With Alberta now in the grip of another public health emergency after a summer largely free of COVID-related restrictions, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said today Canadians can't trust Conservatives to run the country during a pandemic.
Pointing to Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole's past praise for the Alberta government's handling of the pandemic, Trudeau said Canadians should take a pass on a leader who has expressed admiration for a failed approach to the pandemic.
"Just a few days ago, Mr. O'Toole was still applauding (Alberta Premier Jason) Kenney for his management of the pandemic. That's at the heart of the choice Canadians need to make in this election," Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Montreal.
"He's not the right leader to put an end to this pandemic," Trudeau said of O'Toole in French. "Do we stand up even stronger in our fight against this pandemic, or do we give in to anti-vaxxers in the Conservative Party and go ahead with half-measures?"
WATCH: Trudeau reacts to Alberta's state of emergency
Last fall — when Alberta's COVID-19 situation was much more stable than it is now — O'Toole said Premier Kenney had "navigated this COVID-19 pandemic far better than the federal government has" and praised Kenney's push to procure more rapid testing options to help keep schools and businesses open.
"And when it comes to getting our country back on track, the federal Conservatives can learn a lot from our UCP cousins," O'Toole said, referring to Kenney's United Conservative Party.
In mid-May, O'Toole said Kenney and the other premiers have been "doing yeoman's service in the absence of leadership from Ottawa," paying tribute to provincial efforts at a time when the vaccine supply was still rather limited.
On Sunday, at a campaign stop in Vancouver, O'Toole said "the best contact tracing efforts in our country in the first wave were in Alberta" and claimed the federal government's COVID alert contact-tracing app had lost its relevance.
"How has that gone? It's another example of everything [Trudeau] promised on his doorstep — he failed to deliver," O'Toole said, referring to Trudeau's Rideau Cottage press conferences in the early months of this pandemic.
Speaking to reporters at a campaign stop in Saint John, N.B., O'Toole dodged multiple questions about his past praise for Kenney and his government's approach to pandemic management.
"I will work with all premiers regardless of stripe," O'Toole said, while chastising Trudeau for prompting this federal election during a fourth wave. "I would never call an election in the middle of a health crisis."
Kenney endorsed O'Toole for the Conservative leadership last year, urging party members to back a "true blue" candidate who can "get things done." The two men served together in the cabinet of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
WATCH: O'Toole ducks questions on Alberta's pandemic response
With his province struggling with high caseloads, stressed intensive care units, a mounting death toll and a comparatively low vaccination rate, Kenney is facing criticism from all sides over a pandemic response that seems to have satisfied no one.
The premier has lurched from strident opposition to vaccine passports to implementing a province-wide proof of vaccination program. After months of promising Alberta would stay open for business, his government moved Wednesday to clamp down on social and economic life to stop the pandemic from spiralling further out of control.
Which explains why Trudeau is seeking to make O'Toole's past support for Kenney's pandemic response a political liability for the Conservative leader — with just five days left to go in the federal election.
Trudeau said a vote for the Conservatives threatens the public health picture because O'Toole is opposed to mandatory vaccines for federal public servants and the travelling public. He has accused O'Toole of deferring to the "far right, anti-vax" fringe elements of the Conservative Party by opposing these measures.
"We can't afford the lack of leadership of Mr. O'Toole. He knows the way through the pandemic is through vaccinations but Mr. O'Toole is still letting anti-vaxxers within his own party run the show," Trudeau said.
"He won't demand that all his candidates get vaccinated. He doesn't criticize his candidate who wasn't fully vaccinated who goes into a seniors' home. He has multiple candidates who have been spreading anti-vax disinformation in their communities," he said. "That's not the leadership we need in Ottawa to end this pandemic for good."
With his "disinformation" comment, Trudeau was referring to Ted Falk, a Conservative candidate in Manitoba who apologized after he was quoted in a local newspaper spreading misinformation about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
Pushing back against the Liberal criticism of O'Toole, the Conservative campaign circulated comments Trudeau made ahead of a meeting with Kenney in July.
WATCH: Alberta's spiraling public health crisis spills into federal election campaign
Trudeau said at the time he and the premiers had been "working together as a federation, I think with excellent results — obviously with variation across the country ... Albertans are feeling pretty good about things, so we're going to keep being there to work together."
While praising the working relationship at the first ministers' table — Trudeau and the premiers have held dozens of calls over the course of the pandemic — the Liberal leader does not commend the province's COVID response in that July exchange.
In fact, the Liberal government has frequently pilloried Kenney and his team over their handling of this crisis. In August, before the election call, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the province's decision to lift all COVID restrictions was "an unnecessary and risky gamble."
Asked to comment on Alberta's about-face on pandemic restrictions now that health care capacity is so stretched, O'Toole said other provinces also have had to change course.
"All the provinces have tried to balance keeping public health paramount and balancing off the economic needs," he said.
One of Trudeau's election promises is a billion-dollar fund to help provinces create their own vaccine passports — credentials people vaccinated against COVID-19 can show to businesses to make everyday activities safer.
WATCH: Alberta to launch proof-of-vaccination program, declares statement of emergency
O'Toole's platform does not include a similar financial commitment but he said Thursday he'd support "what the provinces choose to do to keep people safe. They need a partner in Ottawa." While he's opposed to vaccine mandates, O'Toole has said little about where he stands on vaccine passports for domestic purposes.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also criticized Kenney today, saying "his leadership has been horrible."
"There's no question that Mr. Kenney is to blame," Singh said. "But Mr. Trudeau contributed to the problem by calling the election. Mr. Trudeau called an election when the fourth wave was hitting hard."
The NDP leader said the Liberal government has been slow to implement a federal paid sick leave program which could have helped more people stay home from their jobs, slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Labour law — including legislation governing paid sick days — is generally an area of provincial jurisdiction. Ottawa already requires that employers in federally regulated industries offer some form of personal leave for illness.