A Liberal MP raised the ire of Conservatives Wednesday when her statement on Women’s History Month pivoted into an attack against Tory Leader Erin O’Toole.
Jennifer O’Connell, the MP for the Ontario riding of Pickering–Uxbridge, rose in the House of Commons before question period to note that there’s still much work needed to advance women’s equality.
“For example, the leader of the Opposition says he got into politics to defend the rights of Canadians, yet he pleaded for the support of social conservatives who worked to remove a woman’s right to choose,” she said, referring to O’Toole’s pitch to Quebec social conservatives during the Tory leadership race.
O’Connell faced jeers as she also blasted O’Toole over his “support” for controversial Ontario MP Derek Sloan, who compared the arguments for abortion rights to those used to defend slavery. Sloan finished a distant fourth out of four in the Tory leadership race won by O’Toole in August. He was not given a role in the new Conservative leader’s shadow cabinet.
From there, O’Connell touted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for naming Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet and defending the reproductive rights of women.
“I know the leader of the Opposition says he’s Canada’s next handyman, but he clearly doesn’t understand how to build a more equitable Canada,” O’Connell said, referencing a line in O’Toole’s response to the Liberal throne speech.
Since the attack took place in a one-minute member’s statement — a tactic Tories often used against Trudeau years ago when they were in government — O’Toole had no opportunity to respond.
The Tory leader’s press secretary, Chelsea Tucker, told HuffPost Canada via email that O’Toole “has always been a champion for women’s equality.” She also noted that while O’Toole has publicly endorsed the bid of Sen. Salma Ataullahjan, “a highly accomplished Muslim woman,” to become president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Trudeau has not done the same.
O’Toole won Conservative leadership over former cabinet minister Peter MacKay after picking up down-ballot support from the social conservatives in the race, Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis and Sloan, who were eliminated in earlier rounds.
Lewis is now seeking the Conservative nomination in the rural Ontario riding of Haldimand-Norfolk.
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But in his first press conference as leader, O’Toole stressed he was both pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ, warning Canadians not to believe “Liberal spin” and to consider finding a home in his party.
“I won the leadership of the Conservative Party as a pro-choice Conservative MP, one that won with a strong mandate,” he said at the time. “That’s how I’m going to lead as the leader of the Opposition and that’s how I’ll be as prime minister. I’m in politics to defend the rights of Canadians to secure a brighter future.”
The previous Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, was repeatedly put on the defensive during the 2019 election over his personal opposition to abortion and record on LGBTQ issues, including his vote against same-sex marriage and refusal to march in Pride parades.
O’Toole was also pressed during his first press conference over his 2016 vote in favour of a Tory MP’s private member’s bill to make it a criminal offence “to cause injury or death to a preborn child” while committing a violent act against a pregnant woman.
Though the bill was seen by opponents as a backdoor attempt to reopen the abortion debate by giving legal recognition to fetuses, O’Toole said the legislation was about public safety and criminal sentencing.
The Tory MP behind that failed bill, Cathay Wagantall, has now introduced a private member’s bill to ban sex-selective abortions.
O’Toole promises MPs free votes on bills on conversion therapy, assisted dying
Since Parliament resumed last month, Liberals have reintroduced two pieces of legislation that are controversial with the social conservative wing of O’Toole’s party: one to ban conversion therapy and another to expand elgibility for medical assistance in dying.
O’Toole, who voted against Liberal legislation on assisted dying in 2016, told reporters Wednesday that he will allow his MPs free votes on both bills.
In a speech in the House last week, O’Toole said conversion therapy should “be banned to protect young people who identify as LGBTQ+,” but said his party would seek “reasonable amendments” to ensure the legislation is clear.
“Clarity is one of the goals of legislative drafting, but the Liberals know that clarity and sincerity do not always make for good wedge politics in the age of Twitter,” he said. “The Liberals know that if the bill is more clearly drafted they might lose the gotcha effect, which is becoming far too common in the politics we see to the south of us.”
With a file from The Canadian Press
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