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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer refused Thursday to address controversial comments by a member of his caucus who is also seeking to replace him as leader.

Derek Sloan, an MP from rural Ontario and one of four candidates in the leadership race, sent an email to supporters about chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam, asking "does she work for Canada or China" in guiding this country's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

His allegations are connected to Tam's work with the World Health Organization, which has come under suspicion for basing its guidance on how to respond to COVID-19 on reportedly false information from China about the emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus there.

"Dr. Tam must go!" he wrote. "Canada must remain sovereign over decisions. The UN, the WHO, and Chinese Communist propaganda can never again have a say over Canada's public health!"

Tam was born in Hong Kong, and Sloan's challenge of her was labelled as racist by Liberal members of Parliament and one of Sloan's caucus colleagues, Conservative Michelle Rempel Garner.

"I can't believe I have to say this (and profuse apologies to her to have to be part of a public object lesson to an MP), but Dr. Tam is of Asian heritage. So when you say, 'does she work for China or for Canada' many people will think you're suggesting she has dual loyalties," Rempel Garner wrote on Twitter.

"The dual loyalty canard has long been an anti-Semitic trope, or used to perpetuate racist stereotypes."

She said if Sloan wanted to level criticism, he shouldn't have made it personal, accusing him of doing so on purpose or not thinking it through clearly.

In an email to The Canadian Press, Sloan said his remarks were about Tam's decisions, not her personally.

Scheer refuses to acknowledge MP's controversial criticism of health officer

"I don't know Dr Tam. I have never met her. I have not personally attacked her. She is, though, a public figure of a very high rank and profile. Dr Tam is not immune from criticism," he said.

While there were calls for Scheer to denounce Sloan's earlier remarks, in a tense back-and-forth with reporters Thursday the outgoing party leader refused to discuss them at all.

Scheer is to step down once his replacement is chosen, a process currently on hold due to the widespread shutdown of Canada to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"As a rule I don't comment on leadership candidates or on policy announcements or positions that leadership candidates have taken," he said, a message he repeated several times.

"I'll leave it to each leadership candidate to speak for themselves and explain their views and ultimately it will be up to members to select the next leader of the party."

Tam said she's working over 20 hours a day with the goal of protecting the health of Canadians.

"My singular focus is to work with all of my colleagues to get this epidemic wave under control," she said.

"I don't let noise detract me from doing that."

Sloan's hard stance on China is one that's been echoed across the conservative world, including by his fellow competitors in the leadership race.

He's added his name to a letter signed by two other leadership candidates, Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay, as well as over 100 political analysts and figures globally, alleging a widespread coverup by China of the scope of the problem caused by the coronavirus.

The fourth candidate, Leslyn Lewis, has also been critical of China, saying the country can't be trusted as a source for Canadian supplies.

In an email, she suggested criticism of Sloan was going too far.

"In a free and democratic society like Canada, we should be able to question the WHO, the government, and even government officials without being accused of racism," said Lewis, who is of Jamaican descent.

Scheer has previously refused to express his own confidence in Tam. He said again Thursday there are questions about why the government acted on some pieces of advice, and not others, and his job is to press the government on those matters.

"Why were they so reliant on information that was coming out of the WHO instead of listening to domestic Canadian voices who were advising this government to take this threat much more seriously much earlier on?" he asked.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2020.

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Tough position. You agree with the guy. But if you say so, you come off as something that is not marketable in Canada.