TORONTO — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had affordability on the brain when he stopped at a Toronto charity on the second day of the official election campaign Thursday.
But once again he was confronted by the issue of abortion, responding to a video of an anti-abortion candidate shared by the Liberals on Twitter, this time an interview with the candidate, Rachel Willson, with whom Scheer was campaigning.
Scheer and his wife, Jill, painted, coloured and chatted with kids and parents at Chai Lifeline Canada, a charity in Toronto and Montreal that offers support to families with parents or children facing life-threatening illnesses. While he painted with one child he joked that he'd be able to sell the painting for a lot of money someday.
He spent some time talking about his own kids with one woman holding an infant — he has five children between four and 14 years old — as well as about his promise to use a tax credit to slash federal taxes on maternity and parental-leave benefits.
He said the credit could save parents $4,000 a year when they have new expenses and reduced incomes.
"That's a huge sacrifice in critical early months when all the costs are going up," Scheer said. "Believe me, with five kids there's a lot to pay for when you've got car seats, diapers, clothes, the odd dry-cleaning and steam-cleaning of carpets."
The parliamentary budget officer estimated the tax credit will cost $622 million a year at first, rising to more than $1 billion in 2021, a number with which Scheer agreed.
The Conservatives continue to show confidence by choosing to campaign so far only in seats they want to pick up. This time Scheer was in York Centre in Toronto, where Willson is trying to unseat Liberal Michael Levitt, which the Liberals have won every election since 1962, except for 2011.
The Scheer team has been signalling for months that the Conservatives intended to campaign on the offensive, with little concern any of the seats they won in 2015 are at risk.
Despite that confidence, Scheer could not shake continued pressure from the Liberals over his stance on abortion. On Thursday morning, veteran Toronto Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, Justin Trudeau's Crown-Indigenous relations minister, shared a two-year old video of Willson being interviewed at the national March for Life on Parliament Hill. Bennett questioned how Scheer could say the abortion debate is closed in Canada when he was launching his Toronto campaign "alongside your leading anti-choice candidate and campaigner."
In the video, Willson said she was shocked when she found out Canada was one of the only countries in the world that has no legal restrictions on abortion, was working to get a monument to the "unborn" built in Canada, and is part of a "No, not this one" prayer campaign, which includes attempts to find the names of women considering abortion.
"We have a group of intercessors, who, when we catch word either from a pregnancy centre or a person who has a friend, or however that information comes to us, when we catch word of someone who is considering abortion, you can contact us and let us know," Willson said in the video.
Scheer, a practising Catholic, has voted in favour of anti-abortion bills in the past, and drew support from social conservatives in the party leadership race in 2017 by pointing to that record and his pledge to offer free votes to MPs on issues like abortion. He said Thursday the allegations made by Bennett are "completely false" and reiterated his more recent statement that if he is elected prime minister he would vote against any such legislation.
"The only people who are continually trying to reopen this debate or fearmonger on this issue are Liberals," he said.
Willson was with Scheer Thursday and told reporters she supports Scheer's position on abortion but is glad the party doesn't dictate to all MPs what they can and can't do.
"I'm grateful that our leader will allow free votes on issues of moral conscience," she said.
She wouldn't specifically say whether she would introduce any abortion legislation, but said she is focused on what she is hearing on the doorstep: affordability, security and Liberal ethics.
Scheer spent most of Thursday preparing for the first leaders' debate of his political career, but one in which his chief rival, Trudeau, did not participate.
Scheer spent much of the debate with his hands clasped in front of him, holding to his campaign talking points with a clear goal to go after Trudeau, despite his absence. He referred to Trudeau more than either Green Leader Elizabeth May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — both present on the stage with him — on everything from deficits to the NAFTA deal.
But without a clear opening to discuss Trudeau's ethics, Scheer interrupted a discussion on Indigenous communities' infrastructure needs to criticize Trudeau for the SNC-Lavalin scandal and demand he lift all cabinet confidences that could affect the RCMP investigation in the matter.
While May and Singh agreed with Scheer's criticism of Trudeau for that, they both spent much of the debate targeting him over Indigneous and environmental policies, as well as foreign affairs. They both went hard at his refusal to support an NDP bill that would enforce the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, with Scheer saying repeatedly he could not support something that would let a single Indigenous objection hold a good resource project "hostage."
Scheer often listened to May and Singh attack him or his policies while staring straight ahead, rather than at either of them, and looked positively disgusted when May accused him of being a puppet for U.S. President Donald Trump.
He did look amused briefly while May and Singh were going at each other over who has the better targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Shortly before the debate, the Conservatives announced they'd turfed their candidate in Winnipeg North, Cameron Ogilvie, over "discriminatory social-media posts." In a statement, the party said Ogilvie had hidden the posts, which the party didn't detail, when the party vetted him as a candidate earlier this year.
Ogilvie, whose background is in trucking and transportation, was running for the seat Liberal Kevin Lamoureux is defending. The Conservatives said they will name a replacement candidate.