Leader of the Opposition Erin O'Toole is shown on a camera screen as he speaks during a news conference Monday May 31, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

O’Toole heads to Tory heartland in the West

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole is going back to where he started.

The Conservative leader arrived in Calgary on Wednesday, where the Ontario MP kicked off his bid to win leadership of the federal party in its heartland in January last year.

That was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Since then, O’Toole has spent nearly all of his time as leader speaking to business groups and holding town halls through screens. The party even set one up in a downtown Ottawa hotel conference room, which it transformed into a broadcast studio in case an election was called while the pandemic was raging.

“I’m a COVID-era leader,” O’Toole said in one recent virtual appearance.

“I get Zoom, or I get empty rooms.”

That has no doubt posed a challenge when it comes to getting more Canadians to know who he is, which has become increasingly pressing as speculation swirls Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is preparing to plunge the country into an election this summer or fall.

Recent polls also suggest the Liberals maintain a lead over the Conservatives, and at this point, are likely to stay in government if a general vote were to be held.

For his tour, O’Toole is set to stop by the Calgary Stampede — where politicians, including Alberta’s premier, traditionally don their best western getup to serve pancakes — and then head to British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

“It’s clear the Trudeau Liberals are focused on forcing a risky election while Canadians are worried about their personal finances,” said Chelsea Tucker, O’Toole’s director of communications.

“Canadians can’t afford more of this Liberal government’s Ottawa-knows-best approach that picks winners and losers. Instead, Conservatives are focused on ensuring a recovery in every sector and every region of the country.”

While in Calgary, O’Toole is billed to appear at an event Friday evening with Calgary Centre MP Greg McLean along with supporters and volunteers to get energized for a possible election.

The Conservatives won back the riding — home to the Stampede — from the Liberals in the 2019 vote, after former MP Kent Hehr eked out a victory for the Grits in 2015.

On Sunday, the party will host a $500-per-ticket “meet and greet” fundraiser with O’Toole.

His stop in Calgary follows an appearance by Trudeau the day before, where he announced money for transit and took repeated questions about whether his tour showed he was in the mood for an election. He told a RED FM radio host: “It doesn’t.”

O’Toole made his own campaign-style pledge in a video posted Thursday where he promised that if elected, a Conservative government would provide funding for a Surrey Langley SkyTrain expansion in B.C.

During his visit to Calgary, Trudeau also met with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, a key ally for O’Toole during his leadership race.

A spokesperson for Kenney did not respond when asked Tuesday about a meeting with O’Toole.

O’Toole’s visit to the Conservative heartland, where all but one riding in Alberta and Saskatchewan are blue, comes after having introduced a carbon price on fuel — a policy Tory MPs spent years fighting.

He argues the Conservative climate plan is better for jobs than Trudeau’s, but many Western supporters still viewed the move as a betrayal to his pledge to axe the policy.

Broadening the Conservative base has been a priority for O’Toole, who said that’s why he modernized its climate policy and has been clear that he stands up for abortion and LGBTQ rights, which many believe hurt the party’s chances in the 2019 election.