Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole defends decision to back, then oust, Sloan

O'Toole defends decisions

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says he was once willing to give his former leadership rival Derek Sloan the benefit of the doubt, but no longer.

And he dismissed the idea that kicking Sloan out of caucus this week has pitted him against one of the party's most powerful wings, social conservatives, whose support O'Toole courted directly during the leadership race last year in part by backing Sloan at the time.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, O'Toole said he didn't believe Sloan meant to be racist last year in his characterization of chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam.

That's why he opposed efforts then to kick him out of caucus, O'Toole said.

"I always will give a colleague, or anyone in Parliament, in public life, the benefit of the doubt or, you know, listen to them the first time," O'Toole said.

"And that was the case early on with Derek, when he said he did not mean to malign the intentions of Dr. Tam."

But O'Toole said a "pattern developed" since then, and frustrations mounted that Sloan's extreme views posed an ever-present danger to the party's goal of forming government.

It all appeared to come to a head last week.

In the aftermath of riots in the U.S. led by extreme right wing supporters of now-former U.S. president Donald Trump.

O'Toole faced pressure from caucus, conservative supporters and his rivals to firmly disavow any elements of extremism in his party's ranks.

Last Sunday, O'Toole issued a statement doing just that. The next day, media organization PressProgress reported O'Toole's outrage over Sloan's leadership campaign accepting a donation from a known white nationalist.

While O'Toole moved swiftly to start the process of kicking Sloan out — getting 20 per cent of MPs on side as required by law — he insisted the demand was driven by caucus, as evidenced in the majority vote to remove him.

"The caucus was ready to make that decision and send a strong message that we are a welcoming party, we respect one another, and we respect Canadians," he said.

O'Toole disputed accusations from Sloan and anti-abortion groups that the decision to kick him out had nothing to do with the Ontario MP's previous statements.

In recent weeks, Sloan has been pushing to get as many socially conservative delegates as possible registered for the party's policy convention in March.

Sloan, as well as the Campaign Life Coalition and RightNow, want enough delegates in their camp so motions they support will pass, including one that would remove the existing policy stating a Conservative government would never regulate abortion.

They also want to elect a slate of directors to the party's national council to entrench their strength.

Sloan said the decision to kick him out was a kneejerk reaction to what happened in the U.S.

But he also contends the move was driven by anger from his fellow MP's unhappy to se him actively courting money and support in their ridings. He's pledged to name them so social conservatives know who is trying to silence their voices, he said.

"They think they are little petty princes ruling these fiefdoms and no one else can have a say," Sloan said.

O'Toole rejected the idea that Sloan's efforts amount to an attempt to take over the party, and O'Toole's own move was a bid to stop it.

"There is no such effort to the extent that Mr. Sloan is suggesting," he said.

Sloan had little national profile when he entered the Conservative leadership race just a few months after becoming an MP.

But early on, he garnered attention for suggesting he wasn't certain of the scientific basis for a person being LGBTQ.

From there, he quickly became well known for his often extreme social conservative views. His comments about Tam, in which he suggested her loyalty lay with China rather than Canada, sparked outrage and took criticism against him to the next level.


U.K. COVID-19 variant found at long-term care home in Barrie, Ont.

U.K. variant found in Ont.

Health officials identified a U.K. variant of COVID-19 at a long-term care home reeling from a deadly outbreak in Barrie, Ont., Saturday as the province recorded a slightly lower daily virus case count.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said genome sequencing on six COVID-19 samples from Roberta Place Retirement Lodge have been identified as the highly contagious B117 variant.

Officials with the local health unit announced earlier this week that they had found a variant at the home north of Toronto and conducted tests to determine what it was. Known variant strains of the virus were first detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.

As of Saturday, officials said 32 residents of the facility have died of COVID-19.

A total of 127 residents of the site, as well as 84 staff, have tested positive. Six residents and one staff member were in hospital.

Positive cases have also been found in two of the site's essential visitors, as well as 21 household members, such as workers, and three external partners, such as physicians.

Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, said he suspected that all of the facility's cases were the variant.

An outbreak at Roberta Place was first declared on Jan. 8.

Gardner said the home wasn't able to successfully cohort cases and non-cases at the start of the outbreak, partly because of how quickly it spread and partly because of how many staff members became ill, leading to difficulty in maintaining adequate staffing.

At a virtual news conference Saturday, Gardner faced questions about why stronger protocols weren't in place at the start of the outbreak. He said it would be extremely difficult for most facilities to handle a variant that moves this quickly.

"We certainly will have to learn from this with regards to what you do with other sites. The whole province will have to learn as we go," he said.

The source of the variant at the facility hasn't been confirmed. Earlier this week health officials said a worker at the site had contact with someone who had travelled abroad, but Gardner said there was no violation of government quarantine guidelines in that case.

Gardner said officials are taking measures including monitoring the close contacts of those who've gone in and out of the facility to prevent community transmission.

Gardner said they haven't seen evidence of community spread yet but the risk is high.

The health unit, in partnership with the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, said it accelerated its immunization program on Friday and vaccinated all eligible residents and staff.

Officials said they planned to immunize residents at other retirement homes throughout Simcoe Muskoka over the weekend.

As of Jan. 16, eligible residents of all long-term care facilities in Simcoe Muskoka have also received their first dose of immunization against COVID-19.

Couple charged after travelling to Yukon to get COVID-19 vaccine

COVID road trip charges

A cabinet minister says a couple from outside Yukon travelled to a remote community in the territory this week and received doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

Community Services Minister John Streiker says he's outraged the man and woman allegedly chartered a flight to Beaver Creek, the most westerly community in Canada near the border with Alaska, to get the shots.

Streiker says he heard Thursday night that the Canadian couple arrived in Yukon on Tuesdayand declared they would follow the territory's mandatory two-week self-isolation protocol, but instead travelled to Beaver Creek.

He says the two people have been charged under Yukon's Civil Emergency Measures Act for failure to self-isolate and failure to behave in a manner consistent with their declaration upon arrival.

Streiker says the couple allegedly presented themselves as visiting workers, misleading staff at the mobile vaccination clinic in Beaver Creek.

He says territorial enforcement officers received a call about the couple, who were later intercepted at the Whitehorse airport trying to leave Yukon.

The maximum fine under the emergency measures act is $500, and up to six months in jail.

The RCMP have been notified, he said in an interview on Friday.

Streiker hadn't confirmed where the couple are from, but he said they didn't show Yukon health cards at the vaccination clinic.

Yukon has two vaccination teams that are visiting communities throughout the territory with priority going to residents and staff of group-living settings, health-care workers, people over 80 who aren't living in long-term care, and Yukoners living in rural, remote and First Nation communities.

Beaver Creek was chosen as a priority community to receive doses of COVID-19 vaccine because it's a remote border community, he said.

Yukon's chief medical officer of health has indicated he believes the risk to the community as a result of the couple's visit is low, Streiker added.

Streiker said there may be more scrutiny at vaccine clinics when people show up from outside Yukon, but officials are still working through options to prevent such a situation from happening again.

"I find it frustrating because what that does is it makes more barriers," he said. "We've been trying to remove all barriers to get the vaccine for our citizens and so if there's another sort of layer of check, I just don't want it to make it harder for Yukoners to get their vaccines."


Spartan Bioscience says Health Canada has approved its rapid COVID-19 test

Rapid COVID test approved

An Ottawa company says it's received approval from Health Canada for its made-in-Canada rapid COVID-19 test.

Spartan Bioscience says it's now authorized to sell the diagnostic test, which is touted as providing on-site results within an hour.

The company originally unveiled a rapid test for COVID-19 last spring but had to voluntarily recall it and perform additional studies after Health Canada expressed some concerns.

At the time, Spartan said Health Canada was concerned about the "efficacy of the proprietary swab" for the testing product.

Spartan said the federal agency had no concerns about the accuracy and analytical performance of the product.

The company bills the new Spartan COVID-19 System as "the first truly mobile, rapid PCR test for COVID-19 for the Canadian market."

"The Spartan system will be able to provide quality results to remote communities, industries and settings with limited lab access, helping relieve the burden on overwhelmed healthcare facilities," the company said in a news release Saturday.

The Spartan COVID-19 System was developed through clinical evaluation completed in Canada and the U.S., with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute as one of the testing locations.

The company says it's already started production on the rapid tests.

A spokesperson for Health Canada says the new device meets the agency's requirements for both safety and effectiveness.

The news comes amid a continuing decline in COVID-19 cases in parts of Canada.

On Saturday, public health officials in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador said there were no new confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Public health officials in New Brunswick reported 17 new cases, 10 of which were in the Edmundston region, which was set to go into a lockdown first thing Sunday morning.

Both Quebec and Ontario reported fewer cases Saturday — 1,685 and 2,359 repectively.

However, officials in Ontario expressed concern about a highly contagious U.K. variant of the virus that was detected at a long-term care facility north of Toronto.

Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit confirmed the variant was behind the outbreak at Roberta Place Retirement Lodge in Barrie, Ont., where 32 residents have died of COVID-19 and dozens of others have tested positive.

Fears of variants that can rapidly spread come as the federal government considers a mandatory quarantine in hotels for travellers returning to Canada.

Prairie ticket holder wins Friday night's $60 million Lotto Max jackpot

Someone is a millionaire

A ticket holder from the Prairies won Friday night's whopping $60 million Lotto Max jackpot.

The draw also offered six Maxmillions prizes of $1 million each, and one of them was claimed by a lottery player in Quebec.

The jackpot for the next Lotto Max draw on Jan. 26 will be approximately $15 million.

Non-essential travel ban would violate Constitution, but courts might allow it: expert

Travel ban may be allowed

Fear that Quebecers will catch a new variant of COVID-19 on vacation is what's driving demands by the Quebec premier for Ottawa to ban non-essential flights to the country.

Premier Francois Legault repeated once again this week that his government believes it was vacationing Quebecers during spring break in 2020 who brought the virus home, allowing it to spread earlier and more widely in the province than elsewhere in Canada.

Legal experts say a ban on non-essential travel would violate the mobility rights guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states, "Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada." The question, experts say, is whether a ban can be justified.

"The Constitution is very clear that Canadians have the right to enter and leave Canada," Johanne Poirier, a McGill University law professor who specializes in Canadian federalism, said in a recent interview. But like other rights, she said, it can be limited — if the limitation is justified, reasonable and proportionate.

And given the worldwide pandemic, the courts might offer the government more flexibility, she said.

"These would not be cases where the courts would be extremely taxing or demanding on the government," she said. "But the government would still have to justify it, because there's no doubt that there's a violation of rights."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday his government is considering new measures that would "significantly impede" Canadians' ability to return to the country. Forcing returning travellers to quarantine in a hotel — at their expense and under police surveillance — is also on the table, he said.

Trudeau said earlier in the week he wouldn't close the border to Canadians because the Constitution protects their right to enter the country. The prime minister, however, has restricted access to the country to foreigners since the start of the pandemic.

Michael Bryant, head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said forcing people to quarantine at a government-supervised location would be justified if the state has data showing current health orders around travel aren't working. But Bryant said in a recent interview he hasn't seen evidence the rules are failing. "I don't think that they have that data."

Canadians who return from abroad are required to isolate at home for two weeks and violators risk heavy fines and jail time.

A September ruling in Newfoundland and Labrador offers an idea of how the courts would interpret the legality of travel bans, Poirier said. A judge in that province affirmed the government's ban on interprovincial travel to limit the spread of COVID-19, despite arguments the order violated charter rights.

"I think the courts would be very reluctant in the short term to stand in the way of a government that wanted to ban travel," she said.

As of Thursday, there were five cases in Quebec of the new COVID-19 variant that was first detected in the U.K. Four of those cases — detected in December — were related to travel to that country. Officials have said the source of the fifth case remains unknown.

Bryant said he doesn't believe fears of new COVID-19 variants justify added restrictions on mobility rights, especially if more proportionate responses — such as increased testing of people arriving in the country — are available.

Meanwhile, data from the federal government indicates travellers are being exposed to COVID-19 as they fly back to the country. Since Jan. 6, passengers on 164 international flights arriving in Canada have been exposed COVID-19 while flying, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Thirty-two of those flights have been to Montreal and one to Quebec City.

But Montreal-based airline Air Transat said travel has been associated with relatively few cases of COVID-19.

"And yet, even with travel accounting for only one per cent of COVID-19 cases, there has been an enormous amount of attention dedicated to it over the last few weeks," Air Transat spokeswoman Debbie Cabana wrote in an email.

"Perhaps part of that attention should be redirected to the factors that contribute to 99 per cent of COVID-19 infections."

If the government wants to ban travel, Cabana said, it should ban it — and give airlines financial support. "You cannot ask a company fighting for survival to continue to operate while taking away its customers."

Diplomats contact Canadian held for over 2 years in China

Captive Canadian contacted

Canadian officials have met online with former diplomat Michael Kovrig, who has been held in China for more than two years in a case related to an executive of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.

Canada’s Foreign Ministry said officials led by Ambassador Dominic Barton were given “on-site virtual consular access” to Kovrig on Thursday. The ministry said it was unable to release further details.

Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor have been confined since Dec. 10, 2018, just days after Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is also the daughter of the founder of the Chinese telecommunications equipment giant.

“The Canadian government remains deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention by Chinese authorities of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor since December 2018 and continues to call for their immediate release,” the ministry said.

China says the pair are being held on suspicion of endangering national security, but has also drawn clear links between their detention and the case against Meng, who is fighting deportation to the U.S. where she faces fraud charges.

Beijing says the detention of Meng, who is under house arrest at a mansion she owns in Vancouver, is politically motivated and has demanded her immediate and unconditional release.

Chinese prosecutors announced last year that Kovrig had been charged on suspicion of spying for state secrets and intelligence, and Spavor on suspicion of spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets. It’s not publicly known where they are being held or under what conditions.

Canadian diplomats had been denied all access to the two men from January to October because of coronavirus precautions cited by the Chinese side.

Meng’s arrest severely damaged relations between Canada and China, which has sentenced two other Canadians to death and suspended imports of Canadian canola.

The U.S. accuses Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, of using a Hong Kong shell company to deceive banks and do business with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

Ontario recovers $11M allegedly taken by senior civil servant accused of fraud

$11M taken by civil servant

A former senior employee with the Ontario government has repaid more than $11 million in COVID-19 benefits the province alleges he took fraudulently, his lawyer said Friday.

The unproven civil claim named Sanjay Madan, who had a senior IT role and helped develop the computer application for applying and approving the benefit for families with children.

In a brief statement, Madan's lawyer Christopher Du Vernet confirmed his client had made the repayment.

"In fact, the province has recovered in excess of the funds it presently alleges Mr. Madan took from the Families Support Program," Du Vernet said.

"However, it is also seeking its legal costs, interest and punitive damages, so the action continues."

In its untested lawsuit filed last fall, the province alleged Madan, his wife and two adult children who all worked for the Ontario government in information technology defrauded the province of at least $11 million.

The civil claim, which also sought $2 million in punitive damages, accused them and others of illegally issuing and banking cheques under the program that aimed to defray the cost of children learning at home.

"The Madan family exploited their positions of employment with Ontario and unique access to the (program) and payment processing system," the government alleged in the claim. "The plaintiff was uniquely vulnerable to Sanjay, particularly with respect to the integrity of the...application."

Late Friday, the Ministry of the Attorney General said funds had "now been seized" pursuant to a judicial order and were being held by the court pending litigation of the province’s claims.

"The government takes these allegations seriously," ministry spokesman Brian Gray said. "(It) has retained KPMG to conduct a thorough investigation, and that investigation is ongoing."

Du Vernet said his client "deeply regrets" his actions and was awaiting results of medical opinions on his condition.

According to the lawsuit, Madan and his family opened more than 400 accounts at the Bank of Montreal between April and May. They then deposited around 10,000 cheques made out to fictitious applicants with thousands of non-existent children under the support program.

Most deposits were made over a four-week period starting on May 25, coinciding with a rule change that allowed more than five payments to be made to an applicant. The government alleges Madan either sparked the rule change or knew about it and took advantage.

In other court filings, Madan is said to have told the government that he could explain "all of this" and that he has "helped many families."

The government had served notice it intended to seize any money the family allegedly obtained fraudulently and obtained a court order to have their bank accounts turned over to the court pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

The government also obtained a court order freezing the family's assets, which included a list of properties in Toronto. The government said it will be in court next week to extend the freeze.

Madan was fired in November.

Biden, PM chat; U.S., Canada have plenty of common ground to work with, Trudeau says

Trudeau, Biden have call

UPDATE 5:30 p.m.

Joe Biden's White House has a lot in common cause with Canada, Justin Trudeau said Friday as he urged people to look past the new U.S. president's decision to kill off the Keystone XL pipeline project.

The two countries have great partnership potential in the Biden era, particularly when it comes to a shared vision of tackling climate change while fuelling economic growth, the prime minister said.

"It's not always going to be perfect alignment with the United States; that's the case with any given president," he told a news conference outside his Rideau Cottage residence.

"In a situation where we are much more aligned — on values, on focus, on the work that needs to be done to give opportunities for everyone while we build a better future — I'm very much looking forward to working with President Biden."

The two leaders spoke for about 30 minutes late Friday — Biden's first phone call with a foreign leader since taking office.

Trudeau expressed Canada's "disappointment" with the Keystone decision, and Biden acknowledged the difficulties it has caused, said a federal official familiar with what was discussed.

But by and large, the tone of the call was "overwhelmingly positive," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss details of the call.

Trudeau also expressed concern about Biden's Buy American plan to ensure U.S. workers and manufacturers are the primary beneficiaries of his economic recovery strategy.

The leaders agreed to continue to discuss Canada's concerns about an issue that the two sides have been discussing for months, and will continue to talk about as the administration finds its feet, the source suggested.

Biden and Trudeau also agreed to meet next month, although it's not clear given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic what form that meeting would take.

Earlier Friday, Trudeau said the federal government would be there to support oilpatch workers in Alberta and Saskatchewan who have been hurt by Biden's decision.

But there's little doubt the fight is far from over, particularly if Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has anything to say about it.

"The United States is setting a deeply disturbing precedent for any future projects and collaboration between our two nations," Kenney wrote in a letter to Trudeau he released Friday on Twitter.

"The fact that it was a campaign promise makes it no less offensive. Our country has never surrendered our vital economic interests because a foreign government campaigned against them."

Biden believes a brisk economic recovery doesn't have to come at the expense of the environment, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.

Biden opposed the Keystone XL expansion as vice-president under Barack Obama, who blocked the project in 2015, and as president he still does, Psaki said.

Kenney and other champions of the project, including Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., argue it has changed significantly since the Obama administration cancelled it five years ago.

As word emerged this week of the project's imminent demise, Calgary-based owner TC Energy revealed plans to spend US$1.7 billion on a solar, wind and battery-powered operating system for the pipeline to ensure it achieves net-zero emissions by 2030.

Kenney wrote Wednesday's decision came "without taking the time to discuss it with their longest-standing ally," although Hillman insists she has been in near-constant discussions with the Biden team ever since May, when they promised to cancel the project.

He called the decision a violation of the investor-protection provisions of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and called on Trudeau to press the U.S. for compensation on behalf of TC Energy and the Alberta government.

"I strongly urge you to ensure that there are proportionate economic consequences in response to these unfair U.S. actions," Kenney wrote.

"If the U.S. is unwilling to listen, then we must demonstrate that Canada will stand up for Canadian workers and the Canadian economy."

Biden's decision has critics among U.S. conservatives as well: Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader, called it a job-killing "virtue signal" to climate crusaders.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz accused Biden of erasing 11,000 potential jobs in the U.S. "with the stroke of a pen ... by presidential edict." Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said the president was "pandering to fringe activists."

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said the move does little besides kill jobs, "disappoint our strong ally, Canada, and reverse some of our progress toward energy security."

And Idaho senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo both signed on to co-sponsor a Republican bill aimed at allowing construction on the project to continue, despite Biden's decision to rescind the permit.

"The Keystone project is the linchpin of America's energy independence and job creation strategy," Risch said in a statement.

"Shutting it down leaves us dependent on the likes of OPEC and Russia to help power the country and undermines the pact we made with our northern ally, Canada, which remains supportive of the project."


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will speak with U.S. President Joe Biden today amid continuing fallout from the death of the Keystone XL pipeline project.

The phone call, Biden's first with a foreign leader since taking office this week, comes as the new administration turns its focus to the country's economic recovery.

It also comes with parts of Canada up in arms over Biden's Day 1 executive order rescinding permits for the US$8-billion cross-border pipeline expansion.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is among those urging Trudeau to take Biden to task over the decision and to "respond with consequences" if it's not reversed.

Biden's decision has critics in the U.S. Republican party as well: Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, calls it a job-killing "virtue signal" to climate activists.

Trudeau is also likely to voice worries about Biden's Buy American plan to ensure U.S. workers and manufacturers are the primary beneficiaries of his economic recovery strategy.

Rapid COVID-19 tests important to reopening safely: business group

More calls for rapid tests

A group of large businesses in Banff National Park is proposing a rapid COVID-19 testing project meant to help reopen the economy safely.

Yannis Karlos, the head of the group, said rapid testing can guarantee the safety of the community while allowing the return to a semblance of normality in a place heavily dependent on tourism.

"We're just looking for options to take a different approach to ensure that our community remains safe," said Karlos, who owns a distillery and restaurant in Banff, Alta.

"Back in March, our community basically fully shut down and we had an extremely high level of unemployment," he said.

Karlos said the group of businesses that represent 5,300 employees would cover the costs of deploying COVID-19 rapid tests if the Alberta government will supply them.

"The way we envision it is becoming a public-private partnership, so we're looking for some assistance from the municipality as well as from the province," he said.

Town of Banff spokesman Jason Darrah said the municipality will support the project.

"We want to support however possible, such as offering facilities for doing it," he said.

Sandy White, the co-founder of a coalition of academics, medical professionals and business leaders called Rapid Test and Trace Canada, which is working with the businesses in Banff, said millions of rapid tests already bought and distributed by the federal government are sitting in warehouses across Canada because provincial governments are either unable or unwilling to deploy them.

"The overall mismanagement of this file in particular, to say nothing of vaccines and everything else, has been depressingly indicative of Canada's response to this thing," he said.

White, who himself owns two inns in Banff, said other countries have responded to the pandemic more efficiently than Canada using rapid tests and other measures to reopened their economies safely.

"We are drowning in this situation and we've had a year to get all these wonderful things in place and we could be Taiwan or South Korea or Australia or New Zealand but we're not," he said.

"That's very frustrating."

White said the 90-day rapid-testing project proposed for Banff would aim to test as many of the town's roughly 8,800 residents as possible within the first two days. After that, the program would test between five and 10 per cent of residents every day.

"We are quite confident that with a strategy like that, we can eradicate COVID within the community," he said.

Banff had close to 200 active cases of COVID-19 at the end of November, when the economy had reopened and tourists were in town.

"The goal really is to be able to safely reopen the economy and encourage tourists to come back to town," he said, noting local jobs depend on tourism.

He said the program could also be used as a "test case" to prove that a rapid-testing strategy can work to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

White said his organization is speaking with several groups across the country, including universities and Indigenous communities, to prepare rapid-testing project proposals.

"It would be us advising and assisting in setting up pilots and executing on them with the government really just providing testing services in the form of the tests and maybe some basic guidance," he said.

New advocacy group launches pre-election ad campaign against O'Toole, Conservatives

O'Toole under attack in ads

A new third-party advocacy group is launching an ad campaign aimed at ensuring Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole never becomes prime minister.

The Protecting Canada Project is airing its first 30-second ad, in English and French, on television and online.

The ad predicts that an O'Toole government would cut funding for health care, even as the country struggles through the COVID-19 pandemic, resting that assertion on decisions under the previous Conservative government and O'Toole's support for similar cuts made by current conservative premiers.

The tag line concludes that O'Toole and the Conservatives "are hazardous to your health — at the worst possible time."

Group spokesman Ian Wayne, who formerly worked for NDP leaders Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair, says Protecting Canada was formed by Canadians "with diverse political experience" and a common goal of ensuring the Conservatives don't win the next election. He says it is backed by "progressive" individuals and organizations who believe it's "crucial" to counter the Conservative-friendly messaging peddled by what he calls "well-funded, extreme right-wing" advocacy groups like Canada Proud.

"This launch is just the beginning," Wayne said. "We will continue to grow our campaign and get our messages to more and more everyday Canadians."

Wayne is listed as a director of the group, along with Don Millar, who has a history of working with Liberals.

Until an election is actually called, Protecting Canada, like other groups, can spend as much as it likes and never disclose where it is getting its money.

Changes to the Canada Elections Act in 2018 impose spending limits on advocacy groups and require them to disclose donors during the three-month "pre-writ period" before an election is called, as well as during the campaign.

But the restrictions assume an election will happen on a date set in the law, about four years after the last national vote. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presides over a minority Liberal government, which could fall well before then if the opposition parties unite against the Liberals in a confidence vote.

The project's first ad alleges that O'Toole voted in favour of a $36-billion "cut" to federal health-care transfers to the provinces.

The "cut" implemented by Stephen Harper's Conservative government, of which O'Toole was a part, has been a political football for years. While in power, the Conservatives scaled back the annual six per cent increase in the health transfer to a minimum of three per cent — a move that guaranteed provinces would still get more money each year, though at a slower rate than before. That meant provinces would receive $36 billion less over 10 years than they had anticipated. The change actually came into effect under the Liberal government, which opted to keep the Tories' formula in place.

The ad also ties O'Toole to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, a former Harper cabinet colleague who endorsed O'Toole for the Conservative leadership last year and whose popularity has nosedived over his handling of the pandemic.

The ad says O'Toole endorses Kenney's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which they allege includes cutting 11,000 health care workers' jobs. The same approach federally could result in "tens of thousands of health care layoffs across Canada," it warns.

In a statement, O'Toole accused the group of playing fast and loose with the truth.

"The Liberals are lying about my record because they don’t want to talk about theirs: a record of lost jobs, corruption, and failure on vaccines," read the statement.

"Canada’s Conservatives will secure health care, secure jobs, and secure our future.”

During his campaign to lead the Conservative party last year, O'Toole pledged he'd provide "stable and predictable" funding while respecting provincial jurisdiction.

As the provinces have clamoured for more health-care money from the federal government to manage the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, O'Toole hasn't ruled out listening and has also said the money must flow with no strings attached.

His party did also back a Bloc Québécois motion in the House of Commons in December that called on the federal government to "significantly and sustainably increase Canada health transfers before the end of 2020."

The "Canada Proud" groups the new advocacy organization mentions are run by a media company that helped O'Toole win leadership of his party last year. He's since ended his contract with them.

Federal public safety minister suspends sale of decommissioned RCMP vehicles

RCMP vehicles not for sale

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has suspended the sale of decommissioned RCMP vehicles, two days after a man in Nova Scotia was arrested for allegedly impersonating an officer while driving a fake police car.

The suspect's 2013 Ford Taurus was a decommissioned police car and was allegedly altered to look like an unmarked police vehicle.

The car was similar to the replica RCMP cruiser used by a gunman who killed 22 people in Nova Scotia during a 13-hour rampage on April 18-19.

Blair issued a statement today saying the RCMP's resale process for decommissioned vehicles ensures they cannot easily be misused for criminal purposes.

The minister said, however, such sales will be suspended to ensure the process is not flawed.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said today he was pleased with Blair's decision.

"It's a great first step," McNeil said, adding that the province's justice minister, Mark Furey, has been working with Blair on the police vehicle file.

"We have a piece of legislation that will be introduced during the next session. It deals with (police) accessories and how to deal with municipal (police) vehicles in our province."

On Wednesday, the Mounties said that in the most recent case, a 23-year-old suspect from Antigonish, N.S., may have used the car in question to pull over other vehicles in the Halifax region and Antigonish County.

The vehicle was outfitted with LED lights in the rear window, a microphone on the dashboard, a public address system, citizens band radio and a push bar with LED lights mounted on the grill.

Police also confirmed the suspect did not appear to have any police clothing or firearms of any kind.

"It remains illegal to impersonate a police officer and we will take every step possible to prevent such crimes from taking place," Blair said in the statement. "We will continue to work so that all Canadians feel safe in their communities."

The vehicle used in the April mass shooting was heavily modified with an emergency light bar on the roof and decals that looked exactly like those found on marked RCMP cruisers.

Early in the RCMP's investigation of the mass killing, a senior officer said the killer's vehicle allowed him to "circulate around the province, steps ahead of our investigators."

The replica vehicle was so convincing that questions were raised about the availability of former police vehicles for public purchase.

The Mounties have confirmed that on the night of April 18, the killer set fire to several homes and killed 13 people in Portapique before evading police later that night while disguised as an RCMP officer.

The next morning, he resumed killing people he knew and others at random before he was fatally shot by a Mountie at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., which is just north of Halifax.

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