This election, Erin O’Toole has tried to put a kinder face on the Conservative Party, talking about how it’s for everyone: workers, immigrants, women. He has tried to present himself as a moderate fella, just looking to help the workin’ man.
It’s been a top down affair. Whenever O’Toole has been asked whether his caucus or this or that member of the party will fall in line, he’s responded that he’s the leader. At most of his local campaign events, he doesn’t even bother to let candidates speak, and typically doesn’t even mention their names. The impression it leaves is that O’Toole doesn’t want his underlings speaking out, because they might say how they really feel, which wouldn’t support the image he’s going for now.
This strategy stands in stark contrast to O’Toole’s 2020 leadership campaign, which was incredibly toxic. His campaign slogan was “take back Canada” — from who? Them — and promised taking a hard line on pipeline protesters, and an even harder line on the Red Menace of China. Billing himself as a true-blue Conservative, O’Toole shitposted his way to the top of the party. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he couldn’t keep up this election’s performance forever.
On Monday night, he tweeted a video in French, and only in French, saying he’d shut down the unofficial border crossing point at Roxham Road in Quebec. This place has long been an obsession of federal Conservatives, as well as white nationalist, far-right figures and groups, because it’s a common spot for migrants moving through the United States to cross into Canada and claim asylum.
They do this due to the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), which forces migrants in the U.S. to claim asylum there instead of Canada, with the only exception being if they enter the country through unofficial crossings. This was done to reduce the number of people trying to claim asylum here, and has resulted in a great deal of suffering, including two Ghanaian men who lost fingers due to frost bite when they made a December 2017 crossing of the border in Manitoba.
In the 2019 election, then Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer focused on Roxham Road in one of the more disgustingly racist ads of the campaign, which depicted a Black man walking across a “bridge” of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s tweet welcoming refugees toward a broken fence. The Conservatives were forced to pull the ad after a public outcry.
O’Toole’s video was full of bullshit, including the notion the crossings were illegal, and the people claiming refugee status were jumping the line. But the video wasn’t made to share facts. Instead, it was released in an effort to save what O’Toole must believe is a dying campaign.
As the campaign reaches its final days, it seems to have dawned on the leader that the kinda-liberal-but-still-a-Tory schtick isn’t going to get him across the line, and so he’s turned to more traditional Conservative tropes. He has to go to something in the closing stages of the campaign, so why not make people fear asylum seekers?
This is also likely why the video was only released in French, unlike most of his announcements. He took a question in English at a Tuesday press conference and repeated the video’s bullshit, but the story caused few ripples outside of a couple fact checks. The video is targeted at Quebec because one of the key promises, beyond a fence at Roxham, is to give Quebec even greater control of immigration into the province. This plays well with nationalist voters who want the federal government to devolve its powers to Quebec City.
The STCA is by no means a solely Conservative project. As Bashir Mohamed wrote in Passage, it was “initiated in 2002 by the Liberal Party under Jean Chrétien, and put into effect by his successor Paul Martin in December 2004.” Since then, the governments of both Stephen Harper and Trudeau have tried to expand the treaty to prevent people from claiming asylum even at unofficial points.
So, it’s not as though the way Liberal government has handled asylum seekers is any good in comparison to the Conservatives. They just choose to do their work in private, aiming for the same outcome as the Conservatives without making it a campaign issue.
For a time, it seemed like O’Toole was going to take this approach as well. The policy is in his platform, but he wasn’t interested in publicizing it. But things have changed.
And so, a more moderate Conservative Party is no longer on the ballot. The only person that might have believed it was in the first place was O’Toole, but now the performance is over.