Althia Raj: Erin O’Toole has a big Jason Kenney problem

Conservative Leader must be wishing Alberta Premier could have held off a few extra days before announcing sweeping public health changes and a mea culpa to the province over his handling of COVID-19.

Wednesday evening, Kenney acknowledged the fourth wave of the pandemic is ripping through his province at an alarming rate — in large part because of low vaccination numbers and inadequate public health measures which have allowed the virus to spread. Measures he loosened earlier this summer.

The situation in Alberta is devastating. As my colleague wrote, 24 people died on Wednesday — a rate of one per hour. There were 269 patients fighting for their lives in intensive care units. Thousands of necessary surgeries were cancelled to care for the mostly unvaccinated flooding hospital wings.

Kenney’s decision to call a state of emergency, to “reluctantly” adopt a vaccine passport (or as he calls it a “restriction exemption program”), and to stress that vaccination is not a personal health choice but one that has “real consequences for our whole society,” has the potential to .

On the one hand, it may send potential Conservative voters — those upset with mandatory lockdowns and vaccine passports — into the arms of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada. On the other hand, Kenney’s acknowledgment that he prematurely rushed into reopening the province — a move that likely cost lives — may make swing voters rethink casting a ballot for O’Toole, who’s on the record praising Kenney for his handling of the pandemic.

Up until now, the Conservative leader has tried to make this election campaign a referendum on Justin Trudeau. On the campaign trail, his stump speech notes that the Liberal leader called an unnecessary and costly election— $600 million that could have been better spent elsewhere. Why should Trudeau be rewarded with another term after this egotistical act, O’Toole asks.

Who do you trust to guide Canada through the next waves of COVID-19? The Liberals felt buoyed by their success on vaccine procurement — spending $9 billion on a diverse portfolio to ensure any Canadian who wanted to be vaccinated would be before much of the world, including G7 nations among whom we have the best vaccination rate.

On Day 1 of this campaign, Trudeau made the handling of the pandemic a wedge issue. He stressed O’Toole’s opposition to mandatory vaccination, noted the Conservative leader wouldn’t require passengers on planes and trains be vaccinated, or insist all his candidates be fully vaccinated.

In response, O’Toole stressed accommodation for the unvaccinated. He described vaccination as “personal health decisions” that he pledged to “respect,” and declined to call for vaccine passports, saying he’d respect the provinces’ decisions. (Meanwhile, Trudeau has set aside $1 billion to help the provinces adopt such systems.)

The Conservatives have done themselves no favours on this issue. From Calgary Nose Hill incumbent Michelle Rempel Garner suggesting in the Commons last fall that the Liberals’ failure to demand vaccine manufacturing occur in Canada would leave Canadians unvaccinated until 2030, to Provencher incumbent that one was 13 times more likely to die from the Delta variant if you were double vaccinated than if you were unvaccinated. (This is false.)

In Peterborough—Kawartha, Conservative candidate Michelle Ferreri was found campaigning in a long-term-care facility without being fully vaccinated, while Battlefords—Lloydminster incumbent Rosemarie Falk walked back the Tories oppose international vaccine passports.

More damaging though are O’Toole’s own words, praising Kenney for handling the pandemic “far better than the federal government has” and, in a clip from October 2020 posted on Calgary Skyview Liberal candidate George Chahal’s Twitter profile, adding that “the federal Conservatives can learn a lot from our UCP cousins.”

O’Toole’s gamble to position himself as a bridge builder between those who are uncomfortable with the state’s heavy hand mandating vaccines to participate in society, and those who believe everyone should get the jab so Canadians can avoid further lockdowns, may suggest to voters the Tory leader would be weak on public health at a time when the pandemic is back on the front burner.

O’Toole was asked 10 times Thursday whether he still thinks Kenney handled the pandemic better than Justin Trudeau.

He refused to answer.

Althia Raj is an Ottawa-based national politics columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: