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Federal parties scrap over guns, COVID-19 response on Day 21 of federal campaign

The three main federal parties traded fire Saturday over their responses to gun violence and to the resurgence of COVID-19 on Day 21 of the federal election campaign.

The three main federal parties traded fire Saturday over their responses to gun violence and to the resurgence of COVID-19 on Day 21 of the federal election campaign.

Liberal candidate Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief, unloaded on Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole's response to the Liberal government's ban on some 1,500 firearm models, including the popular AR-15 rifle and the Ruger Mini-14 used to kill 14 women at Montreal's Ecole polytechnique in 1989. The ban means they cannot be legally used, sold or imported.

The Conservative election platform promises to scrap the May 2020 order-in-council that banned the wide variety of guns and review the Firearms Act with input from police, gun owners, manufacturers and the public.

But O'Toole seemed to backpedal on the pledge on both Thursday and Friday by saying the party would "maintain the ban on assault weapons" when pressed about his platform pledge.

A party spokeswoman later said in an emailed statement that O'Toole does promise to repeal the May 2020 ban but not the prohibition of full-fledged "assault weapons" — distinct from what the Liberals call "assault-style" weapons. That ban has been in place since 1977.

Reporters pressed O'Toole on the matter during a campaign stop in Coquitlam, B.C., repeatedly asking whether he would repeal the ban on specific weapons used in mass shootings in recent years.

"We will maintain a ban on assault weapons and we will also have — it's in our policy — a transparent and public review of our classification system," O'Toole said, accusing the Liberals of divisive tactics.

"We will have that review, focusing on public safety and getting guns out of the hands of criminals that are being smuggled in from the United States."

Blair accused O'Toole of "pretending that he had not made a commitment" to maintain the Liberal ban, as well as of being beholden to the gun lobby. 

"I think overwhelmingly Canadians recognize that there is no place for these guns in our country," he said at a news conference in Toronto. "Mr. O'Toole is having difficulty admitting to Canadians that he's made that unholy pact with the gun lobby. He needs to be held to account."

Blair linked O'Toole's stance on gun violence to what he said was the previous inaction of the former Conservative government led by Stephen Harper, in which O'Toole served as a minister.

Blair said he went looking for help on dealing with rising gun violence from the federal government while he served as Toronto's police chief, but said he got "no help whatsoever from the Harper government."

Earlier Saturday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh accused the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau of taking a hands-off approach with the provinces by not doing enough to encourage people to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Singh levelled the accusation against Trudeau as he and O'Toole campaigned on opposite sides of the country.

"We have always said that the federal government has not played its role to provide national leadership with the changes in each province," Singh said Saturday in St. John's, N.L., where he was making an announcement on how his party would improve dental care. 

"It's a global pandemic. It's a national pandemic. It impacts the entire country, so the approach of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been a little laissez-faire, too much washing the hands, saying: 'It's not my responsibility. I have done one thing, the rest is the responsibility of the provinces.'"

Singh called for a national plan to provide provinces and territories with more support.

On Saturday night, Singh sent a letter to the other four major party leaders asking them to join him in recording a message urging all Canadians eligible for a vaccine to get their shot.

He suggested doing it Sept. 8, when all leaders will be gathered for the first official French-language debate at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.

"We cannot risk turning vaccination into an issue that people define by partisanship," Singh wrote.

"Doing so will only discourage people from getting their shot. All party leaders represented on stage at the debates next week have encouraged people to get vaccinated. I ask you, and all other party leaders to join me in telling Canadians that vaccines are safe, easy, and necessary."

Trudeau and O’Toole both responded on Twitter to say they were on board with the plan.

Overshadowed by the gun issue, O'Toole outlined his party's plan to combat the fourth wave of COVID-19 on Saturday. His pledges include boosting vaccination rates to 90 per cent within two months, in part by covering the cost of time off for workers seeking a shot and subsidizing transportation to vaccine clinics using ride-hailing services like Lyft or Uber.

Among the other proposed measures was a national proof-of-vaccination system devised in tandem with the provinces, as well as a national vaccine awareness campaign that O'Toole said would feature a softer approach to communicating with those who may be hesitant to get a shot.

"You don’t win people over by threatening them," O'Toole said. "You win them over by reaching out, talking to them, understanding their fears." 

Trudeau's Saturday itinerary was marked as private.

On Friday, the Liberal leader once again faced attacks from political rivals for calling the Sept. 20 election during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

O'Toole accused Trudeau of forcing the summer campaign for his own personal interest in a bid to secure a majority mandate.

Trudeau said on Friday that a re-elected Liberal government would certify the various provincial vaccine passports for international travel but said that would be an interim measure. He said it could take a year for the government to get a federal system in place because it would need to work with provinces, which are responsible for health care.

Trudeau has said a re-elected Liberal government would give $1 billion to the provinces to create their own vaccine passports for domestic use. 

Since Trudeau called the election three weeks ago, daily case counts have risen. On Thursday, the average daily number of new cases over the previous week stood at 3,500, up from 2,900 a week earlier and just over 700 at the beginning of August.

New modelling released Friday by the Public Health Agency of Canada said the country could see more than 15,000 new cases a day by October, with transmission rates ramping up through to the Sept. 20 election.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2021.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press