Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer sought Thursday to put a pin in the question of whether his party would reopen debates on abortion or same-sex marriage, blaming the Liberals for trying to aggravate ancient divisions to distract from their own failures.
Scheer has long been on the record as opposing both abortion and same-sex marriage personally, and disavowed neither of those positions Thursday despite being asked several times for clarity.
Instead, after a week of silence in the face of repeated calls for him to address a 14-year-old speech he gave in Parliament against same-sex marriage, and confusion in Quebec over whether his MPs could bring forward private members' bills on abortion, he sought to reassure Canadians that if elected prime minister, his own opinions won't get in the way.
"While every individual Canadian has a right to their own personal convictions on any number of issues, I will always ensure I am governing for all Canadians," he said in a press conference at a Toronto airport hotel.
"And on this issue I have been very clear I will not reopen this debate, I will oppose measures or attempts to open this debate."
As a member of Parliament who is also a practising Catholic, Scheer has consistently voted in favour of efforts that were understood to restrict abortion rights, and in 2005 gave a speech against same-sex marriage. Among other things, he said then that while same-sex couples can be in loving relationships for life, they can't marry because they can't "commit to the natural procreation of children."
Conservatives had been expecting his record to be an issue for them during the campaign, but were still caught off-guard last Friday when the Liberals began circulating a video of the speech.
While Scheer's team tried to do damage control by issuing statements on his support for the law allowing same-sex unions, calls had not abated for Scheer to address the issue personally.
On Thursday, he said his speech was part of a now-closed chapter of Canadian history, and he accepts the law as it stands.
"My personal views are that LGBT Canadians have the same inherent self-worth and dignity as every other Canadian and I will always uphold the law and always ensure that they have equal access to the institution of marriage as it exists under the law," he said.
Scheer said the Liberals were sending around the video because they are afraid to run on their own record.
"It's just the Liberals who are pushing this, trying to distract from their record of failure, corruption and scandal, trying to dredge up issues from long ago in attempt to divide Canadians and distract from their own scandal," he said.
The question of Scheer's opposition to abortion, however, did not resurface at the hands of the Liberals. On that, it was Scheer's own Quebec lieutenant sowing confusion, telling Conservative candidates in the province that backbench MPs would not be allowed to propose private member's bills to restrict abortion access.
Richmond-Arthabaska MP Alain Rayes' promise appeared to fly in the face of Conservative policy, which has been understood to allow MPs to bring forward private members' bills on whatever subjects they like.
Scheer insisted Thursday there was no contradiction. He said MPs know they are allowed to hold their own beliefs, but that they must also all work together. While he did not explicitly rule out allowing private members' bills, he suggested they would not be welcome.
"A Conservative government will not reopen this issue, and I as prime minister will oppose measures that reopen this issue."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for Scheer to be far firmer with his MPs. He pointed out that in the Liberal party, MPs are required to be unequivocally in favour of what Trudeau framed as "women's rights."
"Canada includes everyone and leaders need to defend everyone, particularly people who've been marginalized. It's not enough to reluctantly support the law because it's a law, especially when it comes to the rights of women and LGBTQ2 communities," Trudeau said at an event in Surrey, B.C.
"People need to know that their prime minister will defend them, will be there for them, that's what Canadians expect."
Scheer said Trudeau's desire to distance himself from his record was also behind the prime minister's refusal so far to agree to take part in two scheduled federal election debates, and called on him to accept.
Trudeau said he is looking forward to the debates during the election, but declined to commit to either the Munk foreign-policy debate or one being hosted by Maclean's magazine. He has confirmed he will be in two other debates sanctioned by the new federal debate commission and produced by a large consortium of media organizations.