MONTREAL - The final week of the federal election campaign kicked off with a war of words between Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, even as Trudeau insisted he wasn't getting personal.
Both leaders spent considerable time at their campaign stops Monday criticizing the other, but Trudeau suggested his actions couldn't be compared to his rival's.
"I know it’s easy to sort of say, 'Oh, this person's saying negative things, that person’s saying negative things, a pox on all their houses,'" he said in Vancouver.
"But there is a difference between the kinds of personal attacks that Mr. O'Toole has been engaged in since he became leader and that we’re seeing right now, and the clear differences of perspective and policy that I’ve been highlighting from the very beginning."
Earlier, O'Toole said Trudeau has veered into "personal attacks and American-style misleading politics," adding that the Liberal leader was only serving his own political interests by calling the Sept. 20 election.
"When Mr. Trudeau was partying — and we’ve all seen the photos — I was doing search-and-rescue missions in the military," O'Toole said in Ottawa.
"Every Canadian has met a Justin Trudeau in their lives — privileged, entitled and always looking out for No. 1."
Polls suggest a tight race between the Liberals and Conservatives to form the next government, informing the parties' strategies for the last week of the campaign.
Monday's events came a day after Trudeau raised the tone against O'Toole at a rally at a drive-in movie theatre in Oakville, Ont., west of Toronto.
At one point, Trudeau told a cheering crowd of supporters that O'Toole's refusal to mandate vaccination for his candidates and for air and rail travellers was a policy that appeals to "the far right anti-vax wing of his own party," and the "mobs of anti-vaxxers who are harassing doctors and nurses, waiters and business owners."
But Trudeau insisted Monday that was not impugning O'Toole's character, even as he said the Conservative leader has "proxies" in the anti-vaxxer movement, the gun lobby and anti-abortion groups.
When asked for evidence that O'Toole has anti-vaccine proxies, Trudeau provided nothing concrete.
He said volunteers for a local Conservative campaign were among a crowd in one of the early protests, though he acknowledged the Conservatives repudiated them and kicked them off their campaign after their involvement came to light.
But, Trudeau said, one has to ask why O'Toole won't mandate vaccines for his candidates when a majority of Canadians are supportive of vaccines and when the Tory leader requires reporters and staff travelling with him on the campaign to be vaccinated.
"You have to know there is an awful lot of pressure from inside his party to do that, to leave room for that," he said.
Finally, Trudeau pointed to O'Toole saying the Conservatives are a "big tent" party when the Tory leader was questioned about People's Party of Canada sympathizers, some of whom have been at Trudeau protests carrying PPC signs.
"(That means) there is room in his Conservative party for anti-vaxxers, for gun lobbyists, for anti-choice activists," Trudeau said. "That’s the big tent that he is casting, to include people who find themselves outside the fringes of the mainstream."
Later Monday, Trudeau was confronted by a protester who screamed obscenities at him as he stepped off a bus ahead of an interview with Global News anchor Neetu Garcha.
The man called Trudeau a communist and screamed a misogynist comment referencing the Liberal leader's wife as a second man blasted the Twisted Sister song "We're Not Gonna Take It" from a stereo and loudspeaker pulled on a cart.
"Isn’t there a hospital you should be going to bother right now?" Trudeau retorted to the heckler, in reference to protests against pandemic measures that were taking place outside some hospitals.
Earlier, Trudeau had denounced the demonstrations and announced that his government would make it a criminal offence to block hospitals or harass health-care workers.
Ultimately, Trudeau's interview with Global was relocated from a set outside the studio to the lobby inside.
During a question and answer session with undecided voters broadcast later Monday on CBC, Trudeau admitted he has "less and less patience" for the anti-vaccination protesters.
He drew a distinction between people who are hesitant to get vaccinated and who could still be persuaded to do so and those who "are coming out to scream profanities at health care workers" and who will never be convinced.
"Some people you need to protect other Canadians from and that's what I am unequivocal about doing," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2021.