Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says his party will draw inspiration from the Royal Canadian Air Force’s motto — Per ardua ad astra, or “through adversity, to the stars” — as it seeks to convince Canadians they should form government at a time of unprecedented challenge.
“Friends, this is our new mission statement,” O’Toole, who served in the air force before politics, told his caucus in Ottawa Wednesday in its first meeting since he won the Tory leadership race late last month.
In his roughly 18-minute speech to MPs and senators, O’Toole made no direct mention of a possible fall election that could be triggered by the defeat of the Liberal throne speech this month. However, he said there wasn’t “much time to spare in getting our country back on track” and stressed the importance of the Tories keeping unified.
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O’Toole claimed the Liberals and “most political pundits” wanted the Tories to stay divided after the leadership contest saw him defeat presumed front-runner Peter MacKay.
“They wanted us to hold grudges or work against each other but they don’t understand us. Many of them never have,” he said. “Our party was built on the belief that despite our differences, we are better and stronger together when we are united. And you know what? So is Canada.”
The Official Opposition will show Canadians they are the “government in waiting” by demonstrating “respect, professionalism, and the pursuit of excellence,” he said. “Together we will form an engaged, ethical, and compassionate Conservative government.”
O’Toole charged that Canada is more divided and less respected internationally after more than four years under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pointing to the rail blockades of last winter that were later overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Durham MP said the pandemic has “ravaged” the Canadian economy with many small businesses, such as his wife’s favourite Thai restaurant in Curtis, Ont., forced to close their doors. He pledged his party will put forward a recovery plan to meet the moment, but gave no specifics.
“We must show Canadians that we have a plan to get our country back on track. We must restore hope for them,” he said.
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He said his new shadow cabinet will help Canadians see themselves reflected in the Conservative Party, highlighting how “strong women” — Alberta MPs Shannon Stubbs and Michelle Rempel Garner — will serve as critics for public safety and health ahead of a possible second wave of COVID-19.
O’Toole added that Michael Chong’s late father, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong, would be “so proud” to see his son become the Tory foreign affairs critic at a time when defending the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong “is once again centre stage for Canada,” a reference to China’s sweeping national security law.
But the final minutes of his speech focused squarely on the debate over historical monuments and sites to controversial figures. O’Toole scored applause by noting they were gathered in the Sir John A. Macdonald building.
The legacy of Canada’s first prime minister, particularly his support for the residential school system and abhorrent treatment of Indigenous peoples, is again in focus after a statue raised in his honour was toppled by demonstrators in Montreal last week.
“Statues erected in tribute to Sir John A. Macdonald have been torn down, even decapitated, by angry mobs who seek to cancel his legacy without even trying to understand it,” O’Toole said.
The new Tory leader noted how Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation commission into residential schools, has called tearing down statues “counterproductive” to reconciliation. Instead, Sinclair has suggested placing plaques beside such monuments for a more balanced story about history.
“Perhaps we should do that next to the Langevin building,” O’Toole said, referring to the Ottawa building Trudeau’s government renamed because of Sir Hector-Louis Langevin’s role as an architect of residential schools. “Perhaps we should do that next to the Trudeau International Airport.”
O’Toole suggested there are current lessons political leaders can learn from Macdonald and “another father of Confederation,” Metis leader Louis Riel, who Macdonald had hanged for treason after the North-West rebellion of 1885.
Riel has been called everything from the father of Manitoba and a warrior for Indigenous rights to a traitor, O’Toole said. Both Macdonald and Riel made “good and bad choices” that should be scrutinized by historians.
“Theirs is also a story of what happens when Canada is divided, when western alienation takes root, and people feel ignored by a distant government in Ottawa who does not try to understand the fears and desires of thousands of people miles away,” he said.
“This is why we must never erase their stories by tearing them down. Cancel culture dooms us to forget the lessons from these stories. It also ignores the incredible progress and resilience of Canada.”
O’Toole and deputy leader Candice Bergen have both said western alienation will be a key focus for the party, and expect the throne speech to address that issue. Conservatives currently hold all 14 seats in Saskatchewan and 33 of Alberta’s 34 seats.
Trudeau: ‘No interest’ in fall election
Speaking to reporters in Toronto Wednesday, Trudeau said his government has “no interest in seeing an election this fall,” but will put forward an ambitious plan with its throne speech on Sept. 23 to begin the process of rebuilding from the COVID-19 crisis.
It is the “responsible thing to do in a democracy,” the prime minister said, to ensure that plan has the confidence of the House of Commons.
“We know that there’s still an awful lot of hardship that Canadians are going through,” Trudeau said. “There’s still real concerns about a potential second wave of COVID-19. We need to be vigilant, we need to be there to help Canadians, we need to be there to relaunch our economy.”