To Unseat Trudeau, Canada’s Top Conservative Leans Left
The leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole, lacks the name recognition, celebrity pedigree and charismatic hair of his Liberal Party rival, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. A former corporate lawyer with nine years of service in the House of Commons, he came into the snap elections campaign new to the leadership of his party, unfamiliar to most Canadians and not especially popular even among many Conservatives.
Yet Mr. O’Toole, 48, the son of a former provincial legislator, has made remarkable progress since last month when the prime minister unexpectedly called the elections, in part by repudiating several of the traditionally conservative stances he championed to win his post.
Poll results in recent weeks have shown support rising both for Mr. O’Toole and his party, while it has fallen for Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals. With just days remaining until the elections on Monday, the Conservatives and the Liberals, who command the most support in Canada’s multiparty system, are locked in a statistical tie at about 30 percent each.
But because Conservative support is heavily concentrated in some regions, particularly the province of Alberta, most polling experts and political analysts say that Mr. O’Toole would have to increase his party’s current support by a lot, perhaps five or six percentage points, to capture enough seats in the House of Commons to dislodge Mr. Trudeau from power.
The shift in the polls may be as much about Liberal decline as it is about Conservative rise.
Mr. Trudeau has been in office six years; by now, many Canadians find him more irritating than inspirational, and he has offered no compelling answer to a chief question surrounding this snap election: Why is it being held at all now, two years ahead of schedule? The prime minister’s argument that he needs strong majority of seats in the House of Commons to lead the pandemic recovery has left many unpersuaded, since he’s already been doing that with a plurality.
Yet it’s also true that Mr. O’Toole has been busy reshaping his party to broaden its appeal. He has taken this sort of campaign gamble before, shifting from moderation to more extreme points of view before shifting back again, a tactic that helped him win the party’s leadership last year.
Before this campaign, he reversed his vow to never introduce carbon taxes and rejected the position of social conservatives on issues like abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Mid-campaign, he rolled back a promise to repeal Mr. Trudeau’s ban on about 1,500 assault-style rifles. Though it’s an approach that seems to be working, it also has risks.
“The biggest challenge every Conservative leader has is figuring out how to balance the members of the Conservative Party of Canada with the kind of people they need to get to vote for the Conservative Party,” said Ken Boessenkool, a former Conservative campaign strategist from Alberta. “Those two groups of people live on different planets.”
Mr. O’Toole came to politics relatively late in life. He studied at Canada’s Royal Military College with the hope of becoming a fighter pilot but instead spent 12 years as a navigator in Canada’s then-aged fleet of ship-borne helicopters.
When Mr. O’Toole was in college, his father left a management job at General Motors’ Canadian head office east of Toronto to become a conservative member of the provincial legislature, a post he would hold for 19 years.
A door opened for Mr. O’Toole to enter politics in 2012, after he had worked for two large law firms in Toronto and later as corporate counsel at Procter & Gamble Canada. A cabinet minister resigned from the seat in the electoral district where Mr. O’Toole had grown up and had been living since he returned after studying law, in Durham, Ontario.Mr. O’Toole, who had become active within the Conservative Party while at law school, won the special election created by the vacancy in 2012. (Mr. O’Toole still lives in the Durham region today with his wife, Rebecca, a corporate affairs consultant and event planner, and their two children.)
Then in 2015, he held a cabinet position for 10 months in the government of Stephen Harper as veterans affairs minister, after the previous one was demoted after a testy exchange with veterans over service cuts and pension benefits.
In 2017, Mr. O’Toole unsuccessfully sought to replace Mr. Harper as the party’s leader, running as a moderate. Last year, he prevailed with a hard-right approach, running as a “true blue Conservative” (blue is the party’s color) who promised to “take back” Canada. Once he won, though, Mr. O’Toole repudiated much of that — launching an appeal to union members, a group rarely courted by Conservatives in the past, while making it clear that he would not reopen debate on abortion.
In preparation for next week’s vote, Mr. O’Toole and his aides have studied the efforts of David Cameron, the former British prime minister, to modernize that country’s Conservative Party. And just as Mr. Trudeau did in 2015, they have sought to target voters who normally don’t show on Election Day.
For Mr. Trudeau, it was younger people. For Mr. O’Toole, it’s blue-collar workers anxious about the future of their jobs and annoyed, even angered, by what they see as Mr. Trudeau’s political correctness.
Lori Turnbull, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, said that the experience of Britain’s Conservatives shows the idea has merit, but it also poses a challenge to the party’s Election Day machinery.
“The question then is, are they actually going to come out for him?” she said.
Mr. O’Toole has also worked on improving his diet and increasing his exercise levels, shedding 40 pounds over the past year or so.
Above all, though, he has focused on his new moderate campaign platform, which is available as a 160-page, glossy magazine. Mr. O’Toole has replaced his “Take Back Canada” slogan of his leadership campaign with “We Have a Plan.”
Until this week, Mr. O’Toole did much of his campaigning in virtual town halls streamed from a temporary television studio not far from Parliament in downtown Ottawa. He repeatedly directed callers who had questions to the page numbers in his platform with the answers. At one point, he thumped his copy of the platform on the table to emphasize its heft.
“We have a plan to get the country back on its feet after a difficult 18 months in this crisis; I’m a pro-choice ally to the L.G.B.T.Q. community,” Mr. O’Toole said sounding like Mr. Trudeau at the opening of the English-language debate.
In recent days, Mr. Trudeau has been arguing during campaign stops that Mr. O’Toole’s shift is deceptive. A review process that Mr. O’Toole is proposing could facilitate the very repeal of the assault weapons law he said he would not touch. And Mr. O’Toole opposes mandatory vaccination and vaccine passports, a position that polls suggest only the far-right members of his party support.
Duane Bratt, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, said that the Conservatives’ current poll standings means that its core membership is willing to overlook the abandonment of issues that are key to them — at least for now.
“If O’Toole does not become prime minister, the danger will be holding this party together,” Professor Bratt said. “There are Conservatives basically saying: ‘OK, we’ll give this O’Toole thing a chance, let’s see if it works.’ And if it doesn’t, do they swing back?”