OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says his caucus has agreed to "respect and abide" by a new rule requiring members of Parliament to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to take their seats in the House of Commons.
However, he says Conservatives will challenge the policy when Parliament resumes next month, raising what is known in parliamentary parlance as a question of privilege around the "improper conduct and precedent" set by the board of internal economy, the multi-party committee that governs the Commons.
The board ushered in the vaccine mandate last week, which applies to all MPs, their staff, journalists and anyone else without a medical exemption who wants access to the Commons precinct.
The Tory leader emerged with the plan Wednesday after a roughly five-hour meeting with his caucus to discuss the requirement and what it means for members who are unvaccinated, as well as those who believe in the principle that their immunization status should be private.
"All of our members in the House of Commons will be vaccinated," O'Toole said. "We will respect the rules both before our question of privilege and after."
What that means is Conservatives will ask the Speaker to rule on whether the nine-member board of internal economy has the authority to disallow unvaccinated MPs from entering the House.
Depending on how the Speaker rules, that could lead to the matter being debated and voted on by the entire House of Commons, an outcome that would likely lead to little change, given that the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois all support parliamentarians having to be fully vaccinated.
O'Toole said Conservatives believe all MPs, not only board's nine members, should decide on conduct in the House.
While O'Toole emphasized that his entire 118-member caucus will obey the rules, he didn't answer questions on what fate would await any Conservative MPs who refuse to be vaccinated, such as whether they would be welcome to sit in caucus.
How many of them are immunized against COVID-19 remains a central question. All other major federal parties and most provincial governments have disclosed this information about their members, but O'Toole has not.
That decision has led to prolonged attacks from the Liberals, who drove the issue as political wedge during the recent federal election campaign and continue to say O'Toole wants to give his caucus special treatment when most Canadians are being asked to show proof-of-vaccination to enter restaurants to go to work.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh echoed that criticism Wednesday.
“I think the debate just shows how the official Opposition — the Conservatives — are just talking about their own interests rather than what is happening in people’s daily lives," he said.
"They are elitist because they are really focusing on internal divisions rather than focusing on what is happening in Canada."
An analysis by The Canadian Press shows at least 80 Conservatives MPs say they are vaccinated, with two stating they are not for medical reasons.
O'Toole insisted that his caucus is united. Individual MPs, however, feel differently about how Conservatives should handle the issue of vaccine mandates.
"We don't have the luxury of sitting here as an opposition party arguing about whether you should be vaccinated or not," said Alberta MP Ron Liepert before entering Wednesday's caucus meeting.
"We should be doing what constituents ended up sending us here to do, and that's to hold this Liberal government to account."
He said he has no issue telling people he's fully vaccinated, and believes the issue has become a distraction for Conservatives.
British Columbia MP Mark Strahl said before the meeting that Conservatives must be clear like they were during the election campaign when they opposed vaccine mandates and said those who are unvaccinated should have the option to take rapid tests.
Also speaking before the meeting, Alberta MP Glen Motz said he doesn't think it should be up to the party leader to disclose caucus members' personal health information.
O'Toole reaffirmed he's against returning to Parliament in any hybrid fashion — with MPs able to participate in proceedings virtually. That's an option supported by Liberals and New Democrats which would give unvaccinated Conservative MPs a way to not be shut out.
Among the Conservatives on his team who believe in keeping their vaccination status private is newly elected Ontario representative and former leadership contender Leslyn Lewis.
Lewis, who hasn't disclosed if she is immunized, has been an outspoken critic of vaccine mandates and last week also posted concerns on social media about vaccinating children against COVID-19.
She said parents question doing so partly because the shots don't guarantee against transmission of the virus.
Public health experts say there is overwhelming evidence the immunizations prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death.
"The media and the power structure expect me to sit in the back of the bus. I won’t!" tweeted Lewis, who is Black, after her message about vaccinating kids against COVID-19.
"They will try to paint me as a reckless lunatic in order to lynch me into silence. I will always tell Canadians the truth, (and) no bully or threats will succeed against us!"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2021.
— With files from Marie Woolf
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press