As in California Recall, COVID Vaccines Big Player in Canadian Election

Canada is one of the most vaccinated nations in the world, but Conservative leader Erin O'Toole has tried to leverage anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown sentiments to boost his campaign against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is seeking a third term during Monday's elections.

Trudeau's government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to keep the economy afloat during quarantines. The conservative approach, he said, is a danger to Canadians, whom he argues need a government that follows science.

O'Toole did not require his party's candidates to get vaccinated and has declined to say how many are. The conservative challenger has said vaccination is a personal health decision despite a growing wing of vaccinated Canadians who are fed up with those who refuse the vaccine.

"He's more interested in standing up for the rights of anti-vaxxers within his own party than he is in standing up for people who have done the right things and want to get back to normal," Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Windsor, Ontario, on Friday.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Canada Elections
Liberal Party Leader and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets supporters during a campaign stop on September 19, 2021, in Maple, Canada. Canadians head to the polls Monday following a month of campaigning by the party leaders, after Trudeau called a snap election in an attempt to bolster his mandate. Cole Burston/Getty Images

Trudeau supports making vaccines mandatory for Canadians to travel by air or rail, something the Conservatives oppose. And Trudeau has pointed out that Alberta, run by a Conservative provincial government, is in crisis.

Trudeau gambled on an early election in a bid to win a majority of seats in Parliament. But the opposition has been relentless in accusing Trudeau of calling an unnecessary early vote during the pandemic—two years before the deadline—for his own personal ambition

Polls indicate Trudeau's Liberal Party is in a tight race with the rival Conservatives: It will likely win the most seats in Parliament, but still fail to get a majority, forcing it to rely on an opposition party to pass legislation.

"Trudeau made an incredibly stupid error in judgment," said Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto.

Trudeau entered the election leading a stable minority government that wasn't under threat of being toppled.

He channeled the star power of his father, the Liberal icon and late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he first won in 2015, but a combination of high expectations, scandal and calling the election last month during the pandemic have hurt his brand.

With polling stations across the country open, O'Toole voted with his wife in his local district in Ontario.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, an ally of O'Toole, said the province might run out of beds and staff for intensive care units within days. Kenney has apologized for the dire situation and is now reluctantly introducing a vaccine passport and imposing a mandatory work-from-home order two months after lifting nearly all restrictions.

A Conservative win would represent a rebuke of Trudeau, who now is at risk of losing office to a politician with a fraction of his own name recognition. O'Toole, 47, is a military veteran, former lawyer and a member of Parliament for nine years.

O'Toole advertised himself a year ago as a "true-blue conservative." He became Conservative Party leader with a pledge to "take back Canada," but immediately started working to push the party toward the political center.

O'Toole's new strategy, which has included disavowing positions held dear by his party's base on issues such as climate change, guns and balanced budgets, is designed to appeal to a broader cross section of voters in a country that tends to be far more liberal than its southern neighbor.

The son of a longtime politician has faced criticism he will say and do anything to get elected.

Whether moderate Canadians believe O'Toole is the progressive conservative he claims to be and whether he has alienated traditional conservatives have become central questions of the campaign.

Jenni Byrne, who served as campaign manager and deputy chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said there is a lack of enthusiasm among Conservatives across the country.

"We will know on Tuesday morning whether the Erin O'Toole version of the Conservative Party is connecting with voters, but if there is any truth to the polls, it's something that I don't think is connecting in numbers that we have connected with in the past, including in the last election," Byrne said.

The wild card could be a politician who narrowly lost the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2017 but who now leads a far-right party that opposes vaccines and lockdowns. Polls suggest as many as 5 percent to 10 percent support Maxime Bernier and the People's Party of Canada—potentially bleeding support from O'Toole's Conservatives and helping the Liberals retain power.

Trudeau's legacy includes embracing immigration at a time when the U.S. and other countries closed their doors. He also legalized cannabis nationwide and brought in a carbon tax to fight climate change. And he preserved free trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico amid threats by former U.S. President Donald Trump to scrap the agreement.

Perhaps sensing Trudeau is in trouble, former U.S. President Barack Obama and ex-Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton tweeted support for Trudeau.

There won't be a Trump endorsement of O'Toole. Conservative campaign co-chair Walied Soliman said there is no alignment whatsoever between O'Toole and Trumpism.

But if O'Toole wins, he has promised to take a tougher stand against China, including banning Chinese technology giant Huawei from Canada's next generation of telecommunication networks.

O'Toole has also said he'll move Canada's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem just as Trump moved the U.S. embassy, upending decades of policy.