OTTAWA — Conservative party leadership candidate Roman Baber said Tuesday that if he became prime minister, he’d fire Canada’s chief public health officer over her management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
His pledge comes as he trumpeted an endorsement from one of the leaders of this year’s so-called “Freedom Convoy” — a former RCMP officer who broke ranks with the Mounties over COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
Baber was the MPP for York Centre who sat as an Independent in the Ontario legislature after being ejected from the Progressive Conservative caucus over his public criticism of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.
He turned the notoriety from that fight into the donations and signatures required to get on the ballot for the federal Conservative leadership race.
Although Baber has sought to broaden his leadership campaign beyond pandemic messaging, he is racing against the clock to galvanize even more support as the June 3 deadline looms for candidates to sign up new party members.
Where candidates stand and stood on COVID-19 vaccination mandates — as well as on the protests that paralyzed downtown Ottawa and border crossings earlier this year — has emerged as a wedge issue in the leadership race.
Front-runner Pierre Poilievre has framed his campaign narrative around a call for “freedom” that includes his support for elements of the protest movement and an end to vaccination mandates.
But Poilievre has been outflanked on that front by both Baber and MP Leslyn Lewis, who had raised questions far earlier about vaccination mandates and COVID-19-related shutdowns.
During last week’s leadership debate, Lewis accused Poilievre of only standing with the Ottawa protesters for a photo opportunity, while Baber drew cheers when he claimed everything the Liberal government said about February’s protests and why it needed to invoke the Emergencies Act in response “turned out to be false.”
“This was a truly peaceful movement,” Baber argued.
How and why the act was used is now being scrutinized by a parliamentary committee, which has heard that no police officers actually requested the use of the act to quell the protests in Ottawa.
Former RCMP officer turned convoy spokesman Daniel Bulford was among those who were arrested as police moved to shut down the protests, although he was released without charges.
Bulford once worked in what’s known as “close protection” — the security detail around the prime minister. He quit his job with the Mounties last year because of vaccination mandates before becoming a leading voice in the anti-mandate movement.
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Initially, Bulford acted as a security liaison between protesters and local police in Ottawa. As tensions ratcheted up, he tried to convince police to refuse orders to arrest protesters and also warned against people attempting to infiltrate the convoy movement to make it appear more of a security threat than it was.
Late Monday afternoon, he threw his support behind Baber for the Conservative leadership, citing his opposition to lockdowns, mandates, and the fact that he’s from a Toronto-area riding, which is a political advantage.
“Ultimately, he stood up for us, so I will stand up for him,” Bulford wrote on social media as he urged people to buy a Conservative party membership in support of Baber’s campaign.
Baber welcomed the nod.
“I am honoured to have the support of @BulfordDaniel and many leaders in the Freedom Movement,” he wrote on social media.
Citing chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has been a lighting rod in the past for Conservatives.
In the party’s 2020 leadership race, then-MP Derek Sloan drew harsh criticism when he publicly questioned Tam’s loyalty to Canada — she was born in Hong Kong — and her credibility.
Tam’s five-year term as Canada’s top health official expires this year. There has been no word yet on whether her appointment will be renewed.
Baber is also calling for a judicial inquiry into public health management of the pandemic.
“I’m the only candidate in this Conservative leadership race who is fully committed to reversing the failure of the pandemic response, which has harmed so many Canadians,” he wrote in an email to members on Tuesday.
Baber and Lewis are also now moving onto the next phase of pandemic response, attacking the World Health Organization for work toward a global treaty that would better guide pandemic management.
Both candidates say it would erode Canada’s sovereignty.
The treaty is only in the negotiation phase with no signatures expected before 2024.
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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