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O'Toole promises change after internal report into Conservative's election loss

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OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says changes will be made to his team and to the party after an internal review revealed what went wrong in the recent election and took aim at issues from the party's past found to be holding it back. 

The review by former Alberta MP James Cumming was presented Thursday to Conservative MPs on the final day of the party's two-day caucus retreat, which was held ahead of Parliament's return Monday.

Caucus was briefed on the findings that were compiled using the feedback Cumming received from some 400 people, including campaign staff, candidates, MPs and senators. 

The review landed at a time when O'Toole faces division among his MPs and grassroots members. Some of his critics are pushing for his leadership to be put to an early confidence test by mid-June instead of waiting until a scheduled vote at a national convention in 2023. At least three of the party's riding associations have requested an earlier vote. 

After two days spent facing his MPs, O'Toole heaped the election campaign's failings onto his own shoulders.  

"I'm responsible for the loss," O'Toole told reporters at a press conference late Thursday. 

When it came to his performance on the hustings, O'Toole said the review confirmed he spent too much time in a broadcast studio the party built at a hotel in downtown Ottawa that served as a set for campaigning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so meant he became disconnected from Canadians, he said. 

As well, O'Toole said he was overly scripted in his public messaging in the final stretch of the campaign and failed to address certain issues Canadians had hoped to hear about.

"We didn't showcase some of the great policies we had for Western Canada," O'Toole said. "All of these decisions are my responsibility." 

Many of the Conservatives' MPs hail from the party's heartland in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where some of them lost votes in last September's election. That set off concerns that O'Toole's failed attempt to gain support in Ontario and Quebec by taking a more moderate stance on a host of issues ended up costing the party some of its traditional support.

Three Conservative sources who were briefed on the report shared more of its findings and recommendations. They spokeon the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The Canadian Press has not viewed the report. 

One of the recommendations, the sources said, is for the party to find ways to recruit a more diverse slate of candidates for the next election.  

The review also pinpointed how the party needs to improve its outreach to different cultural communities where the Conservative brand has not recovered from damage inflicted during the 2015 campaign.

The sources said the review found that in major cities — where Conservative support must grow if it hopes to form government —  the party is still dealing with fallout from former prime minister Stephen Harper's promise to set up a tip line to report "barbaric cultural practices."  

Sources say the review recommends the party should improve its outreach by improving its communications. One example provided was the need for Conservatives to have a presence on the messaging app WeChat, which is used by some Chinese Canadians.

In the last election, the Conservatives lost three ridings in Metro Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area that are home to many residents of Chinese descent. That left some in the party wondering about the domestic impact of O'Toole's tough criticism of Beijing's actions. 

Among other things, O'Toolehas faced criticism from some fellow Conservatives for shifting his position on issues such as gun control, conscience rights, the carbon tax and defunding the CBC. 

One source said the election review identified better planning was needed to prepare for attacks on issues that have been used as wedges against Conservatives, such as firearms.  

In the last race, O'Toole inked a footnote into his platform to clarify he would maintain the Liberal government's ban on so-called assault-style weapons, despite the campaign document promising the opposite. 

He was also dogged with questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly his position on vaccine mandates and the immunization status of his candidates.  

According to the sources, the review concluded that Canadians generally lack trust in the party because of its well-reported infighting and the fact that it has gone through two leadership races in the past five years, which has also made it difficult to tackle issues around outreach. 

In 2017, Andrew Scheer was elected Conservative leader following the 2015 defea. He led the party in the 2019 election and resigned shortly afterwards amid an intense pressure campaign for him to step aside. O'Toole took over the party reins in 2020. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press