Watching Erin O’Toole obfuscate with reporters Monday — on whether he supports a truck convoy protesting vaccination rules — laid bare the Conservative leader’s principal challenge. He desperately wants to avoid his predecessor’s mistakes but in doing so keeps making his own errors.

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole speaks during a news conference on Jan. 24, 2022 in Ottawa. As O’Toole prepares to meet his caucus for the first time this year, perhaps, he should ask himself why he wants to remain party leader, Althia Raj writes.

ADRIAN WYLD - THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole speaks during a news conference on Jan. 24, 2022 in Ottawa. As O’Toole prepares to meet his caucus for the first time this year, perhaps, he should ask himself why he wants to remain party leader, Althia Raj writes.

Watching Erin O’Toole obfuscate with reporters Monday — on whether he supports a truck convoy protesting vaccination rules — laid bare the Conservative leader’s principal challenge. He desperately wants to avoid his predecessor’s mistakes but in doing so keeps making his own errors.

O’Toole was asked eight times, whether he stands with the so-called “freedom convoy,” the truckers making their way to Parliament to protest the mandatory vaccination of those crossing the border. (Since Jan. 15, unvaccinated Canadian drivers require pre-arrival COVID-19 testing and must quarantine upon their return. New American rules prevent them from re-entering the U.S.) Four times, O’Toole was asked if he would meet with them. He never gave a clear answer.

His response? Everyone — including truckers — should get vaccinated (but not via a mandate) and a “solution for our supply chain crisis” should be found. His proposal is a $333 to $666 break on Canada Pension Plan payments to make trips to the grocery store less painful.

When it was clear that questions would not end until they were at least somewhat addressed, O’Toole said he didn’t think it was the leader of the official opposition’s role to meet with protestors.

It’s an odd response. If Ukrainian Canadians took to Parliament Hill in large numbers to call for the defence of their homeland in the face of Russian aggression, I’d be surprised to see O’Toole avoid the rally. MPs and party leaders often join protests. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a knee during an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd. Some Conservative MPs are regulars at the anti-abortion March for Life protest also on Parliament Hill.

But then, of course, I remembered former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s unfortunate appearance at the “United We Roll” rally, a similar convoy in 2019 that made its way to Ottawa, this one with oil and gas workers. It was billed as a pro-pipeline rally, but the group’s roots in the yellow-vest movement were apparent on the hill, where anti-immigration rhetoric was visible and Faith Goldy, a social media personality with white nationalist ties, addressed the crowd. Scheer’s office tried to defend his presence. Surely, O’Toole’s camp wanted to avoid that scenario. The new Tory leader has sought to paint a different picture of his party to mainstream Canadians and the possibility that the angry truckers may gather in ways similar to the last convoy must not be lost on him.

If he avoids the group, O’Toole may be admitting he thinks the anti-vaxxers are just as Trudeau has labelled them, “often misogynist, often racists as well.” That’s the characterization the prime minister gave the group on French television show La semaine des 4 Julie a few months ago. In discussing efforts to convince those still hesitant to be vaccinated, Trudeau said there is also a small group that will never be convinced, who “don’t believe in science.” Some have latched on to that statement to suggest, incorrectly, that Trudeau labelled all the unvaccinated racists and misogynists.

(The truth is something else O’Toole has difficulty with these days. He has not taken responsibility for purposefully twisting Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s comments to suggest the Liberals want to phase out the Canadian energy sector in 18 months, and Monday, during his press conference, he said the Liberals had “floated” a policy change on the trucking mandate. In fact, as I and The Canadian Press have reported, no policy change was floated; rather, the apparent flip-flop was simply a bureaucratic error.)

O’Toole’s most pressing problem is his lack of clarity. When he stakes out positions, it’s not clear he’ll keep them (see: the type of Conservative he is, his defence of conscience rights, or MPs’ rights, or gun rights, or scrapping the CBC’s television service, or the carbon tax).

It’s not hard to communicate. But it is if you have no clarity on your position. O’Toole could have said he understands the truckers’ disappointment but doesn’t support their methods, of blocking roads and busy borders. He could have said he has no plans to meet with the group but would have liked the Liberals to negotiate with the U.S. a waiver for unvaccinated Canadian drivers. Or he could have said he agrees with his Alberta MP Garnett Genuis who tweeted that he stands with the truckers and called on Trudeau to end his “nonsensical vaccine vendetta.”

Being a leader is about taking positions and defending them. As O’Toole prepares to meet his caucus for the first time this year, perhaps he should ask himself why he wants to remain party leader, if he can’t bring himself to lead.

Althia Raj is an Ottawa-based national politics columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @althiaraj