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Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown has blamed local campaign staff for a letter distributed to Scarborough voters that promised to scrap the province’s new sex-ed curriculum.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's Progressive Conservatives have triumphed in a key by-election after igniting a political firestorm over the province's sexual-education curriculum.

The victory in Scarborough-Rouge River on Thursday, which had been held by the Liberals since 1999, is a coup for PC Leader Patrick Brown, who is seeking to prove he can make inroads in the vote-rich Toronto suburbs by appealing to immigrant communities.

But his double-U-turn on sex-ed during the final days of the race – and questions about the role the controversial subject played in the victory – could haunt his leadership.

Mr. Cho took 39 per cent of the vote to Liberal Piragal Thiru's 29 per cent and 27 per cent for the NDP's Neethan Shan. Voter turnout was 28 per cent.

In his victory speech before Mr. Cho's packed campaign headquarters in a strip plaza on Sheppard Avenue, Mr. Brown steered clear of sex-ed and instead trumpeted his three-for-three record in by-elections since becoming leader.

"Earlier this year we saw blue skies come with sunny ways in Whitby-Oshawa. Tonight, there's a blue wave that has crossed the Rouge River," he said as supporters chanted his name. "Boy, does it feel good to be a Progressive Conservative tonight. We have won a seat the Liberal Party has never lost in the city of Toronto. There is not any riding in the province of Ontario that Kathleen Wynne's Liberal Party can take for granted."

A chastened Ms. Wynne, in Mexico attending a climate summit, issued a contrite statement promising to do better by the people of Scarborough.

"The result in Scarborough-Rouge River is disappointing and gives me cause for reflection. The good people of that riding have elected Liberals for many years. I'll be talking with our Scarborough members in the coming days," she said. "We heard at the door that hydro rates are increasingly challenging for people. I understand, as do my Ministers, that the government needs to focus on helping people with their everyday expenses."

Speaking later to reporters, Mr. Brown said the fact his Tories won, despite the sex-ed flare-up, showed how fed up voters are with the Liberals. Mr. Brown vowed not to raise social-conservative issues in the future.

"I think most people were refreshed by the honesty," Mr. Brown said.

His campaign co-manager, former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, also steered clear of sex-ed.

"I know you guys want to talk about it, but we're talking about jobs and hydro," he told reporters. "The party's over for Kathleen Wynne."

Mr. Ford denied penning the anti-sex-ed letter that touched off the imbroglio last week, and said he didn't learn of it until it was reported by The Toronto Sun.

"No, no," he said., when asked if he knew who wrote the missive. "I don't. Maybe you could ask [the Sun], because that's when I saw it, right."

The letter – delivered late last week to some Scarborough voters under Mr. Brown's signature – promised to "scrap" the province's new sex-ed curriculum.

The missive appeared to be a complete about-face for Mr. Brown, who had previously committed not to repeal the curriculum. PC sources indicated the move was meant to win over conservative voters among the immigrant communities that dominate the riding.

For several days, Mr. Brown defended the letter, insisting he was merely looking to consult parents more broadly on the curriculum. And Mr. Ford was quoted in the Sun saying the letter was "the right thing to do."

But then on Monday, Mr. Brown reversed course, vowing not to kill the curriculum and claiming he had not even seen the letter before it went out. In a tour of television and radio talk shows, he blamed local campaign staff.

"Many of the campaign activists there felt it was a hot issue at the doors. They wanted to campaign on it. Ultimately, they went further than I was comfortable with," he told the CBC. "What I didn't feel comfortable with was the word 'scrap' or 'stop' sex education, because that's certainly not my intention."

The scramble played into the Liberal narrative that Mr. Brown is an insincere opportunist who constantly "flip-flops" on policy.

"If a letter goes out with your signature … why would you wait four days to correct it? Why wouldn't you own the mistake immediately?" Deputy Premier Deb Matthews told reporters Wednesday.

And it is certain to cause headaches within his party. When Mr. Brown took over as leader in 2015, some moderate Tory MPPs privately fretted about his history of stoking social-wedge issues: He courted evangelical party members during the leadership race by criticizing the sex-ed curriculum, and as a federal MP, he had voted to reopen the country's abortion debate and repeal same-sex marriage.

But Mr. Brown sought to reassure his caucus by promising not to raise social issues. Over the next year, he crafted an image as a pragmatic PC by embracing same-sex marriage and supporting a carbon tax. While his new, moderate positioning helped win over his MPPs at Queen's Park, it left him walking a fine line with socially conservative voters.