Right before the 2015 federal election writ dropped, former Kootenay-Columbia MP David Wilks was looking for some help to get a specialty vehicle for a paraplegic man in Cranbrook.
Turning to Erin O’Toole, his Conservative Party colleague and the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Wilks was able to make his request, which was immediately answered and fulfilled.
“How quickly it was done was very impressive, so I know that Erin is a do-er and that means a lot to me as the leader and that’s why I threw my support behind him,” said Wilks.
The former regional parliamentarian lauded O’Toole, who stopped in Cranbrook on Friday while campaigning for the Conservative leadership nomination to succeed Stephen Harper.
O’Toole is in a crowded race with 13 others members vying for the chance to lead the party in the post-Harper era, who resigned as leader following the Conservative election defeat 13 months ago.
He sat down for an interview with the Cranbrook Townsman before addressing Kootenay-Columbia party members during a campaign event at the Cranbrook Golf Club.
“I entered [the race] to fill a void, we needed a leader who could bring forward the best of the last Conservative government, what the Harper government did, but with a new style and with a little less of the harsher edges as we were perceived as having,” O’Toole said.
Representing the Durham riding in the Greater Toronto Area, O’Toole is a military veteran who went in to the Armed Forces right out of high school, earning a degree at Royal Military College of Canada before being commissioned as an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
During his service with the military in the Prairies and Nova Scotia, O’Toole conducted anti-submarine, maritime surveillance, search and rescue and naval support operations as a helicopter Air Navigator.
After serving in the regular forces, he joined the reserves and earned a law degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He was first elected to public office in a 2012 byelection, and was appointed to Harper’s cabinet in early 2015.
O’Toole points to his resume when he describes the separation between himself and the 13 other leadership candidates.
“I’m really the only one who can beat Justin Trudeau in 2019,” he said. “I have support from across the country, I served in the military in Atlantic Canada and in Western Canada. I grew up and represent a seat in Southern Ontario.
“I worked for a decade in the private sector with large companies, small companies. I was a cabinet minister. I turned around Veterans Affairs and fixed a number of problems as part of the cabinet in the last government.”
The Liberal Party rode a wave of anti-Harper and anti-Conservative sentiment in 2015, capturing a majority government and making a statement on the electoral map by shutting out the Tories in all 32 ridings in Atlantic Canada.
“I think there were a few reasons, but the central reason was that people viewed our party as not listening and being a little out of touch,” said O’Toole. “They were very happy with our job creation record, a million-plus new jobs from the recession, the lowest tax rate federally since Diefenbaker, a focus on small business and rebuilding the military…
“All these positive things people liked, but they thought the way we were doing things was a bit ham-fisted. I think we should have told our story better. I think we should have avoided bills like omnibus bills where we weren’t really explaining what we were doing, because I think most of what we were doing was in the very strong, long-term interest of the country.”
Western Canada is a Conservative stronghold, however, the party will need to make some inroads in other parts of the country in order to form government, O’Toole added.
“The key areas we have to rebuild in are southern Ontario, where I have my seat and held on with a big margin, the Lower Mainland of B.C., where I’m spending a lot of time — we held a lot of seats around Vancouver and the Fraser Valley where we lost — and Atlantic Canada, where we lost every single seat,” O’Toole said.
The Conservative Party is currently being helmed by interim leader Rona Ambrose, who was elected by the party caucus after Harper’s resignation following the election.
The party will hold a leadership vote on May 27 at a convention in Toronto.