Liberal and NDP MPs lament departure of longtime Tory MP as Status of Women chair

OTTAWA — Liberal and NDP MPs are lamenting the loss of the longtime Conservative chair of the parliamentary committee on the Status of Women, saying they hope the change doesn't hurt their ability to work together across party lines.

Members of the committee said they were disappointed to learn that Karen Vecchio, lauded as a collaborator, would no longer be at the helm.

Vecchio was first elected as chair in 2017 and has served in the role for years.

Her time as committee chair ended Wednesday, and the Conservatives on the committee voted the next day to replace her with Tory MP Shelby Kramp-Neuman.

Liberal MPs abstained from the vote, but Liberal representative Pam Damoff said she was surprised by Vecchio's abrupt departure, calling her "strong, competent" and a "smart progressive conservative woman."

“It’s a real blow," Damoff said in a recent interview. "I think the Conservative leadership has a lot to answer for. She put her heart and soul into this committee.”

Over the last two governments, parliamentary committees have taken on an increasingly partisan tone.

Vecchio hasn't addressed the move publicly.

Changes to committee assignments are not irregular, Conservative spokesman Sebastian Skamski said in a statement.

He described Kramp-Neuman as a "proud female common-sense Conservative," and said she will champion "the issues facing Canadian women who have suffered after nine years of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal-NDP costly coalition."

He did not, however, address Vecchio's absence from Poilievre's list of critics. She had previously been named the party's critic in Parliament for issues pertaining to women, gender equality and youth.

During Thursday's meeting, Kramp-Neuman thanked her predecessor for her "commitment, her compassion and her dedication and advocacy" on women's issues. The sentiment was greeted with applause.

Over the years, the Status of Women committee has studied murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, safety in sports, intimate partner violence and access to menstrual products.

Damoff says Vecchio has made strong relationships with women's groups, women's shelters and survivors of gender-based violence — the kind of relationships that are built on trust and that aren’t easily made overnight.

"It's a huge loss for women in Canada," she said of Vecchio's departure.

Lisa Hepfner, another Liberal MP, said she was "devastated" by the change and that "it feels like (Vecchio) was thrown under the bus."

"She's worked so hard for so many years, worked with her whole heart and we have been able to accomplish great things at this committee. I really hope we can continue being collaborative," Hepfner said.

Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri, who also sits on the committee, rebuffed Hepfner's accusation.

Leah Gazan, the NDP MP on the committee, told the new chair Thursday the "solidarity around this table is pretty fierce."

On Friday, Gazan said she was "deeply concerned" about what the change could mean — pointing out how, for example, the Conservative caucus is split on the issue of abortion.

Poilievre has said that he has no intention of reopening the abortion debate. In a French-language interview aired last year, his wife, Anaida Poilievre, said the couple were "pro-choice."

A spat over abortion rights is what first landed Vecchio the role of chair in 2017, when Liberal MPs on the committee rejected former leader Andrew Scheer's pick, Alberta MP Rachael Thomas, because of her record on the issue.

Vecchio was among the handful of MPs who backed former Quebec premier Jean Charest in the 2022 Conservative leadership contest, which Poilievre won in a whopping first-ballot victory with the majority of caucus at his back.

Damoff doesn’t normally sit on the committee any more, but was in attendance Thursday as a motion was put forward to thank Vecchio for her work.

Liberal MP Sonia Sidhu commended Vecchio's sense of collaboration, which she credited with the committee's ability to produce "a record number of reports."

The southern Ontario MP is "a great advocate for women and girls," Sidhu said at the meeting.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2024.

— with files from Mia Rabson

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press