Erin O’Toole may look back on the day following the first French debate as the turning point in his purposeful path to government.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 13, 2021.
Quebec Premier François Legault’s “dangerous” claims may have just cost Erin O’Toole the election.
Angry warnings not to vote for Liberals, New Democrats, or Greens were supposed to help the Conservative leader. Early in the campaign, Legault made it very clear that his sympathies were with O’Toole.
But that was before O’Toole revealed that part of his costed platform, meant cancelling a $6-billion daycare transfer already inked in principle by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premier.
Now Legault is hedging his bets, calling on Quebecers to support a nationalist party that will devolve more powers with no conditions to Quebec.
He is also suggesting that the best outcome would be a Conservative minority with a strong Bloc Québécois contingent.
That pitch from a self-described “nationalist” can only serve to help the Bloc Québécois, which is fighting to defeat Conservatives in multiple eastern Quebec ridings.
Legault’s intervention will serve to solidify the Liberal vote in the greater Montreal area, and drive wavering federalists back into the Liberal camp.
But it may be more costly for O’Toole in the rest of Canada as Legault is lauding the Tory leader for staying out of Quebec’s business.
The premier is particularly irate that Trudeau has expressed support for community groups wanting to fight the new Quebec law prohibiting public sector workers from wearing hijabs, kippahs, and turbans.
Trudeau is the only federal leader who has spoken out against this nationalist firing offence. Even turban wearing Jagmeet Singh vows he will not protect the right to religious headgear because to do so would interfere with provincial jurisdiction.
In another pitch for nationalist votes, during the French debate, Singh underscored his party’s commitment to the Sherbrooke declaration, where New Democrats vow that a simple majority in a provincial referendum is sufficient to break up Canada.
But his debate appeal to the ghost of Jack Layton has not moved many votes in Quebec as most observers expect the party to win only one or two of the 78 seats in the province.
The biggest boomerang effect of the Legault intervention may come from outside Quebec.
During the French TVA debate, a senior citizen from New Brunswick pleaded for federal involvement to develop national standards for long-term care.
Legault wants federal cash for care, but no conditions attached. O’Toole is promising just such help, even though more than 4,000 Quebecers died during the pandemic while in provincial long-term care.
As Trudeau pointed out during the French-language televised debate on Sept. 8, the premier didn’t mind calling in the Canadian Army when the bodies started piling up.
Quebec nationalists may want to give their premier more powers but if the pandemic has taught us something, it is that our health-care system needs more federal help.
At the moment, we are rolling out multiple vaccine systems and the confusion around the vaccine passport is a direct result of the federated health system.
Trudeau says it is his duty to protect the Canada Health Act. O’Toole says he supports some privatization and wants to transfer billions in unconditional cash transfers. The fine print of his promise shows financing is backloaded, with most monies not coming for another half-decade.
In a tight election, the statement by Legault may turn out to be the kiss of death.
As we near the finish line, this race is still too close to call. This is not where the O’Toole expected to be after a galloping campaign start.
His momentum stalled at the first debate as soon as Trudeau pointedly attacked O’Toole’s page 90 promise to end the ban on assault weapons.
O’Toole’s first mistake was including the issue in his lengthy playbook in the first place. But he added fuel to the fire by calling a press conference the following day to focus on his anti-crime strategy.
What was supposed to be a platform on how to stem the increase in urban gang violence during the Trudeau tenure ended up being damage control on why the guns that killed 14 women in École Polytechnique would be legalized under his watch.
O’Toole may look back on the day following the first French debate as the turning point in his purposeful path to government. Until that moment, O’Toole had been sticking to his knitting, referencing his famous plan; smiling and calmly projecting the image of a potential prime minister.
The first debate shattered that image and started his downward spiral.
O’Toole’s fall from grace, and potential victory, was further accelerated by Legault’s nationalist blessing.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.