Conservative 'mini-caucus' on vaccine mandates won't contradict O'Toole, says MP

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OTTAWA — A Conservative MP who is part of a group planning to advocate for those facing consequences for being unvaccinated against COVID-19 said Friday the cohort won't do anything to contradict Leader Erin O'Toole.

The assurance comes as O"Toole tries to move past his election loss, but has found himself grappling to bridge divides within his 118-member caucus about what to do when it comes to vaccine mandates.

Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu tweeted a statement on Friday, a day after revealing that between 15 and 30 Conservative MPs and senators were organizing a "mini-caucus" around the issue.

In the statement, she reiterated she supports her leader "as well as his positions on COVID-19."

Gladu said earlier the idea emerged after several of her colleagues shared that they had fielded concerns from constituents about people losing their jobs because they weren't vaccinated against COVID-19.

She emphasized the formation of the group, dubbed the civil liberties caucus and operating within the broader Tory caucus, had nothing to do with O'Toole or his leadership, but was meant to address concerns being raised about the sweeping impacts of vaccine mandates.

"The civil liberties caucus will serve as a mechanism to bring forward ideas to the Conservative national caucus and will not take any position that is contrary to the collective perspective of our leader and the national caucus," she said in Friday's statement.

Still, the move raises eyebrows as O'Toole has spent hours trying to sort through issue with fellow MPs. Some champion medical privacy and want Conservatives to maintain a strong stand against vaccine requirements, while others believe it's a lesser issue and has sucked up too much time from dealing with other matters.

Neither O'Toole nor his office has publicly responded to Gladu's comments.

Despite her emphasis that the group's formation isn't about O'Toole, there is little doubt it will give political opponents a target to keep attacking Conservatives over the issue, according to one strategist.

Shakir Chambers, who helped Doug Ford win Ontario's 2018 provincial election, said O'Toole struggles from a lack of clarity about where he stands on the matter, and he would be wise to pick a side.

"The longer that there's this grey area, the more uncertainty that there is, the more Canadians are going to look at you and just not think it's credible leadership," he says.

"You allow certain caucus members who have their own views to kind of go in the direction they want to go into, because they don't think that you're being very firm on either position."

Another reality O'Toole faces is his caucus having the power to force a vote on his leadership if at least 20 per cent sign their name to a letter seeking a review.

He insists his team is behind him, and many MPs have expressed that's the case.

Nevertheless, the vaccination issue has proved problematic.

During the federal election campaign, O'Toole opposed mandatory vaccinations and said rapid testing should be available to those who are not immunized.

He didn't make double vaccination a prerequisite for candidates to run under the Conservative banner. The issue re-emerged after the race when the board of internal economy, an all-party parliamentary committee that governs the House of Commons, introduced a mandatory vaccination policy for MPs.

What followed was a shifting response from Conservatives.

At first, their whip, Blake Richards, said they didn't agree that such a decision was made by a group of MPs instead of the House of Commons as a whole, but didn't say whether the party would challenge the decision.

Shortly after, O'Toole told "The Agenda with Steve Paikin" during his first sit-down interview since the election that he respects the committee's decision.

A spokesman then issued a clarification, saying while the Conservatives respect that the board has the ability to set rules for Parliament, it rejects that it "has the jurisdiction to infringe on a member’s right to take their seat in the House of Commons.”

That led to a news conference last week where, after a four-hour meeting with his caucus, O'Toole announced his MPs would follow the rules set out for the chamber, but would challenge the policy with the Speaker after Parliament resumes Nov. 22.

At the time, O'Toole didn't say what his message was to Conservative MPs who may still be unvaccinated or disclose how many of his 118 members are fully immunized.

An analysis by The Canadian Press shows at least 82 of the Conservative's 119 elected members, including O'Toole, are double vaccinated against COVID-19. At least two say they can't be vaccinated for medical reasons and several others say they don't disclose their status because it's their private health information. The remainder has yet to respond.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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