TORONTO -- Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole sidestepped a question on systemic racism in Canada on Tuesday and suggested that some police officers don’t like the term because it might unfairly suggest that all cops are racist.

O’Toole was reluctant during the Conservative leadership race to define systemic racism. Asked Tuesday if systemic racism exists in Canada, O’Toole said “I think there is racism in Canada.”

“But as I said, I’ve heard law enforcement officers suggest that when that term is used without any specific detail, what is the issue? Is there training problems, is there an institutional problem?” he told CTV’s Your Morning in an interview from his kitchen.

"We have to make sure that we really get to the bottom of what we want to improve so that we can address communities’ concerns or lack of trust with the police, for example, without suggesting that all members of a force are somehow racist. So these discussions are most important. They also need to be more than a Twitter exchange, which is what I see with a lot of people these days.”

Systemic racism refers to the deep-rooted barriers and discrimination that people of colour face in employment, housing, wages and other institutions. According to Statistics Canada, Black Canadians earn less than non-racialized Canadians and are nearly twice as likely to be considered low-income.  An Indigenous person in Canada is more than 10 times more likely to have been shot and killed by a police officer since 2017 than a white person.

O’Toole was the only Conservative leadership candidate during a June debate who refused to say whether systemic racism exists in Canada. He said he has “zero tolerance” for racism, but when asked whether he believes systemic racism exists or how he would define it, he did not provide a specific answer.

"You could define it to me," he said in response to a question from a reporter following the June debate.

O’Toole added Tuesday that he has urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to bring back parliamentary committees, which halted their work in late August after the prime minister prorogued Parliament. O’Toole said the shutdown has stopped important work on a committee studying policing and concerns about racism in the RCMP.

“So I’ve already written Mr. Blair, saying the Conservatives want to get that going, because the issue with systemic racism, as some people call it, income inequality, there’s some concerns about the justice system, outcomes, let’s make sure we work on it, because everyone in Canada should have the amazing opportunity that this country represents, and we’re committed to that. And I would like to see the government work quickly to get that committee back on the rails,” he said.

O’Toole’s latest comments come after a weekend of anti-racism rallies across Canada, with many protesters calling for major cities to slash their police budgets, demilitarize their police forces and invest in reparations for racialized and Indigenous communities.

In Montreal, protesters toppled a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, who created Canada’s residential school system and was responsible for policies that withheld food from some First Nations communities as a way to force them off their land for the construction of a railroad.

Both Trudeau and O'Toole denounced the vandalism, with Trudeau saying he was “deeply disappointed” and O’Toole tweeting that Canada would not exist if not for Macdonald. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said “difficult discussions” about Canada’s past should be welcomed, but that “taking down a statue of him doesn't erase him from history any more than honouring him out of context erases the horrors he caused.”

The group responsible for tearing down the statue stood by the decision, saying “these racist monuments don't deserve space.”


Conversations about systemic racism in Canada have been amplified following a series of violent interactions between police and Black and Indigenous Canadians. In March, a First Nations chief in Alberta was tackled and punched by a police officer while leaving a casino. Earlier this summer, two Indigenous Canadians, Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore, were shot and killed by police New Brunswick police weeks apart.

Protests have also been held across the country mourning the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black woman who fell to her death from her balcony in Toronto after police were called to her apartment for reports of a domestic disturbance in May. Ontario’s police watchdog determined last week that there were no reasonable grounds to lay charges against officers in connection with the woman’s death.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki has acknowledged that Canada’s national police service is grappling with a long history of racial discrimination after initially suggesting that she was personally struggling with “five or six” definitions of systemic racism.

O’Toole won the Conservative leadership race with 57 per cent support over Peter MacKay, who had 43 per cent support. O’Toole’s victory was in part due to strong support among social conservatives, but he told CTV’s Your Morning he believes he can unite all factions of the party to unseat Trudeau’s Liberals in the next election, which could be held as early as this fall.

“My biggest win was in Quebec, which is the most socially progressive province in the country,” he said. “I run on respect, so I have support from social conservatives down ballot, even though I wasn’t their first choice. I have support from Westerners, even though I’m from Ontario.”

O’Toole acknowledged that he didn’t perform as strongly in the Maritimes.

“But my wife is from there, and I served in the military. So I like to think I had a clear mandate, and now we’re building a professional government in waiting to hold the Trudeau government to account.”

In his victory speech, O’Toole made a direct appeal to voters who’ve never voted Conservative before. On Tuesday, he repeated that invitation for Canadians to “take a look” at the Tories.

“I want people who haven’t voted Conservative before, for whatever reason, to take a look. There’s a new leader who is there to fight for you. We need someone who is serious after the challenges we’re facing from COVID, not just an image-based political like Mr. Trudeau,” he said.

“I want more Canadians to see themselves reflected in the Conservative Party.”

With files from The Canadian Press and's Rachel Aiello and Ryan Flanagan ​