OTTAWA — Erin O'Toole sayscomments about COVID-19 vaccines by some members of his caucus are not helpful and are spreading uncertainty about immunization, but he will deal with those issues privately with his team.
The Conservative leader has struggled for weeks to put a lid on questions about where he and his party stand on mandatory vaccinations. Some of his MPs are ardently against such policies, while others see them as less of a concern than other issues.
O'Toole moved on Monday to distance himself from remarks by some of his caucus members, including those made by Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu during an interview on CTV's "Question Period."
In the interview that aired Sunday, Gladu compared COVID-19 to polio when it spread during the early 20th century, but she claimed the novel coronavirus doesn't pose the same "frequency of risk" in terms of deaths or disabilities.
"There's a big difference between advocating for your constituents who may need reasonable accommodation," said O'Toole.
"It's very different to cause confusion with respect to the health and well-being of Canadians. Ms. Gladu's interview did that yesterday and it's not appropriate at a time we should be answering questions about vaccine hesitancy, not creating new questions," he said.
"Our team will deal with this as a team because we respect one another and we have these discussions in caucus, but let me be crystal clear: The Conservative party encourages people to vaccinated."
The comments were O'Toole's first since Gladu publicized late last week that she belonged to a group of 15 to 30 Conservative MPs and senators planning to form a so-called mini-caucus within the larger Conservative cohort to discuss the negative impacts of vaccine mandates.
Gladu has repeatedly said the group isn't about O'Toole or his leadership, and that it wouldn't contradict the leader's message when it comes to COVID-19. Her office did not immediately respond to the concerns he raised about her CTV interview.
On Monday, O'Toole was alsoasked about comments by Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis — a former leadership rival and favourite of the social conservative wing of the party — who has questioned on social media the efficacy of vaccinating children, and those by Dean Allison, another Ontario MP. Allison, who has said he can't get vaccinated for medical reasons, has hosted broadcasts with scientists who compared natural immunity to COVID-19 with vaccination.
"It's a great example of why members of Parliament, of all stripes, should let the professionals, let the public health officials, let the physicians answer questions about efficacy of vaccines," said O'Toole.
The Conservative leader also cautioned that the pandemic has seen the creation of "instant experts" on social media.
"I don't think that helps in our public discourse. I've tried consistently for a year not to politicize questions about vaccines, to try and find ways to answer questions and reduce hesitancy."
A spokesman for Lewis declined to comment following O'Toole's remarks, while no one from Allison's office immediately responded.
O'Toole remains the lone leader in Parliament who refuses to disclose how many of his 118-member caucus are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Immunization will be a requirement for MPs wishing to take their seat in the House of Commons when it resumes Nov. 22.
O'Toole has said he supports an in-person return to Parliament. However, the Liberals and NDP support a hybrid model with some virtual participation, so the possibility remains that some Tory MPs could stay home when it begins.
"All of our MPs that participate in the House will be vaccinated. I don't get into talking about the personal health situation of any member of Parliament, senator or any Canadian," he said on Monday.
An analysis by The Canadian Press shows at least 82 of the Conservatives' 119 elected members, including O'Toole, are double vaccinated against COVID-19. Besides Allison, at least one other says they can't be vaccinated for medical reasons and several others, including Lewis, say they don't disclose their status because it's their private health information.
The remainder have yet to respond.
O'Toole has been dealing with queries about the vaccination status of his team since the federal election campaign, when he decided inoculation against COVID-19 wasn't required in order for candidates to run under the Conservative banner.
The Liberals frequently attacked that decision, along with the Tories' opposition to mandatory vaccinations for air and train travellers, federal public servants and federally regulated workers — a policy the government announced just before the campaign kicked off.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued his criticism of the Conservatives on Monday, accusing them of "moving backwards" when it comes to vaccinations.
He characterized the concerns of Tory MPs about needing to be double vaccinated to enter the House as demanding "special treatment" while millions of Canadians lined up to get their shot.
O'Toole has said his team will formally complain to the Speaker because it doesn't feel an all-party committee of MPs — the board of internal economy, which governs how the House operates — should have been the body to decide on the vaccine mandate, which affects all 338 MPs.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2021.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press