Veteran lawyer 19894 Erin O’Toole a fresh face for federal Tories
By Lee Berthiaume, Ottawa Citizen December 23, 2014
Erin O’Toole might have played Hamlet in Stratford. He could have died as a tactical officer aboard a military helicopter. He might have made a fortune as a lawyer on Bay Street.
Instead, two years after succeeding Bev Oda as member of Parliament for Durham, the 41-year-old father of two has become a key spokesman for the government on everything from free trade and the Fair Elections Act to the war on ISIL and veterans’ benefits.
His performance on those sensitive files, and his growing profile in the House of Commons and political television panels, has some speaking of him as potential cabinet material if the Tories win the next election. Here’s a look at a rising star:
O’Toole was born in Montreal, where his father, John O’Toole, was a manager at General Motors’s now-defunct Sainte-Therese assembly plant. The family moved to the Bowmanville area outside Toronto a year later when his father was assigned to Oshawa.
Growing up in a household tied to the auto industry, O’Toole has strong opinions about Canada’s traditional reliance on the U.S. for trade. In particular, he feels Ontario had become “almost lazy” on the back of the auto industry.
“Areas like mine, your strategy became just securing that next car off one of the lines at the plant and getting more auto parts suppliers co-located at Oshawa,” he says. “When that started to change, I don’t think the province, or the country in some ways, was ready for it.”
That view has fed directly into O’Toole’s current role as parliamentary secretary to International Trade Minister Ed Fast, where he is often called upon to promote and defend the government’s free-trade agenda.
Two other things stand out about O’Toole’s childhood, both of which have had lasting impacts. The first was the death of his mother to breast cancer when he was nine years old.
“Dealing with that loss early in your life sort of is a bit of a reality check,” he says. “It sort of lets you know early in life how fragile things are and how you have to take advantage of what you’ve been given.”
The second was his loving of acting, which has served him well on the parliamentary stage as well as the theatrical one. O’Toole was in numerous Bowmanville High School productions. But he never got the lead. (Those went to Jonathan Goad, who will play Hamlet in Stratford next year.)
“In Grease, I wasn’t Danny, I was Kenickie and sang Greased Lightning,” he says with a grin. “Coming second to Jonathan Goad, being the number two male lead, I could live with.”
When he was in high school, O’Toole’s father became a part-time municipal councillor.
“He was pretty much a traditional small-c conservative,” O’Toole says. “We were an Irish Catholic family, so traditionally my dad’s family had voted Liberal. He was probably the first big departure from that.”
The lure of the military
The summer before his last year in high school, O’Toole worked as a pipeline inspector for TransCanada. Living in Kingston, he discovered the Royal Military College and enrolled in 1991.
“I just really sort of fell in love with the mystique of pushing myself physically, learning leadership skills,” he says of RMC. “I really thought I needed that discipline to do well in life. My family had no background in military service and my dad thought I was crazy.”
He eventually earned his wings as the tactical co-ordinator aboard Sea King helicopters and was posted to Canadian Forces Base Shearwater in Nova Scotia. The Sea Kings are based on Canadian warships and their primary role is hunting submarines.
O’Toole’s job was to process the vast amount of information collected by the Sea King’s sensors and determine what a sub would do next. It was like a high-stakes game of cat-or-mouse or chess.
“If we just lost a sub,” he says, “it was all on you to use your tactics and use the systems you have to regain contact with that sub, which could sink your ship.”
O’Toole loved the combination of critical thinking and intense pressure that came with the job. But the experience almost ended in tragedy.
In February 1999, he and three colleagues were about 30 kilometres off the coast of Nova Scotia when their Sea King started experiencing problems. For a time it seemed they would have to ditch in the ocean. In the end, the pilots managed to set down – on a Halifax golf course.
The aging helicopters were supposed to have been replaced years earlier, but Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien had cancelled that plan with great fanfare after being elected in 1993. The following years saw several Sea Kings crash, killing their crews.
The lure of politics
O’Toole says Chretien’s decision not to replace the Sea Kings was one in a long string of decisions that demonstrated the Liberal government did not value the military.
“People were not wearing their uniforms,” he says. “Morale was low and there was a lot of uncertainty. There was a sense the Forces (were) in decline.”
O’Toole left the Canadian Forces in 2000 to study law at Dalhousie University. He says law was a natural fit as it combined his love of critical thinking and debating. It also instilled in him the need to be prepared, as he never knew what the other side’s lawyers were going to throw at him.
“One thing I think people know on the Hill is that I come prepared,” he says.
It was in law school that O’Toole first knew he would eventually get into politics; his father had already made the jump from being a part-time municipal councillor to Queen’s Park as the Progressive Conservative MPP for Durham.
But with a young family, O’Toole figured he would follow suit when his children were older. Instead, he focused on his career as a corporate lawyer with some of Canada’s largest firms.
Then came Bev Oda’s sudden resignation in July 2012, spurred by a $16 glass of orange juice and other follies. Conservatives asked him to run and after talking with his wife, Rebecca, O’Toole threw his hat in the ring.
O’Toole easily won the byelection in November 2012, and was named parliamentary secretary for the international trade minister in July 2013.
So far, so good
Over the past few months, he has started to garner attention in political circles, with frequent interventions in the House of Commons and appearances on political talk shows.
“I love people who say I just regurgitate talking points because I actually never look at talking points,” he says with a grin. “I’m pretty confident in trying to explain our rationale on certain things or challenge the opposition, knowing full well not everyone is going to agree.”
O’Toole admits he would love to sit in cabinet. “But my goal was to be a strong MP for my riding,” he says, “then to work on issues that I’m passionate about. I don’t need to be in cabinet for that. I’ll do that if I’m opposition.”
Erin O’Toole: At a glance
- Born in Montreal in 1973; grew up in the Port Perry and Bowmanville areas east of Toronto.
- Attended the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., from 1991 to 1995.
- Served in Trenton, Ont. and Winnipeg before earning his wings as an air navigator and being posted to CFB Shearwater, N.S., in 1997.
- Promoted to captain and transferred to the Canadian Forces reserves before attending law school at Dalhousie University from 2000 to 2003.
- Returned to Ontario in 2003 to practise law. Focus was on litigation, insolvency and energy regulation.
- Elected member of Parliament for Durham in November 2012 byelection.
- Named parliamentary secretary to the international trade minister in July 2013.