OTTAWA -- A year after emerging triumphant from an intensive leadership campaign, Erin O’Toole is entering into a new race, this time on a much bigger stage.

In the early hours of Aug. 24, 2020, a bright-eyed O’Toole took to Ottawa’s Shaw Centre stage, flanked by his father, wife and children, and introduced himself to Canadians who hadn’t yet been acquainted with the long-time MP and former cabinet minister.

“To the millions of Canadians that are still up, that I'm meeting tonight for the first time: Good morning. I'm Erin O'Toole, you're going to be seeing and hearing a lot from me in the coming weeks and months,” he said after a marathon of a vote.

Canadians have heard a lot from him since, but his role as Official Opposition leader has undoubtedly been impacted by the enduring pandemic.

Interacting with MPs and constituents was done primarily virtually, engaging in vigorous debate and presenting policy alternatives to Liberal proposals was limited by Parliament’s COVID-19 protocols. All the while, his main opponent was getting face time each day with Canadians delivering a message of reassurance.

Now, the veteran and former lawyer is getting reacquainted with his base and hoping to attract a new batch of voters who have grown tired of the two-term Liberals and see Canada’s COVID-19 recovery being best led by a new face.



The oldest of five children, Erin O’Toole was born in 1973 in Montreal. His father, John, worked at General Motors before entering into provincial politics and his mother, Mollie, was a teacher. Years later, a work transfer took them to Bowmanville, Ont. where O’Toole grew up.

He lost his mother to breast cancer at nine-years-old, which “taught him the importance of making the best of what you’ve got and who you are, and to never give anything less than your all,” his personal website reads.

At 18 he enrolled in the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. and later became an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Based in Shearwater, Nova Scotia, with the 423 Maritime Squadron he rose to the military rank of captain and was awarded the Canadian Forces Decoration and the Sikorsky Helicopter Rescue Award for rescuing an injured fisherman at sea.

Conservative MP and a member of O’Toole’s leadership team, Eric Duncan, says his military past is often reflected in his current governance style.

“I do see the military background that he has –  you know, he’s very level-headed, calm, cool, and collected and I think strategic and smart in terms of his plan. You can tell that he does his research,” he told by phone in August.

While in the Reserve Force, he met his wife Rebecca while attending a Mooseheads hockey game.

"We went on our first date to Tom’s Little Havana. We were dancing by the end of the night to ‘True’ by Spandau Ballet, which was our first dance at our wedding," reads O’Toole’s website.

The couple now have two children, Mollie and Jack, who Duncan says are the topics of discussion at the start or end of most team meetings.  

“He’s always talking about Mollie’s swimming lessons or the latest thing Jack’s doing at school, so you can just tell as well that there’s that family background…it definitely forms a huge part of who he is,” he said.

After 12 years of military service, O’Toole transitioned to the corporate world after earning a law degree at Dalhousie University. He worked at Canadian law firms Stikeman Elliott and Heenan Blaikie and was the in-house counsel for Procter & Gamble. He focused on corporate law, including insolvency, litigation and competition law.  


Following in his father’s footsteps, who he says inspired him to enter into public service,  O’Toole added his name to the Durham region by-election ballot in 2012 after long-time Conservative MP and cabinet minister Bev Oda announced her resignation.

He won the seat earning just over 50 per cent of the votes.

He was appointed parliamentary secretary to the international trade minister a year later by then-prime minister Stephen Harper and became the veterans affairs minister in 2015, replacing Julian Fantino. He approached the role with a “veteran-centric” perspective and proposed a three-step plan to prioritize their needs.

"We have to have a veteran-centred approach to everything we do," he said in January of that year. "From policies to future planning, to programming, the veteran has to be at the centre of everything we do -- and their families."

He took his first run at party leadership in 2017 as one of the lesser- known candidates. He tried to run a positive campaign, claiming that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t own optimism. He ultimately placed third behind Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier.

Under Scheer’s leadership, O’Toole took on the role of public safety and emergency preparedness critic and foreign affairs critic.

He announced his second leadership bid in late January, 2020, stating that he’d bring “true blue leadership” back to the party.

Throughout the campaign, he touted his military experience and business acumen but sought to remind voters that at the end of the day, he’s an everyday Canadian from a small manufacturing town.

“I’m not a career politician, I’m not a product of the Ottawa bubble. I spent 10 years in the private sector, 12 years in our military, where you’re judged by who you are and the work you do, not where you came from or who you know,” he said in a campaign video.

“I’m in politics to fight for you.”


Jeff Ballingall, former digital director for O’Toole’s leadership campaign, told that the past year has been challenging for the Conservative leader to “punch through at times,” given pandemic realities that demanded parties drop their partisan swords and cooperate.

“[Canadians] wanted to take solace that their government was doing the right thing. We all wanted Justin Trudeau to do well, we all wanted Premier Ford or Premier Kenney or Premier Moe, or what have you, to do well. We wanted COVID-19 to end, we wanted fewer people to die and we wanted less economic hardship,” said Ballingall in a phone interview.

It didn’t help that O’Toole actually contracted COVID-19 in late September, which isolated him for two weeks.

Throughout the last year and a half, all parties were faced with the ultimatum of propping up their Liberal opponents to get bills passed or risk appearing self-fulfilling and out-of-touch with the realities Canadians faced on the ground.

The Conservatives did hold the Liberals’ feet to the fire on Canada’s lack of domestic vaccine capabilities, the government’s handling of international border restrictions, and their response to the crisis in long-term care facilities.

Kate Harrison, Conservative strategist and vice chair of Summa Strategies echoed this sentiment, noting that there wasn’t a lot of room for ideology over the past year, nor were there many opportunities for O’Toole to tap into the usual Tory talking points.

“The moment where you would hear Conservatives talking about fiscal responsibility really wasn’t possible for the first eight months of his leadership,” she said in an interview with

“It’s unusual footing for traditional conservative arguments.”

Duncan said travel limitations have also made it difficult for Canadians to get to know the new face of the party.

“When you’re the new leader of a party, pandemic or not, you want to get out there and see as many people as you possibly can and connect with them,” he said. “Not being able to be on the six o’clock news or national news each night that makes it very difficult to get known…I think Erin’s made the most of it.”

Seeking to raise his profile, O’Toole’s team sent him on the road for several weeks after the House of Commons adjourned for summer recess. Poll after poll show the Conservatives have work to do, with Canadians ranking him behind Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh as preferred prime minister.


Ballingall said if the COVID-19 discussion dwindles, and there’s a change in focus from vaccination rates to issues like the economy and affordable housing, opportunities will open up for O’Toole to take control of the public narrative.

“We’re going to start to see a lot of the negative consequences of Trudeau’s spending, whether it’s inflation, or debt levels…I think people are going to recall that the Liberals don’t have a very good economic record,” said Ballingall.

The party has assembled a five-point recovery plan under its “Secure the Future” platform to reignite the economy. They pledge to recover one million jobs lost during the pandemic within one year; strengthen Canada’s accountability and transparency laws; slow down pandemic spending “in a responsible way” to balance the budget over the next decade; establish a Canada Emergency Preparedness Plan with a sufficient stockpile of personal protective equipment; and create the Canada Mental Health Action Plan to combat the mental health crisis across the country.

Beyond the economy, Ballingall said O’Toole needs to show that the party is reflective of a more modern Canada, both in the way it looks and what it promotes.

Questions & Answers
1. What TV show did you binge-watch during quarantine?
Our family binge watched Schitt's Creek and loved it. It was also partially filmed in communities I used to represent as MP.
2. Who has inspired you most in the last year?
All frontline healthcare workers across Canada who fought the COVID-19 pandemic. These brave men and women saved the lives of countless Canadians -- putting others first. It's something I admire and I believe that our country owes them a debt of gratitude.
3. What’s your dream destination once restrictions lift everywhere?
I love Vancouver Island and have been several times, but have never been to Tofino. I would love to take Rebecca and the kids there to take in this special corner of our country.
4. What’s one habit or hobby you picked up during the pandemic you hope to keep?
I got back into serious running during the pandemic after years of only being a casual runner. It has been great for physical and mental health.
5. What’s your position on pineapple on pizza?
Yes please.

“In showcasing the team more, recruiting great candidates, that’s incredibly important. The environment, climate change, you need to show there’s a credible plan - you don’t necessarily have to agree with every aspect of it but it’s important to showcase that they’re taking climate change seriously,” he said. 

While the Conservatives failed to unseat the incumbent Liberals in 2019, they claimed 34.4 per cent of the popular vote compared to the Liberals' 33.1 per cent -- a difference of more than 230,000 votes.

They won big in the Prairies and lost big in the Toronto-area ridings with more progressive, urban voters. Some blamed Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s politics for their dismal performance in the area, others placed the loss squarely on the shoulders of Scheer for not clearly communicating his stance on polarizing issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Harrison noted that on those issues, O’Toole must be unwavering in his viewpoint.

The leader has claimed he would march in Pride parades and is openly pro-choice, a stance most recently reflected in his decision to vote against one of his own MP’s private member’s bill that would have aimed to ban sex-selective abortions.

“I think the leader’s own persuasions are clear enough that that ought not to be an issue. I think bigger than that though is what do people feel they are getting and what values do they see in who they’re voting for?” said Harrison.

“What feeling and sentiment are you creating that will get voters to take a second look at you? If it’s one that is regressive or not onside with a lot of what Canadians feel and think, then you’re going to have that much harder of a time getting them to actually take a look at your policy.”

Duncan, who is the party’s first openly gay elected MP, said O’Toole has been unwavering in his support for LGBTQ2+ rights.

“I’m very proud of him and I’m very grateful for his personal friendship on the issue but then his advocacy as well. He’s spoken in the House of Commons about conversion therapy, he’s been an ally and he’s proven that over several years,” he said.

O’Toole’s more progressive stance doesn’t shield him from the staunch social conservative views of many of his caucus colleagues which he is obliged to represent.

This internal party tension was reflected most recently in the response to Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall’s private member's bill that, had it passed, would ban sex-selective abortions. While O’Toole and other members of his front bench voted against C-233, a majority of Conservatives supported it.

Inching closer to Election Day, Ballingall notes that O’Toole must be “unapologetic” and “bold” but above all else, show Canadians his personality – something Scheer was criticized for lacking.

“[Voters] need to be able to see O’Toole and on a visceral level connect with him – that they see him in them. So, you know, Erin O’Toole really is the type of guy that will shovel your driveway. He’s the type of guy that will lend you a hand,” he said.

Durham, Ont.

The Durham riding has gone solidly blue from the time it was formed in 2006 - first under the leadership of Bev Oda and then Erin O’Toole. O’Toole easily won the seat in a 2012 by-election with the NDPs’ Larry O’Connor coming in second. In his first federal election, O’Toole captured just over 50 per cent of the vote which fell to about 45 per cent in 2019. This will be his first federal election in which he wears the badge of Conservative leader. Will that help boost his support?

Incumbent: Erin O'Toole

Status: Seeking re-election

2019 Turnout: 73,014 / 107,367 (68.0%)

2021 Candidates
LIB Jonathan Giancroce Official site
NDP Chris Cameron Official site
CON Erin O'Toole Official site
PPC Patricia Conlin Official site
Recent Vote History
CON Erin O'Toole 2019
CON Erin O'Toole 2015
CON Bev Oda 2011
CON Bev Oda 2008
CON Bev Oda 2006

Edited by producers Phil Hahn and Rachel Aiello