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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Aug. 25, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Forget about the toppled statues. The next election will not be fought primarily on racism or police violence or LGBTQ issues or even the environment. People are afraid: for the health of their families and for their economic security in the midst of a pandemic-induced recession.

Erin O’Toole, the new Conservative Leader, needs to explain how he would protect the health and jobs of frightened Canadians. Everything else is a distraction. His caucus may be the biggest distraction of all.

Canada’s political culture has always suffered from us-tooism. If the United States is seized with a political issue, then Canada must be seized with it also, even if the issue doesn’t easily translate.

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Slavery and Jim Crow and ongoing prejudice against African-Americans run dark and deep in the U.S., reflected most recently in police shootings of unarmed Black victims that resulted in widespread protests and extremely dangerous counterprotests by supporters of President Donald Trump, some of whom showed up with guns. Three people have been shot and killed in recent days.

Black and Indigenous Canadians also suffer from systemic racism and police violence. But the situation is not nearly so extreme. It’s appropriate that while battles rage in U.S. streets, Canadian protests have mostly been limited to pulling down statues.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the evils of systemic racism, including within Canadian police forces. But most people appear to be more worried about other things.

An August poll by Nanos Research showed that, when asked unprompted what their most important issue of concern was, more people (27 per cent) mentioned the coronavirus than any other topic, to no one’s surprise. At just over 14 per cent, health care and the economy tied for second place, although all three are closely linked. Environmental concerns placed a poor fourth, at 6 per cent. (The rolling weekly poll totalled 1,000 phone interviews and is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points.)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mr. O’Toole both condemned the weekend desecration of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in Montreal. “We will not build a better future by defacing our past,” Mr. O’Toole tweeted.

Unfortunately for Mr. O’Toole, the Conservatives were making news of their own on another front. B.C. MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay retweeted a 2009 video in which Chrystia Freeland, now Finance Minister but back then a journalist, interviewed billionaire investor George Soros, who has baselessly been placed at the centre of any number of crackpot conspiracy theories.

The Soros-conspiracy trope is clearly anti-Semitic, and Ms. Findlay’s declaration that “the closeness of these two should alarm every Canadian” was no less offensive. She eventually deleted the tweet and apologized, but the damage was done.

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Wayward comments by backbench MPs – such as Randy White saying “to heck with the courts” in his opposition to LGBTQ rights – helped defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the 2004 election, and they could defeat Mr. O’Toole’s Conservatives in an election that might be held, saints preserve us, as early as this fall.

Mr. O’Toole needs to call a virtual caucus meeting and read his MPs the riot act. COVID-19 and the economy are the ballot-box issues. Don’t give the other side ammunition. Stay off Twitter and Facebook. Be still.

In his first week as leader, Mr. O’Toole has shown himself to be confident, forceful and a more serious threat to Mr. Trudeau than Andrew Scheer ever was. The Liberals know it, which is why they may engineer a fall election in an effort to unbalance the new leader, running on an aggressive economic recovery platform, while demonizing the Official Opposition Leader as intolerant. Jean Chrétien did it to Stockwell Day in 2000, and Paul Martin to Stephen Harper in 2004. Worked both times.

Mr. O’Toole’s response could include not only a more fiscally responsible approach to fighting the pandemic and the recession, but also measures to combat global warming through investments in technology and to lift the lives of Indigenous Canadians through improved education and entrepreneurial opportunities on reserve.

Whether the Liberals will be able to make the intolerance issue stick is up to Mr. O’Toole and his caucus.

Some ideologically extreme activists would like to see Canada become more polarized, more dysfunctional, more at war with itself.

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But most Canadians just want to get through this crisis with their health and their job intact. If there must be an election, let it be about that.

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