OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole, a relatively new member of Parliament, took over the politically sensitive Veterans Affairs portfolio Monday from the embattled Julian Fantino. Here’s a list of five things to know about the new minister:
He knows how to follow controversy. O’Toole was elected in the Ontario riding of Durham in a 2012 byelection following the resignation of Tory MP Bev Oda, whose own tenure in cabinet was marred by expense claims and her controversial handling of international aid spending.
Coincidentally, it was Fantino who replaced Oda at the top of the international development portfolio.
Despite the scandal surrounding Oda, O’Toole handily won the riding, securing just over 50 per cent of the vote, far more than the second-place NDP candidate who earned 26 per cent of the ballots cast.
O’Toole’s father John is also a politician — he represented the riding of Durham in the Ontario provincial legislature as a Progressive Conservative from 1995 until last year, when he made an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Clarington.
He has a strong military pedigree. O’Toole is one of only a handful of sitting members of Parliament who have served in the Canadian Armed Forces.
O’Toole joined the military in 1991 and was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1997, he was posted with 12 Wing in Shearwater, N.S., and flew as a tactical navigator on a Sea King helicopter with 423 Squadron, doing maritime surveillance, search and rescue and naval support operations.
He finished his service in the regular forces in 2000 and joined the reserve, going on to attend law school at Dalhousie University.
He used to be a high-powered lawyer. After law school, O’Toole was called to the bar in Ontario where he first worked for the firm Stikeman Elliott on litigation and energy regulation.
From there, he became in-house counsel with consumer products giant Procter and Gamble before moving on to join Heenan Blaikie, the now-defunct law firm once home to two former Canadian prime ministers — Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau.
O’Toole also helped start the True Patriot Love Foundation, which raises money in support of veterans’ programming.
He put his Bay Street experience to work. O’Toole was promoted off the backbenches less than a year after he was elected.
He was given the job of parliamentary secretary to the minister of international trade, a high-profile position that came as the government navigated the tricky final days of negotiations on several major trade agreements.
O’Toole’s skills as a communicator saw him regularly tapped to be the voice of the government on other issues, including as one of the few Tory MPs sent to represent Conservative interests on political talk shows.
He has a lot of clout with veterans. O’Toole regularly references his military service in speeches in the House of Commons. He’s also continued to raise awareness about veterans’ issues on the Hill in other ways.
Last spring, he organized an event on Parliament Hill with Romeo Dallaire, a retired senator and general, to focus on the mental health of veterans.
The event, the Sam Sharpe Memorial Breakfast, was named in honour of a First World War veteran who, before joining the military, served as the MP for the area O’Toole now represents. Sharpe killed himself after returning from the war.
O’Toole has often urged his fellow MPs to stop making veterans’ issues a political football:
“As a member of Parliament who has served, I am sad whenever I see veterans who feel their government or indeed their member of Parliament from any side of this place is not here for their best interest. I know I speak for myself and some veterans who are on this side, but I also speak to my friends on the other side,” he said in a speech last year.
“….I am disappointed, though, because Ottawa has become a place where we cannot actually have a serious debate about an important public policy area like this.”