OTTAWA — The Conservative leadership race is creating tension among members of a key constituency for the party — veterans.
Two of the four candidates have direct connections to the Armed Forces: Erin O’Toole served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was veterans affairs minister, while Peter MacKay spent nearly six years as defence minister.
Their respective military ties create a challenging choice for soldiers: to side with O’Toole, as a former comrade-in-arms, or with MacKay, whose many visits to Afghanistan saw him form a deep camaraderie with soldiers.
“The veterans that are involved in politics, they are split,” said Tim Laidler, a former soldier who ran for the party in the 2015 general election.
Laidler said he is supporting O’Toole, because he believes O’Toole knows the ins-and-outs of military life better than MacKay, and because of the work he did supporting veterans prior to his political life.
Veterans are wary of politicians, Laidler said. What they are looking for broadly is someone who has a proven track record of getting things done for current and former soldiers.
Given MacKay and O’Toole helmed key military portfolios, the debate over who is better for veterans is interesting, said Conservative strategist Tim Powers.
“MacKay is very popular,” said Powers, who said he has heard from many veterans struggling with how to cast their vote.
“But I think there is the tension in active veterans organizations where Erin plays a role that veterans should be supporting him.”
One veterans organization backing O’Toole is Equitas, which in 2012 launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government over benefits for disabled veterans.
When the lawsuit was filed, the Conservatives were in government, though the policy predated them.
On their path to government and once in power, the Conservatives had deliberately courted veterans and soldiers, seeing their work and commitment to the country as being aligned with conservative values.
But about two years into the case, lawyers argued the government has no “social contract” with veterans.
The claim caused an uproar among soldiers and veterans infuriated by the suggestion the government owes no special duty to those who risk life and limb for the country.
The justice minister overseeing those lawyers at the time? MacKay. And the new MP elevated to the veterans portfolio to try and put out the political firestorm? O’Toole.
The decision by Equitas to endorse O’Toole is partially based on the work he did then to calm tensions, though the lawsuit did continue, said Donald Sorochan, a lawyer for the organization.
But he’s also promised during this campaign to enshrine in law what’s known as the Canadian Military Covenant, which lays out the responsibility for the federal government to place respect for the services of veterans at the core of policy.
Sorochan said that commitment matters to vets.
“I know O’Toole will always fight for the veterans,” he said. “He has proved it.”
After The Canadian Press asked MacKay for what he told Equitas about the covenant, it emerged that initially, he didn’t answer them at all.
He subsequently submitted a letter in support of the covenant, but stopped short of pledging to make it law, saying he would make it reality via policy.
MacKay and O’Toole have many promises to veterans in their respective campaign platforms.
Both have also used their connections to the Forces as selling points.
O’Toole often cites working his way up the ranks of the Forces, his time flying on Sea King helicopters, and experience overseas.
His military trajectory was largely automatic: he entered the RCAF as an officer, and eventually became a captain, a rank nearly all soldiers achieve after passing certain milestones.
During the official leadership debates in June, he made reference to “serving overseas,” a phrase that caught the attention of some veterans.
For many, the phrase connotes hunkering down in the deserts of Afghanistan or ducking sniper fire in Croatia.
O’Toole’s overseas service was onboard the HMCS St. John’s as it took part in NATO and other exercises.
Kimberly Fawcett Smith, who will soon retire after more than 20 years in the military, including a tour in Afghanistan, said she has heard the grumbles about how O’Toole talks about his service.
She calls them petty and unfair.
O’Toole’s time in the military pre-dated the war in Afghanistan, she pointed out, and if he hadn’t left to pursue a law career, she has no doubt he would have served in that conflict.
Fawcett Smith ran for the Tories in 2019 with MacKay’s help, but said she hadn’t automatically decided to publicly endorse him when the race began.
What pushed her to pick a side was intense pressure she said she faced from the O’Toole campaign to support him, and she disliked that approach, she said.
This week, she narrated a video put out by the MacKay campaign on his experience in defence and diplomatic relations.
In it, MacKay talks about his 20 trips to Afghanistan and the over 100 repatriation ceremonies he attended for soldiers killed in battle, among other things.
He leaves out some of the lower points of his time in the defence portfolio: the beginning of what would become a hugely controversial program to replace fighter jets, and the time he asked a military helicopter to pick him up from a fishing lodge.
Fawcett Smith said she thinks MacKay has grown over his many years in politics and presents a calm approach that will resonate with the public.
While all veterans consider it a point of pride one of their own is running, more than that has to go into the decision of who to vote for in the leadership race, she said.
“It is Queen and country before self,” she said.
“You have to look at what is best for the country, and who can beat Justin Trudeau.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press