After Erin O’Toole was ousted from his position as leader of the federal Conservatives earlier this year, the public may have assumed he had disappeared.
During a recent interview in his office at the Confederation Building in downtown Ottawa, he recalled the shocked reactions he elicited the first few times he showed up for events after his removal, in his role as a mere MP for the Toronto-area riding of Durham.
“I would joke, ‘I am not dead,’” Mr. O’Toole said.
Although he is still very much alive, he has intentionally been sitting on the sidelines throughout the continuing election campaign to determine his successor as Tory leader, which ends on Sept. 10. The front-runner in that race, Pierre Poilievre, is known for a brash, aggressive political style that hinges on attacking establishment gatekeepers, including the Bank of Canada. It’s far different from the more conciliatory form of conservatism Mr. O’Toole preached.
The 49-year-old former military navigator and lawyer was first elected to Parliament in 2012. He served as veterans’ affairs minister under Stephen Harper, faltered in a 2017 bid to win the leadership, and won the job in 2020, becoming the third leader of the current iteration of the federal Conservative party.
His change of fortune came the next year, when he failed to win power in his first (and only) election at the party’s helm. His caucus voted him out of the top job the following February.
Mr. O’Toole used the words “disappointing” and “disappointed” frequently as he spoke about that turn of events. He said winning the 2021 election was the only thing that would have consolidated his position at the top of the party.
His removal, he argued, came at a “weird time.” Ottawa had been overrun by a convoy of anti-pandemic-restriction protesters, who used trucks to block downtown streets for weeks. The group was supported by some members of the Conservative party, including Mr. Poilievre.
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Mr. O’Toole said during the protest that he had no tolerance for anyone promoting violence or discrimination. But he also met with some truckers, and called members of the profession “our neighbours, our family” in a tweet. He said at the time that he supported demonstrators’ right to be heard.
The protest is still on his mind. During the interview in his office, he called the convoy “wrong and illegal” and blamed it for increasing pressure on his caucus. Another source of pressure, he said, was leaks to the media.
“Some people were laying a minefield to make it difficult for people to lead, and that’s disappointing. There’s some people who don’t know how teams should function, and that’s a challenge our caucus has,” he said.
He added that the Conservative caucus could use more people with military, private sector or non-profit experience – people he said would have a sense of how a team sets an agenda or implements a business strategy.
“We need a bit more of that, because now we have been in opposition and we’re developing an opposition mentality.”
Mr. O’Toole spoke of the virtues of being an MP among MPs, serving constituents, working on issues that interest him and producing Blue Skies, a podcast. He launched it in 2016, paused it during his run for the leadership and resumed it after his ouster, when he had more time to devote to it.
“I’ve been careful not to be out there too much, particularly while the leadership race was underway,” he said.
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He was sanguine as he spoke. Asked if he had considered leaving politics altogether after being voted out of the leadership, he talked about the honour that comes with representing the riding he grew up in. And he said quitting would have been at odds with the lessons he tries to teach his children. He has a young son and teenage daughter.
“As I say to my kids, this is the sign of character: It’s whether you get back up after you have been knocked down. So it’s a great life lesson for my children as much as it is for me,” he said.
He said his family was disappointed when he lost the leadership – though his daughter, he added, was probably secretly relieved.
“It wasn’t cool in high school circles to have your dad as a Conservative leader,” he said. “My daughter heard people in the hallways, in the class saying disparaging things about the Conservatives, and it was her father.”
Last week, the party announced it would hold a tribute to Mr. O’Toole when his successor is announced on Sept. 10. But the former leader won’t be present at Ottawa’s Shaw Centre for the event. Instead, he said, he will be at home, watching the proceedings. He’ll deliver remarks by video.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper and his successor as Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, have endorsed Mr. Poilievre in the leadership race. Mr. O’Toole won’t say which candidate he plans to vote for, but he has personally wished all of them well – except Roman Baber, a former member of the Ontario legislature whose contact information Mr. O’Toole said he doesn’t have.
He said previous leaders avoided involvement in leadership races to determine their immediate successors, and that he has taken the same approach.
“I’ve got the ability to help advance some issues that I think are important for the country as a former leader in the party, former leader of the opposition, but I have also tried to allow our race to proceed without me wading into it,” he said.
“Without getting in the way of who will be the next leader, I think I can still add a lot of perspective on important public policy.”
It remains to be seen if or how he will get the chance.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who interviewed Mr. O’Toole in June on his own podcast, Uncommons, said the former Tory leader, as a moderate Conservative, may find it difficult to fit in with the party if Mr. Poilievre wins the election and succeeds in nudging Tories to the right.
“Erin has to come to terms with how he sees himself fit within a party that has moved away from the Progressive Conservative tradition he comes from,” Mr. Erskine-Smith said in an interview.
Conservative commentator Tim Powers, who is also chair of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data, said Mr. O’Toole may be poised to make new contributions to the party – if he is allowed to do so.
“Erin O’Toole is probably still in the penalty box for some, but they should let the guy out on the ice to skate when the time is right. Find him a good critic role when the new leader comes forward,” he said.
“It would be a shame if he remains in a penalty box based on internecine squabbling.”
Past conservative leaders have rebounded from being ousted. Joe Clark lost the Progressive Conservative party leadership to Brian Mulroney, but became a valued minister in Mr. Mulroney’s cabinet. Stockwell Day lost the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, but served in senior cabinet roles in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
Mr. O’Toole said he plans to continue keeping a low profile, even in caucus meetings after the leadership vote.
“The last thing we need is, ‘What does the last guy think?’ The next person really needs that runway, and I respect all of the people running,” he said.
He noted that when he was leader he often told his detractors to put their colleagues and country first.
“So now I have to do that – even though I don’t agree with what happened,” he said.
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