If there’s one thing Erin O’Toole really wants voters to know about him, it’s that he served in the Canadian Armed Forces.
It’s an inescapable part of the Conservative leader’s political narrative.
We see it in the Royal Canadian Air Force sweater he frequently wears. We see it on the “Meet Erin” website. And we see it in the redesigned Conservative party logo, which was clearly inspired by the RCAF roundel.
Yet despite being so integral to O’Toole’s pitch to Canadians, his military service has not drawn the same level of scrutiny as the professional credentials, academic history and citizenship of his predecessor, Andrew Scheer.
This lack of due diligence is probably attributable to journalists — and O’Toole’s political opponents — being profoundly ignorant when it comes to the country’s armed forces.
They simply don’t know what questions to ask in order to dig deeper into O’Toole’s CAF career. And they likely don’t want to offend the “Thank you for your service” crowd, either.
But even knowing the right questions to ask isn’t enough, as I found out a couple of months ago.
It seems the Conservatives don’t want to discuss O’Toole’s military career beyond the well-worn narrative that it was a patriotic endeavour motivated by a deeply rooted devotion to service.
At least that’s how it seemed when I wrote O’Toole’s office in March with 12 specific questions about his time in the CAF.
Chelsea Tucker, the Conservative leader’s director of communications, responded simply: “Much of the information around his background can be found online here: https://meet.erinotoole.ca/ and https://www.conservative.ca/team-member/erin-otoole/.”
Neither of these sites answered the questions I had asked. But online searches yielded enough information to reveal an O’Toole who, at several critical points in his military career, appears to have done only the bare minimum required of him.
It’s as if the self-described “True Blue” Conservative was ticking boxes en route to a successful political career, like the one his father was embarking on around the time the younger O’Toole enrolled in Royal Military College.
For those not familiar with RMC, it’s a military university that “educates, develops, and inspires bilingual, fit, and ethical leaders who serve the Canadian Armed Forces and Canada.”
Those who attend RMC are enrolled in the CAF at the rank of officer cadet.
They are paid more than $27,000 in annual salary and get free tuition, books, supplies, and second-language training.
In return, officer cadets agree to cover their room and board at RMC’s sprawling Kingston, Ont. campus, and commit to an obligatory amount of regular force service upon graduation.
O’Toole spent four years — a third of his military career — at RMC.
And while the school’s schedule is both physically and mentally demanding, there was clearly time for extra-curricular pursuits during the future Conservative leader’s “subsidized studies.” According to his LinkedIn page, he hosted a campus radio show called “The Pillbox,” named after the distinctive headdress worn by the school’s officer cadets. He also played several sports, participated in a model United Nations, and sat on the graduation committee.
“After graduating in 1995, with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science, he became a commissioned officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force,” the Canadian Encyclopedia says. “He served in Trenton and earned his wings at Winnipeg. He was then posted to 12 Wing in Shearwater, Nova Scotia. Serving with 423 Squadron, O’Toole was a tactical navigator aboard CH-124 Sea King helicopters… He flew search and rescue missions and supported the Royal Canadian Navy with maritime surveillance and anti-submarine work aboard the frigate HMCS St. John’s.”
“In 2000, having risen to the rank of captain, O’Toole transferred to the Reserve Force for three years. While serving as a training officer with 406 Squadron, he earned a law degree at Dalhousie University.”
Based on these timelines, O’Toole left the regular force five years after RMC, which is the minimum obligatory service for graduates.
He could have left the military altogether at that point and focused exclusively on his legal studies. However, in addition to helping him pay the bills, O’Toole’s reserve service qualified him for the Canadian Forces’ Decoration, a long-service medal that comes with the post-nominals “C.D.”
O’Toole was released in September 2003, shortly after reaching the 12 years’ minimum service required to get his one and only military medal.
It was a busy time for the CAF, which had become increasingly embroiled in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan.
“When you leave and your comrades are still in, there’s a sense of guilt, and you think, how can I help?” O’Toole said in a 2015 interview with Legion Magazine. “At first, I got involved with the Royal Military Colleges Club of Canada and its foundation. Then I joined Legion Branch 178 in Bowmanville, Ont.”
Whatever one makes of O’Toole’s military service, there is no evidence he was anything but a competent and hard-working officer.
And, unlike Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, O’Toole has never been accused of stolen valour.
Still, there’s no denying the Conservative leader did the bare minimum to meet his full-time service obligations, the bare minimum to obtain his Canadian Forces’ Decoration, and even less than the bare minimum (release from the CAF) during the country’s first full-scale war in 50 years.
It leads one to wonder if O’Toole might have gotten more out of the military than it got out of him.
(NOTE: Scott Costen is a Canadian Armed Forces veteran. He did not attend Royal Military College.)