OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says overcoming western alienation and helping Canada’s post-pandemic economic recoveries are among his top priorities.
A fall election, he said, is not, though the Conservatives will be ready if it comes to that.
O’Toole has been in his post for a little over a week. He named his House of Commons leadership team today, including bringing on Manitoba MP Candice Bergen as his deputy leader.
He is the first leader of the Conservatives not from Western Canada since the 2003 unite-the-right movement brought the fractured wings of the party back into one. His staff are largely also drawn from eastern provinces.
Five of the eight people he named to the House of Commons team Wednesday are western MPs.
O’Toole would not say how worried he is about the rise of Wexit, an Alberta-based party advocating for the four western provinces to secede from Canada. It is led by Jay Hill, a former Conservative MP who was the government house leader for several years under prime minister Stephen Harper.
When the Reform party grew out of western alienation sentiment in the 1980s, it eventually split the right-wing vote with the Progressive Conservative party. That helped the Liberals win three majority governments in a row.
“I’m reminding everyone that it worked out well for the Liberals,” O’Toole said.
“I will be listening and I think people that are frustrated, I’m saying ‘Don’t let Justin Trudeau win.’ Make sure we are united. Make sure we win the next election.”
Bergen, who was briefly in Harper’s cabinet before 2015 and was the party’s house leader under former leader Andrew Scheer, said western alienation was the very first thing O’Toole raised when he spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week.
“Erin and I have talked briefly over the last few hours and one of the things he has asked me to focus on is western alienation,” she said. “And the fact that westerners need to know that Conservatives know this is an issue.”
Trudeau prorogued Parliament last month, intending to return Sept. 23 with a new speech from the throne outlining how the Liberals plan to help Canada’s economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The speech will result in a confidence vote.
O’Toole said the Conservatives will be ready if an election is necessary, but that isn’t what he wants.
“I’m not here for an election,” O’Toole said. “I’m here for the relaunch of our economy post-COVID.”
O’Toole is promising to present a united Conservative front, but some of the wounds of the leadership race will remain. Scheer’s deputy leader, Leona Alleslev, is not on O’Toole’s team. She resigned her deputy leader post in July to back O’Toole’s key rival for the leadership, Peter MacKay.
Quebec MP Gerard Deltell will take on the house leader role and Richard Martel will be the Quebec lieutenant.
O’Toole said he plans to name a full shadow cabinet next week.