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A person holds a Canadian flag and points to a signage before the departure of the trucks from Kingston to Ottawa, in Kingston, Ont., on Jan. 28.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is taking the biggest gamble of his political life by siding with truckers rolling to Ottawa in protest against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions. That support could galvanize his leadership, or sink it. He’s willing to take that chance.

“The mood is changing,” Mr. O’Toole said in an interview Friday. He believes Canadians are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of the unvaccinated losing their jobs and being ostracized from society.

“There’s a big difference between ‘I can’t go to a movie or a hockey game’ and ‘I’m going to lose my house,’” he said. “The line I’ve drawn is that nobody should lose their job if we can accommodate them.”

Many people, including this writer, believe those who refuse vaccines put the rest of us at risk, and for that there should be consequences. In coming to their defence, especially in coming to the defence of protesting truckers and their supporters, Mr. O’Toole risks his own political future.

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The truckers aren’t coming to Ottawa to protest against new federal cross-border restrictions. The Americans have imposed similar restrictions. They’re coming to vent their rage against lockdowns, masks, passports, mandatory vaccinations for essential workers and all the other restrictions we have endured, on and off but mostly on, over the past two years.

“Truckers have been our heroes, period,” Mr. O’Toole said in a video released Thursday evening. “Canada doesn’t function as a trading nation without them.” But the majority of truckers, Canadian and American, are vaccinated and can cross the border freely. Mr. O’Toole is throwing in his lot with the few who refuse.

The Conservative Leader portrays the protesters as a beleaguered minority under assault from a tyrannical majority. But these truckers and their supporters are not some persecuted religious or linguistic or ethnic sect in need of protection from the mob.

By refusing vaccinations they are asserting their rights over the rights of patients who desperately need cancer or heart surgery but who must wait because ICUs are clogged largely with the unvaccinated. They imperil the mental and physical health of doctors and nurses who must care for those who become seriously ill. They imperil everyone they are around.

Elections are won and lost among middle-class suburban voters. It’s hard to imagine Mr. O’Toole’s support for the unvaccinated winning over many of those voters, and easy to imagine it alienating most of them. The Conservative Leader knows this.

“The pandemic and the measures are particularly challenging for conservative parties,” he said. “We are the party of individual liberty, responsibility, limited state encroachment into your life. And in the pandemic, there has been some degree of encroachment, and finding the balance is tough.”

He believes the intelligent solution is to encourage vaccinations while relying on testing rather than mandates to keep the unvaccinated at work and the community safe. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and most premiers prefer stronger measures, and polls suggest the public agrees.

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The cynical might believe that the Conservative Leader is simply trying to outflank opponents within his own party. Former leader Andrew Scheer, deputy leader Candice Bergen, finance critic Pierre Poilievre, MPs Leslyn Lewis and Mark Strahl and several others have declared their solidarity with the protesters. Many of them also publicly or privately oppose the Durham MP’s continued leadership.

Is Mr. O’Toole hoping to accommodate conservative populists who have grown impatient with his more progressive stands on the environment and minority rights by catering to anti-vaxxers? He says no.

He speaks of a “bright red line” from the election campaign through to today in which he has consistently encouraged vaccinations, testing and other forms of protection, while opposing vaccine mandates.

“Try to accommodate people so that they don’t lose their livelihood, because your livelihood is part of your identity, is for your family, is for your loved ones,” he said.

We may be close to the end of the pandemic phase of COVID-19. By spring, many restrictions could have lifted and life could be back to normal, more or less.

When it’s all over, will people remember Erin O’Toole as the leader who championed the rights and liberties of all Canadians, or as the guy who sided with the truckers?

We’ll see.

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