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Erin O’Toole is talking about Islamophobia. Has he changed his tune?

Erin O’Toole is talking about Islamophobia. Has he changed his tune?
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OTTAWA — When Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole addressed thousands of mourners grieving the loss of a Muslim family killed in what police say was a hate-motivated attack, he opened by saying “Assalamu Alaikum” — an traditional Arabic phrase meaning “peace be upon you.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh gave the same greeting during their remarks at Tuesday’s vigil in London, Ont., but O’Toole was the only federal leader whose opening words were met with a chorus of loud boos.

It wasn’t the only appeal O’Toole made to Canada’s Muslim community that day. He called the devastating incident — which took the lives of four people and seriously injured a nine-year-old boy — an act of terrorism. He recited a passage from the Quran. And he attributed the attack to a rise in Islamophobia.

That word alone used to be controversial for the federal Conservatives. In 2017, almost all of the party’s MPs — along with the Bloc Québécois — voted against a Liberal motion to condemn Islamophobia, systemic racism and religious discrimination. Trudeau was not present for the vote.

At the time, O’Toole felt the term was being used too broadly. He argued that criticism of the faith could be stifled, and sought to amend the motion to strike a better balance between upholding religious freedom and free speech. Other than Michael Chong, all Conservative MPs ultimately voted against the motion.

But observers say the messaging of the past week doesn’t necessarily signal a changing tide within the party.

“I just don’t feel like this is this big, monumental shift, where [O’Toole] is suddenly talking about these issues now,” said Alykhan Velshi, a senior aide to prime minister Stephen Harper and provincial conservative leaders who now works for Huawei Canada.

“I personally think that he’s been committed to stamping out bigotry and Islamophobia for a long time.”

Velshi, a Muslim who backed O’Toole in last year’s leadership race, told the Star he believes the party’s decision to vote against the Liberal motion was a mistake.

“That having been said, I think it’s very disingenuous the way that some elected parliamentarians are using M-103 as a political cudgel while remaining silent on Bill 21.”

While some federal leaders have criticized Bill 21, the Quebec secularism law that prohibits people from wearing religious symbols when providing public services, politicians across the board have hesitated to weigh in on the law because it falls under provincial jurisdiction.

In the early weeks of his leadership, O’Toole was singled out by the National Council of Canadian Muslims for hiding behind that jurisdictional shield, leading him to clarify that he was personally opposed to the law without taking more of an active position.

“I hope there are no statues put up of politicians today who are silent on Bill 21, because I think they’re going to be torn down in my lifetime,” Velshi said.

But the former adviser also cited some inroads the party has made to make the Tory tent, which is not known for its diversity, more inclusive.

“I remember during Ramadan, the amount of iftar invitations that came my way which either Erin was attending, or his MPs or his candidates ... was sort of overwhelming,” Velshi recalled. “They’ve certainly, in my opinion, gone out of their way to reach out to Muslim Canadians.”

Conservative human rights critic Garnett Genuis told the Star that the party is also taking steps to “remove any barriers or perceptions” that could hold people back from joining or supporting the party. There are currently no Muslim MPs in the Conservative caucus, although the party says it has identified four Muslim candidates to run in the next election and its efforts are ongoing.

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Genuis also referenced the party’s caucus retreat following the 2019 federal election, during which members of the Muslim community met with Conservative MPs to discuss combating online hate.

Genuis said efforts to bring other Muslim groups onside have only “ramped up” under O’Toole’s leadership.

The party has, for example, worked with the Muslim community to gather signatures to table petitions in the House of Commons supporting Uyghurs facing human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang province.

“[O’Toole] comes from a Greater Toronto Area riding, and the leader has many longtime friends from the Muslim community, some of whom are taking on key roles as part of our team,” Genuis added.
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