Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole today pledged to increase Canada’s vaccination rate beyond 90 per cent within two months as he unveiled the party’s strategy to combat the fourth wave of COVID-19.
O’Toole’s plan relies heavily on persuading more Canadians to get vaccinated through a public information campaign that will “appeal to Canadians’ patriotism” and by providing incentives, such as paid time off work and free transportation to vaccine appointments.
It also promises a “booster shot strategy” to counter waning immunity, an expansion of rapid testing in workplaces and schools, and the accelerated authorization of vaccines for children under the age of 12, who currently aren’t eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
In announcing the suite of pandemic policies at a campaign event in Coquitlam, B.C., O’Toole repeated his criticism of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s decision to call an election at the same time as the delta variant drives a resurgence of cases and hospitalizations in some parts of the country.
“This shouldn’t be the discussion we are having in the middle of an election, but it is, and we need to work together,” O’Toole told reporters.
“I won’t do what’s convenient politically, but what is right.”
WATCH: O’Toole says he wants Canada’s vaccination rate up to 90 per cent
O’Toole’s pandemic policies
The Conservative leader has faced criticism from his political rivals in the past over his unwillingness to support vaccine mandates for federal public servants and domestic travellers.
This plan doesn’t include a vaccine mandate or passport, but it would require unvaccinated civil servants and domestic travellers boarding a bus, plane, train or boat to show recent negative COVID-19 test results or undergo rapid testing. It also promises to work with provinces to develop a national proof-of-vaccination system that could be used for international travel.
O’Toole sought to portray his approach to COVID-19 as fair, co-operative and focused on understanding why some people have yet to get vaccinated, rather than demonizing them — something he accused the Trudeau Liberals of doing in an attempt to score political points on the campaign trail.
“You don’t win people over by threatening them. You win them over by reaching out, talking to them, understanding their fears, answering their questions,” O’Toole said. “We need to persuade every Canadian that vaccines are safe, effective and our best route out of this crisis.”
Additional measures in the Conservative plan include:
- Use of digital marketing, social media and a mail-out to every home encouraging them to get vaccinated.
- A booster shot strategy that would would target seniors and those who are immunocompromised at first by offering a third shot of vaccine.
- Accelerating the development and production of Canadian-made vaccines.
- Closing the border to international travellers from hot spot countries where new variants are detected.
- Extending existing financial support programs for individuals and businesses until the end of December 2021, if provinces reintroduce public health restrictions.
Distracted by guns
Any attempt by O’Toole to promote the COVID-19 plan was overshadowed by a barrage of questions about the Conservative position on firearms, and what critics say is a lack of transparency in the language O’Toole has used recently when speaking publicly about that policy.
O’Toole has generated confusion by pledging to maintain the ban on “assault weapons,” but not “assault-style” weapons.
The “assault weapons” ban refers to a 1977 legislative change that classified fully automatic weapons as “prohibited” firearms — but O’Toole would still do away with the Liberal prohibition on 1,500 “assault-style” firearms models, such as the AR-15 and the Ruger Mini-14 rifle, among those the Liberal government blacklisted through an order-in-council last year.
WATCH: O’Toole defends his support for repeal of “assault-style” firearm ban
The Conservative election platform promises to scrap the May 2020 order-in-council that banned the wide variety of guns and review the Firearms Act with input from police, gun owners, manufacturers and the public.
But O’Toole seemed to backpedal on the pledge on both Thursday and Friday by saying the party would “maintain the ban on assault weapons” when pressed about his platform pledge.
A party spokesperson later said in an emailed statement that O’Toole does promise to repeal the May 2020 order-in-council ban but not the prohibition of full-fledged “assault weapons” — which are distinct from what the Liberals call “assault-style” weapons. That ban has been in place since 1977.
Reporters repeatedly pressed O’Toole on the matter during the campaign stop in Coquitlam, B.C., repeatedly asking whether he would repeal the ban on specific weapons used in mass shootings in recent years.
“We will maintain a ban on assault weapons and we will also have — it’s in our policy — a transparent and public review of our classification system,” O’Toole said, accusing the Liberals of divisive tactics.
“We will have that review, focusing on public safety and getting guns out of the hands of criminals that are being smuggled in from the United States.”
Liberal candidate Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief, unloaded on O’Toole’s response, accusing him of “pretending that he had not made a commitment” to maintain the Liberal ban, as well as of being beholden to the gun lobby.
“I think, overwhelmingly, Canadians recognize that there is no place for these guns in our country,” Blair said at a news conference in Toronto. “Mr. O’Toole is having difficulty admitting to Canadians that he’s made that unholy pact with the gun lobby. He needs to be held to account.”