Cape Breton Post
Q&A with CPC leader Erin O’toole.
Conservative Party leader talks about the future of Cape Breton
SYDNEY — Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’toole took in some Atlantic Canadian air Friday as he headed to Cape Breton for a supporters rally at the North Sydney Firefighters Club.
Ahead of the rally, the Cape Breton Post spoke to the federal Conservative leader about the party’s Recovery Plan, including its stances on health care, eradicating child poverty and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. See the full version online at saltwire.com/cape-breton/.
Q: The Conservative Party of Canada launched its Recovery Plan for Canada last week. Could you share some specific details of how that plan will impact Atlantic Canada?
A: It’s a five-point plan that focuses on jobs, accountability, mental health leadership, securing capacity for the country to respond in the future and balancing the budget. It’s going to very much target highly impacted sectors in Atlantic Canada from COVID-19, particularly travel tourism, hospitality and services, many of which have had really challenging economic circumstances. We need those small business owners to survive so that they can thrive down the line. There’s a lot in ... Canada’s recovery plan, but that would be the biggest thing. We want to make sure that the economic recovery includes all parts of Atlantic Canada.
Q: Cape Breton has some of the highest child poverty rates in Canada. What, if anything, will the Conservative Party of Canada do, if elected, to address this issue?
A: That’s a great question. A couple of things right off the start. Our childcare approach program will help all families immediately, not some in five years. We will also target the lower income levels so that ... 75 per cent of (childcare) costs would be covered for lower-income families. We’re also going to dramatically increase the Canada workers benefit, which for people on the lower-income levels amounts to a $1 per hour raise.
Q: Now the Conservative Party of Canada won four ridings in Atlantic Canada in 2019. What’s the one thing your party can do to make a stronger footprint here, in your opinion?
A: Our Canada Recovery Plan is really to make sure that the economic recovery includes everyone, not choosing what sectors or what regions to help through a “Building Back Better,” as (Liberal leader Justin) Trudeau talks about. We want to see everyone do well. And my personal story, you know, I got my political start in Nova Scotia. I served in the military out of Shearwater, sailed with the Navy, went to Dalhousie for law school, (met) my wife from Fall River (N.S.) ... I ran the Cabot Trail relay with the Navy. I know the region very, very well, and I want to make sure it has a voice in Ottawa. I don’t think that has been the case, because Mr. Trudeau is taking the region for granted. We see that when he doesn’t even have a minister for (ACOA — the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency) from Atlantic Canada, so we’re going to focus on making sure the economy does well and some of the hardest hit parts of the economy from COVID get special support.
Q: You have said you would support provinces in introducing privately led health-care innovations that offer “more choice” and shorter wait times, as long as universal, taxpayer-funded access remains. How would this impact a place like Cape Breton, where thousands are still waiting for a family doctor and emergency room wait times continue to increase?
A: I 100 per cent support our public and universal system, that’s what I’ve always said is paramount, and we need to secure it after COVID-19. So, the commitment we’re making, which I launched on Day 2: a six per cent increase (to the Canada Health Transfer annual growth rate), which over a 10-year period would be (nearly) $60 billion in stable predictable increased funding for health care. That will allow the provinces to tackle some of the unique needs, including doctor shortages. It takes several years to train and recruit doctors. That will give the provinces the timeline they need to fill some of these gaps. On top of that, we’re also investing in mental health and wellness, and in addiction treatment. So a thousand treatment beds and 50 community centres, and I want to treat addiction as a health-care crisis. It is not a criminal justice matter.
Q: There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years here in Cape Breton about the enormous potential Sydney harbour holds as a possible container terminal site for international shipping companies, and one of the keys to making this a reality is upgrading the rail line from the proposed container terminal in Sydney to the mainland. Would a Conservative government consider investing in such a venture, and why or why not?
A: I’ve spoken to the (Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce), business leaders in the greater Sydney area, and my former colleague Lisa Raitt, for example, about this very thing. We need to make sure that federal infrastructure projects, wherever possible, can help bring economic activities and sort of leverage the overall economic development. So ports, critical infrastructure, is part of it. That allows more export markets to be accessed, that allows jobs to come in on a multiplier effect from federal infrastructure. So we’re going to partner with provinces and municipalities to make sure the federal investments get out the door.
Q: What would a Conservative government do to educate the public about the legacy of Indigenous residential schools and ensure an Indigenous-led process of public commemoration?
A: We have to move forward on the calls to action (in) the Truth and Reconciliation Report. And after the horrific discoveries in Kamloops and Cowessess and former residential school sites, I called for bipartisan support to move forward immediately on calls to action 71 to 76, which deal with former residential school sites and missing children. This is something that ... I know the Liberals want to move forward on reconciliation as well, but they never have action that matches their commitments, whether it’s on reconciliation or safe drinking water. I’m going to make sure that I work with Indigenous leaders to hold the federal government to account on progress. On (Indigenous) mental health, I announced $1 billion over a five-year investment on Indigenousspecific mental health and addiction treatment that will be culturally appropriate and offered wherever possible in Indigenous languages. I always say, at the core of reconciliation is trust, reconciling where there was no trust and terrible failures of the past with where we are today and where we want to go. So my first question, as Opposition leader, was on reconciliation and a call to action on health.
Q: The Canada Community-building Fund, formerly the Gas Tax Fund, is meant to support major infrastructure projects, but the money flows through provincial governments to municipalities. How would you ensure that communities like the Cape Breton Regional Municipality get that funding that they need to quickly build important legacy projects, such as a new central library for Sydney?
A: Locking in the Gas Tax Fund and indexing it, making it permanent, was something the Conservative government did. I was a part of that government. And it gave municipalities a predictable steady flow of a revenue share. That was specific to municipalities and that is, it’s predictable, so that municipalities — whether it’s a library, whatever their investment, they need to know that the federal government will have that flow of revenue sharing and we’re committed to maintaining that.
Q: Progressive Conservative Party of Nova Scotia Leader Tim Houston labelled himself as a “red Tory” during his election campaign and made a point of distancing himself from your Conservative party. What are your views regarding this?
A: We’re two different parties, you know, you could say our provincial parties are our cousin parties. I have a good relationship with Mr. Houston. In fact, I got my political start with the Nova Scotia PCS. My wife and I were involved in the election of John Hamm as volunteers in 1999. The co-chairs of the campaign in Nova Scotia are 20-year friends. And so we’re kind of like a political family, but there are different parties, no question. I think, what I like about what Mr. Houston offered was solutions, was long-term planning to fix health (care) and other issues. That’s exactly what we’re doing with Canada’s recovery plan. And so our historic investments in health, I think, will allow the new PC government to fulfil its commitments that it made to Nova Scotians that I think really led to the result. So I got my political start in Nova Scotia, as I said, the province is very important to me on a personal level and I don’t think the voices in the Liberal caucus in Ottawa have been strong enough advocates, whether it’s on jobs and recovery, whether it’s on the fishing issue, whether it’s on long-term projects like Goldboro (LNG project) and others. We want to make sure that the province and the region (can) provide economic opportunity for kids to stay after they get educated, to stay in Nova Scotia. That’s gotta be our goal and we’re going to work relentlessly at that.
Q: I want to circle back on one last question. Regarding the potential container terminal site at Sydney harbour, is that project specifically one that your government would consider if elected?
A: We would certainly be open to working with the municipality and with the province. We really looked at ports and airport infrastructure when we were in government because we were opening up new export markets for Canada with our trade deals in Europe and in Asia. In fact we extended the runway at the Stanfield airport (in Halifax) to make sure that we could sell lobster in South Korea. And I went there, as a government official, to meet one of the first flights that came in to take seafood from Atlantic Canada to Asian markets. Ports, airports, and these types of infrastructure, we really want to partner with, because it builds economic capacity for the whole region. So, we want to be a partner and as I said, it’s also about getting money out the door, something the parliamentary budget officer said the Trudeau government had real problems with.