Erin O’Toole sets out Conservatives’ plan to win back northerners

Erin O'Toole
Erin O'Toole, the Conservative leader, in a photo posted to his social media accounts in August 2020.

The Conservative Party wants to help build the NWT’s infrastructure while taking the environment seriously, new leader Erin O’Toole said in his first interview with Cabin Radio since taking the post.

O’Toole became the new Conservative leader last month, taking 57 percent of the vote in a final run-off against Peter MacKay. He replaces Andrew Scheer, who stepped down after last year’s federal election resulted in a Liberal minority government.

On Tuesday, O’Toole revealed Scheer would become the party’s infrastructure critic as he announced his shadow cabinet. Kenora MP Eric Melillo is O’Toole’s northern affairs critic.

“We have to listen better because I’ll tell you, the other parties don’t care and don’t understand Arctic northern issues, period,” O’Toole told Cabin Radio, addressing his party’s failure to win a seat in all three territories last year.



“When we were in government … there was more investment under the Conservative government than all of the Liberal governments in history in the North.”

O’Toole set out northern sovereignty and infrastructure as priorities for his party, explicitly echoing John Diefenbaker’s 1950s vision of “roads to resources” in the North.

“Infrastructure is such a challenge in the North, from ports to aerodromes and runways. There should be more of a federal component to this because territorial governments have less fiscal capacity to move,” O’Toole said.

He argued Canada must move to fend off challenges to its Arctic sovereignty from the likes of China, Russia, and the United States.



“Roads are a great example,” said O’Toole. “Roads to resources was [Diefenbaker’s] mantra back then. In many ways, that has to be the case. Indigenous groups that want to look at development opportunities will need roads.

“Strategic infrastructure spends … will be in the priority bin for federal partnership. Ottawa won’t dictate, it will try to partner with the priorities of territorial, Inuit, and Indigenous leaders.”

O’Toole said better infrastructure would have knock-on benefits for the likes of food subsidy program Nutrition North, which he said a Conservative government would fully overhaul, and northern healthcare.

‘Realistic plan’ for environment

Asked how a future O’Toole government would address critical social issues like addictions, homelessness, and family violence, O’Toole said he had appointed Cariboo–Prince George MP Todd Doherty as a special advisor on mental health and wellness.

“Addiction issues in remote, reserved communities and others [is] an area that we’re going to focus on,” he said.

Responding to the suggestion that the Conservative record on environmental protection is lacking, O’Toole said his party would “take the environment seriously.”

“I’m going to try to change the tone of the dialogue,” he said, advocating for the use of small-scale, modular nuclear reactors to move remote communities away from diesel.

“Let’s have a realistic plan, one that works with industry, that gets emissions down,” said O’Toole.



“It might take a slightly longer period of time but, if we can keep our economy moving and keep people employed while we’re reducing emissions, that will be my goal.”

Liberal NWT MP Michael McLeod was re-elected with 40 percent of the vote in last year’s federal election. Yanik D’Aigle, the Conservative candidate, placed second with 26 percent. In Yukon, Liberal Larry Bagnell narrowly kept his seat, while the New Democrats’ Mumilaaq Qaqqaq won in Nunavut.

Below, find a full transcript of the interview. You can listen to the interview on the Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast for September 8, 2020.

This interview was recorded on September 8, 2020. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: We’ve heard a lot of promises from new party leaders over the years about the northern economy, defending the North, Nutrition North, diesel, health, education, all of those things. What one thing can you lead off with today that’ll make people here sit up and think, OK, maybe this leader’s actually serious about the North?

Erin O’Toole: Well, the simple fact that I was elected seven years ago and I’ve been probably the most consistent voice on northern issues as an MP – in large part because of my military time. My first visit to the North was when I was in the RCAF. I know of its strategic importance, both from sovereignty and from resource development. So I’ve been talking about it. The biggest study we’ve had in 25 years on northern sovereignty issues was developed by me at the Foreign Affairs Committee. So I’m committed to it. It’s not just as leader, it’s as a Canadian.

It’s interesting you bring up your military background. A lot of emphasis in your platform when you were competing to become the leader talked about strengthening the ability of the Canadian Forces in the Arctic. What are you expecting to achieve with a future Conservative government in terms of a military lens on the Arctic?

Well, there are two aspects to that. The first is sovereignty, our sovereignty is being questioned. You know, the US no longer adheres to the approach that we developed with respect to the Northwest Passage. Russia is militarizing their Arctic, and China has declared itself a near-Arctic state – and I invite people to check out a globe to see what that means. That’s an ambition they’ve stated at a time that Canadian capacity is going down.



So sovereignty is a key thing to it, but also infrastructure. And I said this when I was on the ground in places like Hall Beach [now Sanirajak, in Nunavut] and in a whole range of rural parts that were along the old Dew Line, the northern warning system. Infrastructure is such a challenge in the North, from ports to aerodromes and runways. There should be more of a federal component to this because territorial governments have less fiscal capacity to move. And these are critical infrastructure points for Nutrition North, for adequate supply, for health and wellness for the Canadians living in the Arctic.

So I think the more the federal government can take this on, under the guise of defence and security, it does two things: it helps the fiscal capacity of our territorial partners and we can actually then attribute it to our Nato defence spending target, because it is sovereignty, it is security. So I’m not doing it because I want the military everywhere in our Arctic, but this capacity is a strategic objective for our country, and I think it should count towards our Nato defence spending.

The NWT government has made no secret of its ambitions when it comes to infrastructure. They’ve got three big projects on the table. Combined, they cost about $2 billion. Almost all of that would have to come from the federal government. Are you saying a Conservative government is going to do everything it can to find that money?

I want to partner as much as possible. And roads are a great example. You know, going back to Diefenbaker, the first prime minister that actually took northern issues seriously, “roads to resources” was his mantra back then. In many ways, that has to be the case. And a lot of Indigenous, Inuit groups that also want to look at development opportunities in traditional lands will need roads to access.

I think any of these strategic infrastructure spends, where there’s a knock-on effect for me economic growth, reconciliation, a whole range of things, that will be in the priority bin for federal partnership. Ottawa won’t dictate. It will try to partner with the priorities of territorial, Inuit, and indigenous leaders.

How is this different from what the Liberal government’s already doing? They’ve said very similar things themselves.

Actually, no, they haven’t. In fact, they talk a great game, but Justin Trudeau on his first state visit to Washington signed an Arctic exploration ban that basically froze Inuit, Indigenous, and territorial leaders out of decisions related to their own territory. He didn’t make one phone call. There was no duty-to-consult – the Prime Minister failed Indigenous peoples by breaching the Supreme Court duty to consult. I think he called one territorial leader about 20 minutes before he signed away that capacity. That was a terrible example of leadership and partnership.

The Prime Minister himself I don’t even think got to the North in his first year as prime minister. I might be, you know, wrong by a few months, but he certainly was not there. He has not participated in Operation Nanook for the Canadian Armed Forces – an important sovereignty mission that Stephen Harper and Laureen Harper never missed. So there hasn’t been a commitment under Trudeau. There will be under me.



When will you be here in Yellowknife as Conservative leader?

Well, we’re just about to start some of these trips. I’ve been leader for two weeks. I put a House leadership team together, I’ve restructured the party organization, the fund, and today I’ve launched my shadow cabinet. The next step will be getting out and connecting with people. My office is looking at all the travel and health issues based on provinces and territories. So I hope soon but literally, we’re trying to make sure we do this in full accordance with health advice by province and by capacity. I hope to get out soon, but I don’t have a date.

You mentioned your shadow cabinet there. You’ve just named your new northern affairs critic. Introduce us to him and tell us why he’s qualified for that job.

Well, Eric Melillo is someone who is our youngest member of parliament but actually one of the most passionate voices on northern issues. I met him when he was working as a volunteer and as a staff advisor for previous members of parliament in the region. He’s in the Kenora part of northern Ontario which, of course, is not as northern as Arctic issues, but I’ve watched his capacity as a young, millennial member of our caucus that really believes in building partnerships. He’s done that in the Kenora, Rainy River area of northern Ontario, where he’s been building partnerships with First Nations.

That’s the approach I want to see us take: partnership, collaboration. Not Ottawa knows best, not confrontation. And that’s why, when it comes to resource revenue sharing with Indigenous peoples, when it comes to the ability for territorial governments and their partners to look at exploration, responsible resource development – he gets it. I think he’ll be a very strong voice and the partnerships he’s built in his own riding show he is able to build partnerships on all these northern issues.

Your focus in your platform for the North as a leadership candidate – your focus here so far – has been on things like infrastructure and building the North in that respect. What about addressing critical social issues like addictions, homelessness, and family violence in the NWT, all of which are part of thousands of residents’ daily lives here. What will you do to fix that?

Well, I’ve been talking about mental health for every year since I’ve been an MP. I came out of a military background and I saw operational stress injuries and other things and I’ve become quite an advocate. So I’ve actually appointed a special advisor to me, as leader, on mental health and wellness. And we have to have difficult conversations. I support harm reduction measures that have had some success in some urban centres in Canada, but we should not forget addiction treatment and options for people to get well. Addictions, particularly in the age of the opioid crisis, can lead to more risk of death and serious harm and that devastates a family, devastates a community.

I already spoke to my mental health advisor and MP from BC, Todd Doherty. We’ve already talked about addiction issues in remote, reserved communities and others as being an area that we’re going to focus on. And part of it will be listening and building partnerships with people on the ground.



You told NNSL, the newspaper up here, that Nutrition North needs to be modernized and fixed. That’s something we’ve heard from politicians for years and years. What does that actually look like?

I think we have to have a wholesale relook at it because there’s been a sense that most of the benefit goes to the retailers and some involved in the food sales and there’s not the options that the nutrition part of Nutrition North was supposed to give for families. So should there be a combination of a subsidy for the retail and distribution end, but also on a family basis? Should there be more partnerships in terms of building nonprofit capacity and having Indigenous groups focus on being the retailer or the distributor of certain nutritional products and foods?

I think we have to look because you know, you’re right, I have heard a lot of people talk about it. There’s a large commitment by the federal government in terms of expenditure, but is it going in the most effective place?

You’ve talked about using small-scale nuclear power to get the North off diesel. Explain more about how you see that unfolding.

I feel very bullish on nuclear power because I see it in Ontario. It’s how we’ve come off coal. The Darlington generating station is in my riding. Canada – as one of the world leaders in this technology and the world suppliers of fuel through uranium – we should actually be leaders in this small, modular reactor space. Because it’s not only a greenhouse gas emission-free source of electricity generation, it could eliminate the need in many northern communities to have several years of diesel just sitting on-site so that there can be certainty in terms of fuel supply to generate electricity over long periods of time.

It still doesn’t eliminate some of the challenges with respect to transmission to very remote or isolated places, but if we can be a leader in this type of deployable technology – that literally could be flown in by one of our RCAF aircraft, and installed, and replace that diesel – I think there’s energy security for northerners. There’s better air quality. It helps with our greenhouse gas emission plan. And these are basically turnkey-safe operations. The technology is just in the sort-of piloting and rollout phase. I want to see Canada being a world leader in this, not just for our domestic, northern, and rural economies, but to export this technology.

Many residents of the North – on a related subject – have concerns that a Conservative government might have a little less regard for environmental protection and monitoring. What’s your commitment to the northern environment, and to addressing the climate change crisis that many Indigenous governments have described here?

Well, this is where we have to rely on building partnerships. There’s no one who knows the impact – whether it’s on tundra, whether it’s on infrastructure, whether it’s on sea ice – better than northerners and Indigenous and Inuit Canadians.



My commitment will be to take the environment seriously. I think I’m going to try to change the tone of dialogue, because people seem to think that the carbon tax is actually an emission reduction plan. It is not. The parliamentary budget officer has said the Liberals would literally have to triple the amount of their tax to start changing people’s behaviour. And we know, in northern communities, there’s very little option but to use diesel, to rely on traditional sources of energy.

So let’s have a realistic plan, one that works with industry, one that gets emissions down. It might take a slightly longer period of time but, if we can keep our economy moving and keep people employed while we’re reducing emissions, that will be my goal.

In the last federal election, all three northern territories very much rejected the Conservatives. What lessons do you think your party can learn from why past Conservative approaches here have failed?

We have to listen better because I’ll tell you, the other parties don’t care and don’t understand Arctic northern issues, period. Mr Trudeau, the NDP, my goodness, no clue whatsoever. I don’t profess to the fact that the Conservatives are perfect but I’ll tell you, when we were in government, we had one of our senior ministers as a territorial leader in Leona Aglukkaq. We had serious leadership on the Arctic Council. The most investment in Arctic infrastructure in a generation, literally since Diefenbaker, with the High Arctic Research Station, with Nanisivik port, and with the road to Tuktoyaktuk. There was more investment under the Conservative government than all of the Liberal governments in history in the North.

So I’m proud of our record. I think we have to reach out more and show that our reconciliation approach will be through partnership with Inuit and Indigenous investment corporations, and look to see that there’s net benefit for infrastructure, for resource development, to northerners. Even when it comes to cultural issues like firearms ownership and others, the other parties don’t understand rural Canada, let alone the North. So I’m gonna be going after these votes quite aggressively.

You mention the fact that previous Conservative governments have had senior northern figures. One way of building a very good partnership right now would be to pledge to the North that if a Conservative MP is returned from the territories at the next election, they will get a senior role at your Conservative table. Can you do that?

Well, I appreciate your confidence in me that you’re already planning my cabinet for me. Today I just announced my shadow cabinet. I will try to make sure there is a great voice. Leona Aglukkaq was an exceptional member of parliament and you also have to weigh that into the consideration, but I do think it’s important that there’s a strong voice for the North in our caucus and cabinet. That will be something I try to make sure happens.