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Shadowing on the hill

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

It’s arguably the most critical time of the day on Parliament Hill.

In a single swoop, it can deliver facts, slice a zinger that captures the media’s attention, and if truly successful, rock the government back on its heels.

It takes hours to prepare and a team to hone it down to a science.

And it only lasts for 30 seconds.

 

Arriving on Parliament Hill, the morning is just starting to perk up. The streets of downtown Ottawa are bathed in a blue morning light. At the National War Memorial, bag pipers and guards march through a daily routine. A few spectators stand watch.

Crossing onto Sparks Street, I glance up the road toward where the East Block stands. A tall, noble collection of aged copper and brick.

It disappears as I enter the walking street and mingle among the suit-clad, briefcase-sporting workers who call Parliament Hill home for the majority of their weekdays.

Pushing through the glass doors at 197 Sparks Street, a pair of security guards lean against the wall beside a set of sliding security panels. Another guard sits reading something on a screen inside a glass booth. Neither guard says a thing as I stand in the doorway, notebook in hand. I approach the glass turnstiles, prepared for them to part as I get close, but they don’t. I take a step back, try again. Nothing.

I turn to the guards who, smirking, direct me to the glass booth. From there I provide ID and am sent through an airport-style security check where my shoes, belt and jacket are scanned along with my bag.

I make it to the other side, clip the visitor’s badge to my jacket, and head upstairs. It’s 9:10 a.m.

 

Those critical 30 seconds are given to a large number of MPs during Question Period each day, and creating the question that is going to be asked is a process that takes hours, and a team of individuals to get the wording just right.  On the day The Express visited, the question dealt with a topic that has kept Durham MP Erin O’Toole busy for weeks. That being the tariffs imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration, most recently on steel and aluminum and the ensuing trade war it has initiated with Canada. For the most part, O’Toole says he’s not too pleased with how the Canadian government has handled the situation so far.

“We shouldn’t have backed ourselves into this position,” he says.

 

Entering O’Toole’s office, I find it adorned with framed pictures, sports paraphernalia and mementos of his time spent with the Royal Canadian Air Force. One frame holds an editorial cartoon, in another O’Toole is shaking hands with Blue Jay’s legend Joe Carter, in another, Leafs great Doug Gilmour.

In the corner across from his wide desk is an iron easel supporting a painting of Sam Sharpe, a former MP and World War I veteran who killed himself after suffering from PTSD. O’Toole has used his story as a lightning rod for paying closer attention to veterans  issues. At his desk, he’s busy typing away on his desktop, going back and forth with the team that is responsible for Question Period, the questions asked and who will be asking them. The Ottawa River rushes by outside the window behind him.  I sit down as a hot coffee is placed on the table beside me. O’Toole finishes his emails, stands up to shake my hand and we settle into a pair of thick padded armchairs on the other side of the room, just as Oshawa’s MP Colin Carrie walks through the door. It’s 9:20 a.m.

 

As the shadow minister for foreign affairs, O’Toole has a close working relationship with Carrie, aside from the fact they have nearby ridings, Carrie is the shadow cabinet secretary for Canada/U.S. Relations and economic development, a portfolio that has much in common with O’Toole’s foreign affairs.

“It’s really helpful that we have these complimentary roles,” O’Toole says, taking a sip of coffee.

The two MPs talk a number of topics, including the upcoming Question Period, where both Carrie and O’Toole will be delivering questions, the legalization of marijuana and how that affects the Canada U.S. border, the carbon tax, and of course, the Trump tariffs.

At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was discussing reciprocal tariffs against the United States, a counter measure to those imposed by Trump. However, Carrie wasn’t hopeful about the result.

“A tariff war we will not win,” he says.

However, the larger worry between the two MPs is not the existing tariffs, but the threat from Trump that his administration may soon place a 25 per cent tariff on auto imports. Having General Motors so close to his riding, O’Toole knows the significance of what these tariffs would do to the Durham Region and knows the one-two punch along with the carbon tax could be crippling. For that reason, he knows his question at the upcoming Question Period must go in that direction.

 

At 9:50 a.m., the meeting ends, and O’Toole grabs his jacket to head out the doors. A local school group from Bowmanville is in town visiting Parliament, and he’s hoping to give them a warm welcome.

We hop a shuttle to the Hill, and after a brief walk past West Block, where we stand beneath the Peace Tower while O’Toole delivers greetings to the group of Grade 8s. He takes a minute to explain his role and finishes with a message on the importance of voting as the students grow up.

Back at the office, it’s 10:20 a.m. as O’Toole returns to his desk and tries to connect with his team on the ground in Durham. Today, they’re in Port Perry holding down a booth at the Senior’s Fair.

On the television set into the bookshelf in O’Toole’s office, discussion is underway inside the House of Commons and Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre is busy slamming the Liberal government on its proposed plans for a national carbon tax.

An email blips across O’Toole’s screen. It’s confirmed, he will be allowed the auto question during the upcoming Question Period.

At 10:50 a.m., Carrie appears on the TV screen, his question digging into the American steel tariffs, while also tying in the carbon tax and its impact on Ontario’s competitiveness.

Six minutes later, O’Toole wraps the question he wants to ask and sends it off to the team for final approval.

Before heading out for a lunch meeting with a group of other diplomats, O’Toole sits down to answer a few of my questions.

 

Durham MP Erin O’Toole works in his Ottawa office, preparing for the upcoming day’s Question Period in the House of Commons. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel)

Before entering politics, O’Toole spent 12 years with the military, serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force on bases across the country, including 8 Wing in Trenton, 17 Wing in Winnipeg, and finally at 12 Wing in Shearwater, Nova Scotia where he flew with the 423 Squadron as a tactical navigator on a Sea King helicopter.

After his retirement, he spent time as a lawyer, dealing with energy and financial issues and spent time in the business sector with Proctor and Gamble.

He was first elected in a byelection in 2012, and in 2015, under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, O’Toole served as Minister of Veterans Affairs.

“The more experience you can bring to politics, the more you can relate to groups of Canadians or issues facing people,” he says. “I think the military is a sign of my commitment to the country and how I think public service in politics and in uniform is very important and something I have been drawn to my whole life really.”

O’Toole has also made no secret of the fact that he sees himself in a larger role with the Conservative Party, first running for the interim leader position in 2015 after the departure of Harper. At that time, he was defeated by Rona Ambrose. Then, he ran for the party’s leadership position again, placing third as Andrew Scheer took the post.

“I’ve always been busy as an MP. Really, the job is what you make of it. So both in the riding in Durham, I try to be on top of things, work with others, take the lead on things, and the same here (in Ottawa),” he says.

And the numbers back him up. A MacLeans analysis completed in 2016 showed O’Toole to be one of the Conservative Party’s most vocal MPs inside the House of Commons.

“Not cause I’m just a blabbermouth, but because if there’s an issue that concerns me both for local issues in Durham, or the auto industry, or trade, or public safety or security, I still speak on a lot of military and veterans issues because that’s my background too,” he says.

Over the last few months, the negotiations surrounding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has kept his foreign affairs portfolio fairly occupied. However, it has been a slightly different role in terms of playing the devil’s advocate to the Liberal statements. In terms of NAFTA, all parties have showed a fairly united front in terms of Canada’s negotiating efforts. O’Toole describes their approach as being “strategically critical.”

“We didn’t want domestic politics between the Conservatives and the Liberals to interfere with Canada’s negotiations,” O’Toole says. “I was critical at the start, when they didn’t mention the auto industry as a priority, and they did a lot of Trudeau policy, like environment, Indigenous (issues), and gender, which we always said all those things are important, but they’ve got to take a back seat to market access for our exporters.”

For that reason,  O’Toole says finding common ground on the auto sector is crucial for the NAFTA negotiations.

“Auto was always at the core of it. That fact that they didn’t even mention auto as a priority in the Liberal’s debut speech I think showed a lack of knowledge of trade,” he says.

However, O’Toole is temporarily turning away from the NAFTA talks, and turning his attention to the impacts the proposed American auto tariffs, and the Canadian carbon tax, could have on the auto industry.

“The added costs that will be imposed through tariffs, both through the U.S. tariffs and our reciprocal tariffs will cost Canadian manufacturers and then potentially make our goods too expensive to be sold in high numbers,” he says.

And while Trump’s 25 per cent auto tariff remains only a threat, the federal Liberal’s carbon tax remains a heavy hammer getting ready to fall, and for O’Toole, the cost of that potential impact is still unknown.

He knows it’s a question that needs to be asked

 

After a brief discussion, O’Toole entertains a call from CBC before joining a conference call with the U.S. Ambassador to Canada to discuss the upcoming G7 Summit. He has a brief meeting for final preparations ahead of Question Period before heading for lunch.

I join O’Toole on a walk down the street to his lunch meeting. We chat about his family, he’s married with two kids, a daughter and young son. He tells me later that the pressure of politics and juggling family life is tough.

 “You try your best and I’m very lucky to have an amazing wife,” he says.

We separate as he enters the luncheon. The next time I see him – Question Period.

Similar to the security inside the MP offices, entering Centre Block is a process that involves similar security measures that file you through the base of the Peace Tower and into the bowels of Parliament.

Entering the House, I’m guided to a seat above the floor where MPs continue to exchange barbs, mainly over the carbon tax. I hand over my jacket, phone and camera, no belongings allowed above the floor, and take my seat.

Not long after, O’Toole stands to speak, the day’s worth of preparations coming down to a final 30 seconds.

 

Durham MP Erin O’Toole speaks to a group of Durham Grade 8 students visiting Parliament Hill. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel)

“In Ontario, the auto industry competes with the U.S. for investment. In Michigan, there’s no carbon tax, but in Ontario, the Liberals are imposing a carbon tax scheme that is putting our auto sector at a disadvantage. Now, the auto sector also faces the risk of tariffs. Mr. Speaker, will the Liberals reveal the cost of the carbon tax on the auto industry, and will they agree to exempt the auto industry from their carbon tax so we can keep these jobs in Canada,” O’Toole says, keeping his eyes locked to the Speaker of the House for a few more seconds as his fellow MPs rise for a brief standing ovation along with a few cheers and shouts of support.

It is Navdeep Bains, the Liberal Minister for Innovation, Science and Economic Development who stands to respond, allotted his own 30 seconds.

“We have a thriving and vibrant automotive sector in Ontario and across the country, and you know why, Mr. Speaker? Cause they have a government that backs them up and supports them all the way. Since 2015, we’ve been working very closely with the automotive sector building partnerships and what that has resulted is a $5.6 billion total investment in the auto sector. This has helped create and preserve thousands of jobs,” he says.

 

Hours of prep for a  brief expulsion of words, a few cheers and a mediocre response. The whole thing seems slightly anticlimactic.

I wait to meet up with O’Toole, meaning to ask him how he felt, was it all worth it?

However, he has a committee meeting to get to and as we whisk through the throngs of reporters already lining up to do their post-Question Period interviews, we slip out into the overcast day.

O’Toole only has a few minutes before he’s needed back inside his offices for a committee meeting, this time to discuss arctic sovereignty and other issues.

 I was able to catch up with O’Toole again a few days later to ask my question.

And no, he was not pleased with how his question was handled.

 

“They’re not being clear or straight with Canadians on the cost associated with the carbon tax. Their own study within Finance has numbers, they’ve calculated what they think it will cost by income range, and they blacked that information out of the documents we’ve been given,” he says. “Obviously, any manufacturing facility, auto, auto-parts, steel fabrication, any of these things, if you’re using energy, if you’re using inputs, there’s going to be costs associated with a price on carbon, they haven’t been straight with us on that and given the fact that there’s a real risk of tariffs being imposed on automobiles assembled in Ontario. That, on top of the carbon tax, on top of a whole range of other things is putting us very uncompetitive versus Michigan, versus other U.S. jurisdictions, versus Mexico.”

Looking back on the day, after delivering his question, little did O’Toole know, his day was not even half over.  An extended voting session initiated by the Liberal government later that day saw MPs inside the House overnight with voting concluded around 10 a.m. on June 15, the day after The Oshawa Express visited.

O’Toole laughs when asked about how he spent the night. And even after the marathon voting session inside the House, the Durham MP returned to his office for another couple of hours to get a bit more work done before heading to his apartment to sleep.

“If I didn’t love what I did, I would be crazy, because it’s very busy, but I do love it,” he says.