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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to the media on Aug. 18 in Quebec City.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole reached out to Quebeckers by distancing himself from his predecessor Andrew Scheer on Wednesday, telling an audience in Quebec City he believes in human rights, “including the right of women to choose.”

Mr. Scheer’s difficulty in responding to an attack from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau over abortion during a 2019 French-language debate hosted by TVA was widely viewed in retrospect as a defining moment of the previous election campaign.

Mr. Scheer, who led the Conservative Party before Mr. O’Toole, has described himself as personally against abortion, although he had vowed not to reopen the issue if his party won the election. His answers on abortion and climate change during the 2019 debate generated negative coverage that hurt the party’s efforts in the province.

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But in a Wednesday speech at an airplane hangar in Quebec, Mr. O’Toole told supporters his pitch to Quebeckers is different.

“In the past, you have hesitated to put your trust in us. The Conservative Party hasn’t always been clear about its position on social issues. I want to be very clear with you. I am pro-choice and I have always been pro-choice,” he said, without mentioning Mr. Scheer by name. “If you trust the Conservative Party, you will elect a government that respects human rights, including the right of women to choose. Period. … I also believe in climate change.”

At dissolution, the Liberals had 35 of Quebec’s 78 House of Commons seats. The Bloc Québécois had 32, and the NDP one. The Tories had 10 seats.

Mr. O’Toole’s speech included an effort to reach out to Quebec nationalists, promising decentralized federalism in place of Mr. Trudeau’s “Ottawa knows best paternalism.”

His promise included more provincial powers over immigration, and that a Conservative government would apply Quebec’s language laws to federally regulated industries.

To nationalists, he said: “My message to you is clear: All nationalists in Quebec are welcome in the Conservative Party. This is your home. Come and sit around the decision table in Ottawa. This is your table. And we will achieve great things together.”

Mr. O’Toole pointed out that he was born in Quebec, that his father worked in Sainte-Thérèse with General Motors, and that he learned his French while serving in the Canadian Forces. He described the pledges as a “contract” with Quebeckers and said they would receive copies of the commitments in the mail.

Mr. O’Toole delivered the speech during his first in-person visit to Quebec of the campaign for the Sept. 20 federal election, which began on Sunday.

Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said Quebec is a rather secular province where many Conservatives do not emphasize religious or family values but rather economic conservatism or support for a decentralized federal system.

If Mr. O’Toole wants his party to pick up more votes from francophones in Quebec, Mr. Béland said, he needs to reassure them he would not reopen the abortion debate.

“Of course, there are some pro-lifers in Quebec, but it is not a very strong constituency,” he said. “If you want to reach a kind of mainstream francophone voter, I think it is important for him to be really clear about the fact that he supports free choice.”

With reports from Kristy Kirkup and Campbell Clark.

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