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Rights + Justice
Federal Politics

Opposing Prisoner Vaccination, Erin O’Toole Is Unmasked

And underneath we find the same old callousness of Conservative leaders before him.

Paul Willcocks 6 Jan 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and now an editor with The Tyee.

It didn’t take long for Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s mask to slip, revealing his promised new face for the Harper-Scheer party was just a layer of bad makeup.

Since winning the leadership, O’Toole has gone on about changing the party to be more inclusive and more mainstream.

“My main goal is that in the next election I want more Canadians waking up that morning and seeing a Conservative staring at them in the mirror,” he told HuffPost Canada in late November. “More young people, more women, more new Canadians, members of the LGBTQ community, Indigenous Canadians.”

Not likely. Especially when O’Toole is still flogging the tough-on-crime pony, now with an argument that threatens the lives of largely Indigenous people.

The federal government’s COVID-19 vaccination effort includes a plan to immunize high-risk prisoners in federal prisons — people who are old or sick. The initial wave of vaccinations will reach 600 inmates, about four per cent of the prison population.

O’Toole was predictably outraged, and equally predictably took to Twitter.

“Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or frontline health worker,” he harrumphed.

In one sentence, O’Toole evoked both the callousness of the Stephen Harper government and its unwillingness to leave such decisions to experts who actually make them based on evidence, rather than political calculation.

In this case, public health officials looked at the evidence and decided that, based on the goals of saving lives and preventing the spread of COVID-19, some prisoners should be included in early vaccination efforts.

That’s not surprising. Prisons are crowded, inmates and guards are in close proximity around the clock, and many inmates are unhealthy.

O’Toole's position is, basically, tough. If they die, they die.

It’s impossible to ignore the implicit racism in his approach. More than 30 per cent of federal inmates are Indigenous, the highest level in decades. Yet Indigenous people make up about five per cent of the Canadian population. The reality is even grimmer for Indigenous women, who make up 42 per cent of the female prison population.

You can come to two conclusions. Either Indigenous people are inherently way more criminal than the rest of the population, or colonialism and its effects — poverty, lost culture, splintered families, poor health — all result in higher crime rates, and our justice system disproportionately jails Indigenous people.

O’Toole apparently believes the former, with sufficient fervour that he thinks dying of COVID-19 is just part of the price people should pay if they commit a crime.

This comes less than three weeks after O’Toole backed away from — but didn’t apologize for — bizarre comments on the good intentions behind residential schools.

In a Zoom chat with a Ryerson University Conservative club, O’Toole acknowledged residential schools “became a horrible program.”

But the people behind the plan to take generations of Indigenous children from their families, hold them in horrible conditions and erase their culture had good intentions, O’Toole said. “It was meant to try and provide education,” he told the campus club.

(O’Toole also shared his flare for Trumpian name-calling, telling the group, “Most of the lefty radicals are also the dumbest people at your university.”)

The Conservative leader retracted his claim — though only after the hashtag #resignOToole started trending on Twitter. “In my comments to Ryerson students, I said that the residential school system was intended to try and ‘provide education,’” he said in a statement. “It was not. The system was intended to remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and culture.”

But O’Toole didn’t apologize. And he didn’t explain why he said one thing to a young Conservative club and another when caught.

Polls show support for the Conservatives under O’Toole is pretty much the same as when he took over, at about 31 per cent. About 35 per cent of Canadians approve of the job he’s doing, compared to 55-per-cent approval for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Even acknowledging that a pandemic is a tough time to make an impression, O’Toole is failing in his claimed intention to make the Conservatives more inclusive and broaden the party’s base of support.

And given his comments on prisons and residential schools, that’s no surprise.  [Tyee]

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