On the night he won the Conservative leadership – late that night – Erin O’Toole vowed before God, the press and any remaining television viewers that he would fight for the rights of all Canadians. “I’m in politics to defend the rights of Canadians,” he said, boasting of his record of “standing up for human rights” as a member of Parliament.
It was seen as a pivot from a campaign in which he had styled himself a “true blue Conservative” who would “Take Canada Back” from “cancel culture and the radical left.” But in fact, he had said much the same thing during the race. “I stand up for all rights,” he told the Toronto Star after declaring his candidacy. On another occasion, he spoke of his “principled” commitment to “defending the rights of all Canadians.”
Except, it turns out, in Quebec. After meeting with Premier François Legault on Monday, Mr. O’Toole pledged to do nothing whatsoever about Bill 21, legislation that effectively imposes a hiring ban on observant Muslims and other religious minorities across much of the province’s public sector. Indeed, the Defender of the Rights of All Canadians could not find a disapproving word to say about it.
While conceding it “was a difficult question,” as he had “served in the military with Sikhs and other people,” Mr. O’Toole nevertheless confined himself to describing the issue as one of “provincial autonomy,” and as such off-limits even to federal commentary. “States' rights” may no longer be in vogue as a defence of segregationist policies elsewhere in the world, but here in Canada, it’s a ticket to mainstream acceptability.
To be fair, Mr. O’Toole’s erstwhile Sikh military buddies were not the only minorities whose rights he chose not to stand up for that day. Indeed, he expressed support for limitations on rights that haven’t even been imposed yet, saying he would welcome the extension of Quebec’s draconian restrictions on the use of English to federally regulated employers, such as banks and airports.
Take Canada Back? More like Give Canada Up. Respecting provincial autonomy is one thing, but Quebec’s jurisdiction is not ordinarily interpreted to include federal law. It’s particularly extraordinary in light of the commitments in Mr. O’Toole’s leadership platform.
While heavy on panders to Quebec nationalism, including “recognition of the Quebec nation” (the Harper government’s 2006 motion recognized only the “Québécois” as a nation) and a promise “never [to] interfere in the internal affairs of Quebec,” it also promised to defend “the language rights of all Canadians.”
An O’Toole government, it said, would “work closely with the provinces to protect and serve minority French and minority English language communities.” How the rights of English-speaking Canadians in Quebec will be defended by further banning their language, even in places it was previously allowed, is a question that would be worth asking in at least one of the country’s official languages.
But that is not the last of Mr. O’Toole’s pivots, which is apparently what we’re now calling electoral fraud. There’s the “pivot” on deficits, for instance. Candidate O’Toole promised a “clear and disciplined” fiscal stability plan “to bring the budget to balance on a prudent timeline.”
Warning that “quarter-trillion-dollar deficits put our country at risk,” the platform promised such stringent measures as a legally entrenched “Pay-as-You-Go” rule, mandating a dollar in cuts for each dollar in new spending.
Well, now the leadership race is over, the deficit is headed for half a trillion dollars and Mr. O’Toole seems much more relaxed about the whole thing. He’d “get [to] balance,” he now says, “over a decade or so.” Economic growth, he says, “is as important as controlling spending.”
Although not as important as some other things. In a video released on Labour Day, Mr. O’Toole shared with Canadians his belief that economic growth was “not the end-all be-all.” Which is probably just as well, given his newfound aversion to the trade on which our growth depends.
Railing against “bad trade deals” promoted by “corporate and financial power brokers” in their insatiable thirst for “cheap labour," the Conservative Leader – let’s just pause on that title for a moment – plumped instead for a “Canada First” economic strategy. Asked in a subsequent interview how this differed from Donald Trump’s “America First” strategy, he replied: “It’s not different at all. In fact, there’s more self-sufficiency.”
Self-sufficiency. Canada First. Balanced budgets in a decade “or so.” It’s a long way from the leadership candidate who promised to make Canada “the world’s freest economy,” to “unleash the private sector … cut the regulatory dead weight … end corporate welfare” and “aggressively pursue” new trade agreements.
But then, it’s a long way from “defending the rights of all Canadians” to actively conspiring to restrict them. Once Mr. O’Toole wanted to take Canada back. Now it seems the only thing he wants to take back is his word.
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