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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole leaves a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 27, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Usually it takes Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole a day or two before he contradicts himself, but on Wednesday he did it in about 15 minutes.

He went out to speak to reporters about whether Conservative MPs will get vaccinated but he was trying so hard to say one thing and make it sound like another that eventually, in French, he got his own answer wrong.

The thing to note here isn’t that Mr. O’Toole misspoke when answering a question in his second language. What matters is why: He was trying to walk such a narrow tightrope of linguistic trickery that he tripped himself up.

Mr. O’Toole clearly wanted to give the impression that all Conservative MPs will be vaccinated before the Commons resumes Nov. 22. But what he really meant – what his Tory caucus agreed to – is that those who actually show up for sittings of the Commons will be vaccinated.

And make no mistake, those two things are very different. Mr. O’Toole isn’t saying that all his MPs will be vaccinated. He is saying MPs that aren’t vaccinated won’t show up. They can stay home rather than representing their constituents in Parliament.

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Mr. O’Toole has been struggling to find a way to deal with the question of whether Tory MPs will all be vaccinated. He doesn’t want the Tories labelled as the party that supports anti-vaxxers, but demanding MPs get shots could lead some to revolt.

The other parties have banded together to insist MPs must be vaccinated to sit – more later on that – and Mr. O’Toole’s party is against hybrid video sittings, too. So what to do?

Mr. O’Toole apparently thought he had a winning formula when he emerged to speak to reporters about the question on Wednesday.

He said he had “put forward a plan and the caucus agreed to respect and abide by new rules which require parliamentarians attending the House of Commons and Senate to be vaccinated.”

The key word here is “attending.” In French, he referred to “parliamentarians who participate in person.” When he was asked if that meant unvaccinated MPs would have to stay home, he just repeated himself. Except once, in French, when he left out the caveats, and accidentally said all his MP will have to get vaccinated: “On November 22, all our MPs in the House of Commons and the Senate must be vaccinated and will be vaccinated.”

That’s not what he meant. The “plan” Mr. O’Toole put forward to his caucus only requires vaccination for those who attend sittings in person.

It’s worth noting here that it is not clear how many Conservative MPs are unvaccinated. A number of them have declined to say, arguing it is a private matter. Even Tory MPs say they don’t know the number. It is even possible that those who remain unvaccinated will change their minds by the time the Commons sits.

It is also worth noting that Mr. O’Toole hasn’t explicitly said whether he is for or against a mandatory vaccination policy for MPs.

He did pledge to contest the decision by the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy – the committee of MPs that manages the Commons – to require vaccinations. But he said he would contest that decision on procedural grounds.

On that point, in fact, Mr. O’Toole is correct. It is a dangerous precedent to allow the board, a committee of parliamentary officers from the parties, to set new rules that bar an MP from taking their seat. That is a matter that affects the privileges of every MP, and, as the Conservatives argue, it should only be decided by a vote of the full Commons.

Even so, there is no doubt how the Commons would vote if the board’s decision is invalidated. Mr. O’Toole will still face the same question about unvaccinated MPs, unless they all change their mind. Will his MPs have to get vaccinated, or not?

Right now, he has a stay-home plan for Conservative MPs who decide not to get vaccinated, and that can’t last forever. Maybe he is hoping other parties will insist on hybrid, virtual sittings, and that will let his party off the hook.

In the meantime, Mr. O’Toole is trying to get through it with a dash of misleading language so tricky that he himself got lost in translation.

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