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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to the media in Ottawa on Sept. 7, 2021.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Tuesday he would appoint a health minister who is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 if his party forms government, despite not requiring his candidates to be vaccinated.

O’Toole is an outlier among major federal leaders in that he isn’t asking those running under the party’s banner to have both doses of a vaccine in order to hit the doorsteps.

In spite of that, he promises a Conservative government would boost the country’s vaccination rates to more than 90 per cent within two months through a combination of a new social media campaign and measures to address those hesitating to get a shot.

Health Canada reported as of last Friday that around 76 per cent of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with some 83 per cent having received a single dose.

O’Toole hasn’t specified how many of his 337 candidates are immunized, but has instructed those who are not to take daily rapid tests, along with campaign workers who are unvaccinated.

“I’ve been advocating for vaccines for over a year,” he said from the empty stage of his party’s broadcast studio in downtown Ottawa on Tuesday.

Asked whether the party is tracking how many of its candidates are vaccinated, or if Mr. O’Toole intends to put this question to them postelection, a party spokeswoman said “vaccines are the most important tool in the fight against COVID-19.

“We encourage every Canadian who is able to get one. We can’t speculate on the outcome on Sept. 20, but as Mr. O’Toole said this morning, the health minister in an O’Toole government will be fully vaccinated,” Chelsea Tucker wrote in an e-mail to The Canadian Press.

Throughout the campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has criticized O’Toole for not needing his candidates to be vaccinated and accused the Tory leader of siding with anti-vaxxers, driving a wedge between the two parties over the policy of mandatory vaccinations.

“It’s been very, very disappointing to see every week in this campaign Mr. Trudeau misleading people, and saying whatever he wants to say to try and get re-elected,” said O’Toole.

The Liberals have hurled the same attack at the Conservative leader over his change in stance on issues, including whether doctors should be required to refer patients for services such as abortions if they object to performing those procedures themselves, and most recently, gun policies.

O’Toole spent the past several days dogged by questions about his policy on prohibited firearms after a French-language debate last week where he said a Conservative government would maintain the federal ban on so-called “assault” weapons.

Questions and confusion emerged because O’Toole’s election platform states he would repeal the Liberal government’s order-in-council banning what it called “assault-style weapons,” introduced in May 2020 after the deadly mass shooting in Nova Scotia.

O’Toole later clarified he would keep that prohibition in place, inking a footnote in his platform to say, “All firearms that are currently banned will remain banned,” and promised to conduct a review of the classification system.

However, the Conservative leader has refused to say whether that ban will be temporary or permanent, leaving the door open to making the 1,500 or so firearm models like the AR-15 rifle legal again following the review.

“I want all Canadians to know public safety is a priority for me,” he said, saying a government led by him would focus on illegal firearms coming across Canada’s borders, which are responsible for an increase in violence.

He added: “It’s been troubling to see Mr. Trudeau use the tragedy in Nova Scotia, to suggest that that was because of law-abiding people in that situation, the crime was perpetrated by someone who obtained firearms illegally.”

In a statement, National Firearms Association President Sheldon Clare said its supportive of a classification review, but acknowledged there has been some “confusion” and “angst” over O’Toole’s recent comments on repealing firearms legislation.

“The NFA is completely confident that the election of a Conservative government will result in the use of evidence-based research to repeal ill-considered and ineffective firearms laws that go back many years and include the order-in-council as well as other recent legislation,” he wrote.

“We urge the firearms community to remain steady and continue to work hard for the defeat of the Liberal government and its replacement with the Conservatives.”

Liberal candidate and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair repeated on Tuesday his belief the Tory leader is beholden to the wishes of the gun lobby because he courted them during the Conservative leadership race, and want to change Canada’s gun culture from firearms ownership being a privilege to a right, as in the United States.

“Canadians deserve much more than a footnote in his platform. They deserve more than an asterisk and they need honesty,” said Blair.

The Liberals have accused O’Toole of striking a secret deal with the associations representing the country’s gun owners, pointing out that Fred DeLorey, the Conservatives’ national campaign manager, used to be a lobbyist for the National Firearms Association.

O’Toole answered “yes” when asked directly on Tuesday whether DeLorey recused himself from the development of his party’s platform policies on guns.

Also on Tuesday, he announced a promise to lower Canadians’ cellphone and internet bills by allowing international telecommunications companies into the country to create a more competitive market.

The promise could be the final policy announcement from O’Toole before federal leaders are set to appear in French and English debates this week.

The Conservatives have yet to unveil the costing for their platform, with O’Toole saying he hopes to have an update to provide shortly from the parliamentary budget officer.

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