win back those traditional areas which we had in the Harper years,” Gillies said of the CPC. “If they can’t do that, say if they actually lose some of these ridings … we could be back in a 2015 scenario, given the polling for the Liberals in the region.”
The Liberals swept Atlantic Canada in 2015 when Trudeau led the party from third place to a majority government. Two years ago, the Conservatives won three seats back in New Brunswick: Tobique–Mactaquac, Fundy Royal and New Brunswick Southwest.
Now the party will be looking to add three more, should the country go to the polls this summer or fall.
While appealing to voters in the region, O’Toole mentioned his own ties to the region, having served at 12 Wing at Shearwater, N.S., while in the Air Force. He also attended law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He says New Brunswickers should give his party a shot following what he calls years of neglect from the government.
“Mr. Trudeau has taken Atlantic Canada for granted. Nothing says that more than the opportunities agency for this region being represented by ministers in Mississauga and Montreal,” O’Toole said.
“It’s a complete lack of respect from a prime minister who is disconnected from the everyday needs of average Canadian families.”
The party has drafted some familiar faces to carry the flag in those key ridings.
Former Saint John mayor Mel Norton will go up against two-term Liberal incumbent Wayne Long, who held onto his seat by 1,400 votes in 2019.
In Fredericton, 2019 second-place finisher Andrea Johnson, who is the executive director of the provincial PC party, will contest the riding once again. She’ll go up against Jenica Atwin, who won the riding as a Green two years ago, and law professor Nicole O’Byrne who is running for the Greens. The riding was a tight three-way race in 2019 that saw a 21-point swing from the Liberals to the Greens from 2015, with Liberal incumbent Matt Decourcey finishing in third.
Miramichi-Grand Lake was among the closest ridings in the country in 2019, where Liberal incumbent Pat Finnigan won the riding by under 400 votes. Finnigan isn’t running again, clearing the way for a battle of two former provincial cabinet ministers. Jake Stewart, former Aboriginal Affairs minister in the cabinet of Blaine Higgs will run for the CPC and Lisa Harris, who served as minister of long-term care in the Brian Gallant government, will run for the Liberals.
While in Fredericton, O’Toole was asked about his thoughts on a 2019 Trudeau campaign promise to ensure out-of-hospital abortions, particularly those done at Clinic 554 in Fredericton, would be funded by Medicare. Trudeau reiterated that promise while in Moncton earlier this week, but it remains unfulfilled.
The federal government has withheld $140,216 in health transfer payments to the province this year over the dispute.
O’Toole said that he is pro-choice, but added that Trudeau was politicizing an issue where none existed.
“I think access to abortion services is a right that needs to be maintained. I understand that is the case,” he said. “I feel Mr. Trudeau often politicizes issues for his own political gain.”
“But let me be perfectly clear, we need to ensure that those rights and that access is available to women across the country and it will be under a Conservative government.”
New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that does not fund out-of-hospital surgical abortions. Clinic 554 was a family practice specializing in LGBTQ2 health care, but also performed surgical abortions. The provincial government has said that funding abortions in clinics like Clinic 554 would begin creating a two-tier health-care system. O’Toole spoke about the issue in similar language.
“The question on public versus private, I don’t hear Mr. Trudeau advocating for private diagnostic clinics or surgical clinics for knees and hips.”