Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Wednesday that members of his party who enter the House of Commons once Parliament resumes will be vaccinated against COVID-19 – but he declined to say how many Conservative MPs have not yet received their shots.
Mr. O’Toole told reporters that, during a meeting earlier in the day with his caucus, he had put forward a plan for a return to legislative business. Conservative MPs, he said, had agreed to “respect and abide by new rules which require Parliamentarians attending the House of Commons to be vaccinated.” However, Mr. O’Toole said, the Conservatives will formally challenge those rules.
The Board of Internal Economy (BOIE), which manages the House of Commons and includes members from different parties, determined the vaccination policy. Anthony Rota, the Speaker of the House and the board’s chair, announced the new rules last week. The requirements apply to MPs, their staff, political-research employees, journalists and others.
“Only the House of Commons can determine its composition and its conduct,” Mr. O’Toole said, suggesting it’s up to all members, not just the BOIE, to decide on such issues.
It remains unclear exactly how Mr. O’Toole and his Conservatives will deal with the vaccination question. His comments leave open the possibility that some Conservative MPs will remain unvaccinated and not attend in-person sittings, but the Conservative Leader declined to address that possibility directly.
After the board’s vaccination policy was announced, Conservative Party Whip Blake Richards criticized it, saying that while Conservatives encourage everyone who can get vaccinated to do so, the party “cannot agree to seven MPs, meeting in secret, deciding which of the 338 MPs, just elected by Canadians, can enter the House of Commons to represent their constituents.”
Mr. O’Toole said Wednesday that the Conservatives will challenge the “improper conduct and precedent” set by the BOIE in its meeting where the vaccination policy was determined.
Regardless, Mr. O’Toole reiterated, “the entire Conservative caucus will respect and abide by all the rules and all health guidance.” He would not say, when asked, what he has told members of his caucus who are unwilling to be vaccinated.
“Today we had a great meeting,” he responded. Among other topics, he said, MPs discussed the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had called for Parliament to return on Nov. 22, later than the Conservatives have said they would have liked. Mr. O’Toole said he is not in favour of members of parliament participating in meetings by video, as they have done during the pandemic.
“Conservatives want to see a return of Parliament and its committees to normal,” he said, adding that the Liberal government used virtual Parliament to avoid scrutiny. It has not been determined yet whether Parliament will return with a virtual component.
Liberal MP Mark Holland, the new Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, said in an e-mail that MPs who choose to work in the parliamentary precinct should be fully vaccinated unless there’s a valid medical reason for them not to be.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh responded to Mr. O’Toole’s announcement. “It’s a little shocking it took so long for the Conservatives to agree to measures Canadians have already accepted,” he said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, noting that people across the country have already been vaccinated.
Mr. O’Toole would not say whether Leslyn Lewis, a Conservative MP who gained prominence as a contender in last year’s federal Conservative leadership race, would be reprimanded for recent comments she made on Twitter about vaccines.
Ms. Lewis, who represents the Ontario riding of Haldimand-Norfolk and is one of the few Black members of Parliament, used a series of tweets over several days to defend the rights of those who choose not to say whether or not they have been vaccinated. “The media and the power structure expect me to sit in the back of the bus. I won’t!” she wrote. “They will try to paint me as a reckless lunatic in order to lynch me into silence. I will always tell Canadians the truth, and no bully or threats will succeed against us!”
On Twitter, Ms. Lewis added that it is misguided to assume that those who stand up for medical privacy aren’t vaccinated. “Canadian law has long established the importance of medical privacy, and many Canadians, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, are united in the fight to uphold democracy and freedom,” she wrote.
“With most MPs having been vaccinated and the availability of rapid testing for those who are not, the House of Commons can and should operate as normal,” Ms. Lewis said in a subsequent statement. “This is what we campaigned on as the Conservative Party – that we would respect the medical decisions that Canadians make. I’m glad that our leader has upheld this standard for our caucus.”
Before Mr. O’Toole’s Wednesday news conference, Conservative MPs meeting in downtown Ottawa declined to speak in detail about the caucus’s internal deliberations over the vaccination issue.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett noted that about 98 per cent of people over the age of 12 have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in his Ontario community, and 94.5 per cent have received two doses. Mr. Barrett said he himself is double vaccinated.
“We maintain of course that rapid tests should be made available to anyone who hasn’t yet been vaccinated,” he said. “This is incredibly important and we should be at a point now in our pandemic, particularly with vaccination rates rising, that people aren’t losing their livelihoods and unable to do their job when they have those tools.”
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