Conservative leadership candidate Peter MacKay is being accused of deploying “dog whistle” political messaging after he disparaged legislation to protect transgender rights as the “bathroom bill” in a bid to attack his chief opponent.

In a letter sent to Conservative Party members Thursday night, MacKay cites the candidates’ latest fundraising totals and suggests rival Erin O’Toole has been spinning his numbers.

In the letter, he takes a shot at O’Toole for his past support for a transgender rights bill.

“While I haven’t always agreed with him, like when he voted in favour of the Transgender Rights ‘bathroom’ Bill in 2012, I’ve always respected that his motivations were positive,” he wrote. “But I’m not so sure anymore.”

Items of legislation to protect transgender Canadians in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code have been debated in Parliament for many years. An NDP private member’s bill, first tabled in 2011, made headway in Parliament but died on the order paper when the 2015 election was called.

The bill passed as government legislation in the House of Commons in November 2016 and received royal assent in June 2017. The new law made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression, extended hate speech laws to include the two terms, and made it a hate crime to target someone for being transgender.

Critics of the bill claimed it would allow men to creep into women’s change rooms and bathrooms across the country; some dubbed it the “bathroom bill,” a label considered derogatory by many in the LGBT community.

MacKay’s spokesperson Jordan Paquet said that, like many Canadians, MacKay’s views have evolved since 2009, when the issue first came up in Parliament. If MacKay had been a member of the last Parliament, he said, he would have voted in favour of the transgender rights legislation, along with many other Conservatives.

“The term ‘bathroom bill’ was a term that had been widely used by media both in Canada and the U.S., recognizing a concern that many had expressed in the debate,” he said in a statement.

Watch: Kory Teneycke and Jamie Watt weigh in on Conservative Leadership Candidate Peter MacKay’s latest social media misstep:

“Mr. MacKay has consulted members of the LGBTQ community, including members of his team, and understands the term is narrow and carries a negative connotation. It was used in an email to members late last evening in haste as a point of reference and won’t be used again.” 

Jamie Ellerton, who served as Andrew Scheer’s chief media director on the leader’s tour in fall campaign, said he believes the choice of language in the letter was a deliberate play for the party’s social conservative base.

He slammed MacKay’s letter on Twitter, saying that “bragging about opposing basic dignity and respect for trans people in an email to Conservative Party members isn’t leadership.

“It’s desperate and pathetic.”

Hey <a href=”https://twitter.com/PeterMacKay?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@PeterMacKay</a>, bragging about opposing basic dignity and respect for trans people in an email to <a href=”https://twitter.com/CPC_HQ?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@CPC_HQ</a> members isn’t leadership. It’s desperate and pathetic. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Cdnpoli?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Cdnpoli</a>

Ellerton suggested MacKay was dredging up controversial legislation from the past to use it as a “badge of honour” to prove his Conservative credentials.

“For him to now strategically be using anti-trans, dog-whistle terminology to try and drum up support and use it as a wedge issue is quite frankly offensive,” he told CBC.

Ellerton said the incident is an example of the two front-runners attempting to outdo each other in demonstrating they’re the most conservative.

O’Toole, a former military member, said he wore a uniform to defend the rights of all Canadians and would take the same approach if he’s chosen to lead the party.

“I am proud of my voting record. It demonstrates my principled Conservative position of defending the rights of all Canadians, including LGBTQ rights,” he said in a statement to CBC.

“I am also a champion for the right of all MPs to have open votes on matters of conscience, because religious freedoms and freedom of speech are also rights we must defend. I believe strongly that we must be respectful of the diversity of views within our party and our country.

“Canadians expect party leaders to be clear about where they stand on issues important to them, including social issues. There is no attack the Liberals love using more than the threat of a Conservative ‘hidden agenda.’ I have been clear on where I stand: all Canadians have a place in the Conservative Party.”

MacKay’s leadership campaign website includes a section under the title “Equality Matters.”

“We live in a world where sexual orientation and gender identity are still used by tyrants and bigots to belittle and oppress. In Canada, we are lucky to have a society that has grown more tolerant, more accepting and more understanding, but there is still more work to be done,” it reads.

“As leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Peter MacKay will march in Toronto’s Pride Parade.”

NDP MP Randall Garrison, a longtime champion for transgender rights who tabled the private member’s bill in 2011, said it’s “disappointing” that a politician who aspires to lead all Canadians would re-state his opposition to equal rights for transgender Canadians.

“Mr. MacKay’s use of a derogatory stereotype in his leadership campaign letter raises real concerns about whether he understands how the law in Canada has changed during his absence from Parliament and whether he could be counted on to uphold the law when it comes to the prohibition on discrimination and hate crimes against transgender Canadians,” he said.

During last fall’s election campaign, Scheer was dogged with questions about his support for abortion rights and LGBT and same-sex marriage rights, and whether Conservatives would repeal those rights if elected.

After the Conservatives lost the election, MacKay suggested the party missed scoring “on an open net,” given the Liberal Party’s perceived vulnerabilities due to pipeline politics and Justin Trudeau’s blackface controversy.

During an Oct. 30, 2019 event at The Canada Institute in Washington, MacKay said Canadians didn’t want the campaign debate to focus on women’s reproductive rights and old political battles about LGBTQ rights, but those issues featured prominently throughout the campaign.

“That was thrust on the agenda and [it] hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like a stinking albatross, quite frankly. And he wasn’t able to deftly deal with those issues when the opportunities arose,” he said.

Watch: The National‘s At Issue panel looks at the Conservative leadership race (at the 9:35 mark)

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