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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and his wife, Rebecca O'Toole, feed a llama at the Liberty For Youth's 7Rs Ranch during his election campaign tour in Brantford, Ont., on Aug. 25.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

A Conservative government would work with the provinces to invest in mental health, transferring them enough funds for an extra one million Canadians to receive treatment each year, party leader Erin O’Toole announced Wednesday.

The pledge comes amid a COVID-19 pandemic that has taken a toll on well-being. O’Toole cited the results of a Statistics Canada survey from March that found that one in five Canadians screened had symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder following a year of lockdowns, social isolation and economic precarity.

“Someone you know is struggling right now,” he said. “The mental health crisis is the epidemic within the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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The promise is part of a broader pledge of $60 billion more in health transfers over the next decade. It forms one of the Tory leader’s five election platform “pillars” and colours an emerging self-portrait of a compassionate Conservative focused on jobs, prosperity, wellness and addiction.

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However, O’Toole shied away from laying down any conditions for that funding – including any portion intended for mental health – stating that Ottawa needs to allow provinces “more choice.”

“We will partner with the provinces, not create confrontation as we’ve seen with Mr. Trudeau,” he said, referring to the Liberal leader.

New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh criticized O’Toole’s record on health care, citing Conservative and Liberal opposition to an NDP private member’s bill to usher in universal pharmacare that was defeated earlier this year.

“If Erin O’Toole was serious about improving access to mental health services, he wouldn’t have helped Stephen Harper cut health-care transfers or teamed up with Justin Trudeau to vote down a plan to make prescription drugs more affordable and accessible for people,” Singh said in a statement.

The Liberals noted in a statement that the Conservatives have voted against their budgets that have contained billions of dollars in mental health funding.

At a campaign stop Wednesday in Brantford, Ont., a day after Singh and Trudeau rolled through the region, O’Toole laid out his mental-health strategy, which follows recent pledges to protect private-sector workers’ pensions and put “compassion at the centre of the justice system.”

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He repeated his plan to offer a tax credit to employers for 25 per cent of the cost of mental health coverage, create a national suicide prevention hotline and fund charities with $150 million in grants over three years to deliver wellness programming.

O’Toole said a Conservative government would provide $1 billion over five years to boost funding for Indigenous mental health and drug treatment programs, with culturally appropriate supports.

“This is personal for me,” O’Toole said, citing the trauma that trailed the 1998 Swiss Air disaster off the coast of Peggy’s Cove, N.S. He said it left some of his colleagues with an “operational stress injury,” as it was then known.

Amid the fallout, the military treated mental health like physical health, he stated, saying that he’s worked since then to reduce stigma and prioritize wellness.

The softer side of a party known not long ago for its tough-on-crime, anti-safe-injection-site stance dovetails with an economic populism that poses itself against Big Business, foreign home buyers and “corporate elites” and in favour of small businesses and trade unions.

Seeking to showcase that lighter touch, O’Toole made his mental health announcement at a ranch run by Liberty for Youth, a charity that helps at-risk young people, where he and his wife Rebecca fed alpacas as ponies cantered by.

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“We’re all misfits, in one way or another,” O’Toole said, while chatting with staff.

Xayveon Semenzow, who works with kids from around southern Ontario, said programs like the animal therapy offered at the ranch help put troubled youth at ease.

“It just gives them a space to forget about everything that they have going on,” said Semenzow, 16.

“It’s quiet. There’s no distractions, there’s no one bothering you. It’s just peaceful.”

Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, said O’Toole is acting out an empathy that’s relatively new on the Conservative stage in Canada.

“He’s showing signs of compassion, for sure,” she said, citing his stated belief in treatment over punishment for drug users.

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“I don’t know that Stephen Harper would have said that.”

Compassionate conservatism, a political concept that surfaced during the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, seeks market-based solutions to social problems.

The 50 per cent rebate for dine-in food and non-alcoholic drinks that an O’Toole government would provide for a limited time in a bid to help struggling restaurants marks one example. So does a 25 per cent tax credit on amounts of up to $100,000 that Canadians personally invest in a small business over the next two years.

Scrapping all Liberal government child-care funding deals with the provinces and territories and providing a refundable tax credit of up to $6,000 in its place could also count, Turnbull said.

“It gives him conservative credentials, in that he’s saying, ‘I’m not running your life, I’m just helping you run your life.’”

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