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SUMMERSIDE — Andrew Scheer hopes to have a fresh start with the voters of P.E.I.
The federal Conservative leader capped off what will likely be a positive week for his off-season campaign to become the next prime minister of Canada. The release of the federal Ethics Commissioner’s report, which found that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contravened the Conflict of Interest Act in his dealings with his own attorney general in relation to the SNC-Lavalin affair, may result in a halt in the slow climb the Liberal party has seen recently in the polls.
But Scheer also understands that Atlantic Canadian voters sent a clear message to his party in the 2015 election. Conservatives were completely shut out in the region. Voters were unhappy with former prime minister Stephen Harper. Many still recall Harper’s famous remarks in 2002 about a “culture of defeat” in Atlantic Canada.
"I have the opportunity to have fresh start with Atlantic Canadians this election. So, to kind of write my own chapter with my own message to the people of this region," Scheer told The Guardian.
Scheer admitted his caucus in Ottawa lacks MPs from the region. But he said regional concerns are still brought to the attention of his caucus.
"We do have strong representation in the Senate from senators from Atlantic Canada who are always speaking up in caucus about the regional nature of various programs," Scheer said.
A key issue in P.E.I. leading into this election campaign is the bifurcation of the Island into two employment insurance zones. The measure was brought in by the Harper Tories, but has continued under the Liberals, despite a promise by all four P.E.I. MPs to change the system. Many seasonal workers have expressed frustration over the system, which has more stringent qualifications for Charlottetown residents.
Scheer did not specify whether he would stick to the dual EI zone in P.E.I. He did, however, chastise local MPs for their pledges.
"Liberal MPs from this area made a lot of statements about changing EI,” he said. “We’ve seen them completely abandon their campaign promises from 2015.”
Scheer was equally critical of the Liberals on the issue of protecting dairy producers. He panned a $1.75 billion compensation plan, announced on Friday by the federal government. The plan could see the average dairy producer receive $28,000 in its first year.
But Scheer said the package had come too late and would not make up for the loss of market access for dairy farmers.
“There are real anxieties about NAFTA and what the impacts that will be,” Scheer said of the package.
"On the eve of an election, after another round of scandals and corruption in the news, I think producers are going to see that it's not a sincere gesture."
On subject of climate change, Scheer said his recently released plan to deal with the issue would offer a better method of reaching the Paris Climate Agreement targets. The plan would require heavy polluters to invest in green technology if they emit 40 kilotonnes or more. But the plan does not specify how much carbon emissions would be reduced by this initiative.
Scheer compared his plan with the 2015 campaign platform produced by the then-opposition Liberals.
"The Liberals had four years in opposition when they were developing their climate change plan for the last election. They had a couple paragraphs, basically focused on a carbon tax," Scheer said.
Despite a recent commitment by the P.E.I. government to adopt more stringent carbon emissions goals than the Paris targets, Scheer said his plan was focused on meeting the targets set out in the Paris Agreement.
Liberal MPs, including Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have attempted to draw attention to Scheer’s alignment with groups that have expressed anti-immigrant or racist views. Scheer has drawn criticism for the role that his campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, played in founding the alt-right media site The Rebel. The site has been a haven for a who’s-who of Canadian alt-right figures, including Faith Goldy, Gavin McInnes and Lauren Southern.
Marshall resigned from the board of the rebel shortly after a Rebel reporter, who espoused sympathy towards with supremacists while covering the 2017 Charlottesville rally, appeared on a white supremacist podcast.
But Scheer dismissed the suggestion that Marshall had connections to alt-right organizations as “outrageous allegations."
"Both Hamish and myself, we have stopped having interactions with the Rebel. I have made the commitment not to go on any of their shows or platforms,” Scheer said. "It's a big difference between Hamish's involvement before doing technical or side work with no control or influence on editorial direction.
"The Liberals will try to smear anybody who disagrees with them.”
Scheer may still win a breakthrough in P.E.I. Recent local polling has him neck-and-neck with Justin Trudeau on P.E.I. in terms of the most preferred leader.
Egmont Conservative candidate Logan McLellan says his campaign is attracting new volunteers, including younger, newer members to the Conservative party.
But McLellan says he is focusing more on local issues than scandals in Ottawa.
“A lot of the time on the door, it’s the local issues,” McLellan said.