Skip to main content

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to media on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Nov. 8, 2021.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s decision to largely exclude critics of mandatory vaccination from his shadow cabinet this week is prompting strong reaction from both sides of his divided caucus ahead of Parliament’s opening later this month.

Several high-profile Conservative MPs – including Mark Strahl and Shannon Stubbs – who had made public comments critical of mandatory vaccination or the party’s position on the issue, were stripped of their critic roles when Mr. O’Toole released his updated list Tuesday. They were also absent from a list of deputy shadow-cabinet critics announced Wednesday.

The exclusions included leadership rival Leslyn Lewis, who made public statements last month in defence of those who decline to reveal their COVID-19 vaccination status.

In an interview about the state of the caucus, Saskatchewan Conservative MP Kevin Waugh told The Globe and Mail that Mr. O’Toole’s shadow-cabinet decisions send a clear message to MPs who have been speaking out against mandatory vaccination.

“Let’s face it, he’s the boss. And maybe it does send them a message. I’m fine with that,” he said. “It’s those that didn’t get the shadow [positions], they’re going to have to realize why they didn’t, and they’re going to have to come around to his way of thinking or they won’t be included.”

Mr. Waugh said he isn’t sure how many of his fellow caucus members remain unvaccinated – venturing a guess of around five to seven – and expressed concern that some of them may test the new House of Commons policy banning unvaccinated MPs from entering the parliamentary buildings when sittings resume on Nov. 22. He said he doesn’t want to see MPs being turned away in “handcuffs by the Sergeant at Arms,” who manages House of Commons security.

“That’s the last thing anybody wants to see,” he said. “I guess we’ll see on the 22nd and see where it goes from there.”

As Tories debate about vaccine mandates, O’Toole needs to make the Conservative Party his own

O’Toole announces shadow cabinet, returns Pierre Poilievre to finance critic

While Mr. Waugh praised the Conservative Leader’s handling of the shadow-cabinet announcement, Mr. O’Toole’s leadership approach continues to face strong opposition from other members of the caucus.

Two MPs who were excluded from the shadow cabinet spoke very critically of Mr. O’Toole. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the MPs so that they can speak openly about internal party matters.

One MP said Mr. O’Toole’s vaccination policy is one of many issues in which the leader takes positions that are unclear. The MP said Mr. O’Toole’s shadow-cabinet list appears to favour “red Tories” over more conservative MPs.

Another MP said Mr. O’Toole is taking a vindictive approach toward his critics in caucus and expressed shock at the fact that Ms. Lewis was excluded entirely.

Asked about the shadow-cabinet announcement, Ms. Lewis’s office responded with a statement, saying she is committed to representing her constituents in Haldimand-Norfolk as the House of Commons reconvenes.

“I congratulate my colleagues that were appointed to the shadow cabinet, and look forward to working with them as a united conservative team to advocate for my community and for a better, stronger, more united Canada.”

Earlier this month, Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu said she planned to create a “civil liberties caucus” of about 15 to 30 Conservative MPs and senators that would focus on “reasonable accommodation” for unvaccinated workers across the country.

Ms. Gladu issued an apology Tuesday for comments she made about COVID-19 vaccines during a recent TV interview. Her apology said she recognizes “how dangerous it is to share misinformation about the severity of COVID-19 and the safety and efficacy of vaccines.” Ms. Gladu was also left off Mr. O’Toole’s list of critics.

Conservative strategist Jenni Byrne, a former deputy chief of staff to prime minister Stephen Harper, said Mr. O’Toole’s challenges with caucus have more to do with his centrist policy positions.

“People want to win, but they also don’t want to be Liberals,” she said this week on the Curse of Politics podcast, where she has been a frequent critic of Mr. O’Toole.

“This is less about vaccines internally than it is about Erin’s leadership, generally. He is not respected by caucus and when you have no respect [from] caucus, this is the kind of stuff that happens.”

Hamish Telford, a political scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, says Mr. O’Toole made a reasonable effort to appeal to urban and suburban voters in the past election with policies on such issues as climate change and his support of the LGBTQ community.

However, Mr. Telford said in an interview on Wednesday that the Conservative Leader stalled because of an “authenticity issue” over the sense that he had been on both sides of key debates. Mr. O’Toole ran as a “true-blue” candidate for the 2020 leadership race, then presented himself as a middle-of-the-road Conservative in the election campaign.

Mr. O’Toole made clear efforts during the campaign to win support in Canada’s biggest cities, including Toronto and Vancouver, but voters returned his party to Ottawa with a caucus that has few MPs from large urban centres.

Mr. Telford said this creates a clear issue for the Conservative Leader.

“When you look behind Mr. O’Toole, people see a very conservative party, rooted in rural areas. And so it’s a difficult hurdle to overcome and I am not really sure what the solution is for them going forward other than to work on tone. [That] might help,” he said.

In naming a shadow cabinet, Mr. Telford said Mr. O’Toole has created a cleavage in his own party by excluding all of the vaccine-mandate skeptics from critic roles, possibly enabling them to sit together and conspire against his leadership.

“There’s a faction now that has self identified in the party and they are being left out of the leadership circle,” Mr. Telford said. “That will surely fuel their alienation from the leadership of the party, and create challenges for Mr. O’Toole’s leadership in the longer run.”

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.