Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer now says Tory MP Derek Sloan was wrong to question the “loyalty” of Canada’s top doctor, but won’t say if the backbencher will face any repercussions for doing so.
At a press conference in Ottawa Monday, the Tory leader was again pressed about Sloan’s remarks about Dr. Theresa Tam, which other Conservative MPs have called inappropriate and racist.
In an email to supporters and online video released last week, calling for Tam to be fired as Canada’s chief public health officer, Sloan asked if she works “for Canada or China.” Tam, who has been in the role since 2017, was born in Hong Kong.
Earlier: Scheer says he won’t address Sloan’s attack on Dr. Theresa Tam
Sloan criticized her past work with the World Health Organization and accused her of “dutifully” repeating China’s “propaganda” while helping the federal government navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scheer repeatedly refused to comment on the remarks at a press conference last week because Sloan, a rookie MP first elected in the Ontario riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington last fall, is currently running to replace him as Tory leader. Reporters reminded Scheer at the time that the MP sits as a member of his caucus.
Asked Monday if he thinks Sloan’s comments were racist, Scheer said the Ontario MP does not speak for the wider Conservative team.
“I do not agree with his position, with what he said. That is not the position of our caucus,” he said, adding that Tories believe the buck stops with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when it comes to the decisions his government has made during the COVID-19 crisis.
“I believe it is not appropriate to question someone’s loyalty to their country. I believe that is a very serious accusation that you have to have some very substantial evidence to make.”
Scheer ducked a question about whether Sloan will face any punishment, including his possible removal from caucus. He pivoted to say Tam should not be a “scapegoat” for the Trudeau government’s “missteps” during the pandemic which, in his view, includes not closing the border to travellers sooner.
“As for Mr. Sloan and his comments, again I point out that those are not the positions of myself or this caucus. I certainly don’t believe it’s acceptable to question people’s loyalty,” he said. “We can have differences of opinion as to what should or shouldn’t have been done but I think that is an unacceptable place to take the conversation.”
Pressed once more about potential repercussions, Scheer again noted the MP is running for the party leadership.
“In the context of a leadership race, our members will make decisions as to what they ultimately want to see in terms of the direction of the party,” he said.
Though he said it was “important to provide clarity” on his own feelings on the issue, Scheer said he won’t comment on the “policy positions” advanced by those running to replace him.
Chong, Rempel Garner wasted no time denouncing comments
Scheer held the press conference in advance of the House of Commons reconvening in a virtual form Tuesday. As it ended, he walked away from a reporter asking if Sloan should apologize.
After the fall federal election, the Tory caucus voted to give itself — rather than the party leader — the power to remove another MP from the party fold, as permitted under changes stemming from the Reform Act. Tories had the same policy in place after the 2015 election, which explains why Scheer asked former MP Tony Clement to leave caucus amid a 2018 sexting scandal, rather than simply ejecting him.
Michael Chong, the architect of the Reform Act and a candidate in the last leadership race, was among several Conservative MPs who took to Twitter last week to condemn Sloan’s comments about Tam.
“Dr. Theresa Tam, like my father, immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada to make this her home and native land. Like my father, she became a doctor and made it her life’s work to save lives and help her fellow citizens,” he wrote. “We need more Canadians like Dr. Tam.”
Former cabinet minister Michelle Rempel Garner pulled no punches in a Twitter thread directed at Sloan.
“I can’t believe I have to say this (and profuse apologies to her to have to be part of a public object lesson to an MP), but Dr. Tam is of Asian heritage. So when you say, ‘does she work for China or for Canada’ many people will think you’re suggesting she has dual loyalties,” she wrote. “The dual loyalty canard has long been an anti-Semitic trope, or used to perpetuate racist stereotypes.”
Conservative leadership frontrunners Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole have not called out Sloan’s gambit. Earlier this month, both men added their names to an open letter alleging China covered up the scope of the coronavirus problem.
Leslyn Lewis, a Toronto lawyer of Jamaican descent who is also running for Tory leader, suggested in an email to The Canadian Press last week that criticism of Sloan is going too far.
“In a free and democratic society like Canada, we should be able to question the WHO, the government, and even government officials without being accused of racism,” she said.
But several sitting Tory MPs — including fellow rookies Eric Melillo and Eric Duncan — denounced their colleague’s remarks online.
There are legitimate and reasonable questions we are asking about the government’s response to COVID-19 and the information coming out of China.
However, attacking Dr. Tam and giving a platform to extreme theories is completely out of line and does not represent our party. https://t.co/biVrz2iR8l
— Eric Melillo (@Eric_Melillo) April 23, 2020
Just want to put myself on record very clearly to my constituents. I may have questions & constructive concerns at times about Dr. Tam & team during these evolving & challenging times. But I will never question her loyalty to Canada & best interests of Canadians at heart.
— Eric Duncan (@EricDuncanSDSG) April 23, 2020
There are legitimate questions we need to ask the government about their response to COVID-19, however questioning Dr. Tam's loyalty to Canada is not acceptable.
— Tracy Gray (@TracyGrayKLC) April 23, 2020
Conservatives will continue to ask legitimate questions about the government's response to COVID-19 and information coming out of China.
Personal attacks against Dr. Tam are unacceptable and do not represent our party. https://t.co/kvyHi5PLGd
— Tim S. Uppal (@TimUppal) April 23, 2020
What I view as a personal attack against Dr.Tam from a member of our Opposition caucus goes against the values that I believe we as elected officials should aspire to. Let us be mindful of the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry; “be calm, be kind, be safe”.
— Dan Albas (@DanAlbas) April 23, 2020
Tam suggested to reporters Thursday that she is too busy to be rattled by the incident.
“I’m a pretty focused person and I work really, really hard. Probably over 20 hours a day. My singular focus is to work with all of my colleagues to get this epidemic wave under control,” Tam said. “I don’t let noise.. detract me from doing that.”
Sloan doubled down by promoting an email slamming Tam, even as local officials in his riding were, according to a letter obtained by CTV News, calling on Scheer to find a way to remove him from caucus over his “cruel, racist, and completely unbecoming” comments.
But in an online exchange with CTV’s Evan Solomon late last week, Sloan claimed his question about which country Tam works for was rhetorical.
Yes I stand by that question. But it was a rhetorical question. Do you know what a rhetorical question is? Of course she works for Canada - and that is the problem! She has done a terrible job and she should be fired. #cdnpoli https://t.co/L1cAcgCSQc
— Derek Sloan (@DerekSloanCPC) April 25, 2020
On Friday, the organizing committee behind the Tory leadership race will meet to determine the new timelines of the contest, which was suspended last month.
With files from The Canadian Press
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.