CHARLOTTETOWN - Controversial comments and social media activity from some P.E.I. Progressive Conservative candidates, including leader Dennis King, caught up with the Tories on the election trail this week, turning up the heat in what has been an otherwise quiet campaign.
King, who is vying for a second term as premier, issued an apology Monday for recent comments he made about the transgender community to a constituent while knocking on doors.
A 32-second recording of the conversation was released on social media late last week in which King was asked by an unidentified man about the “trans situation” in P.E.I., to which King replied, “You don't gotta drive everything down everybody's throat,” echoing an earlier comment from the constituent.
King initially defended his comments, saying he did not believe he sounded sympathetic to the man’s concerns, which he said were about a drag queen storytime event scheduled to take place in Georgetown, P.E.I., last month. The event was postponed after the venue and performer received online threats.
Later Monday, King issued an apology, saying he should have done more to be an ally to the transgender community when faced with negative comments.
“I should have more forcefully stood up for the transgender community and I apologize unreservedly to those who are rightly offended by my lack of action,” King said.
“I had an opportunity in that moment to be a stronger ally for rights of transgender people and I fell short of the expectations of both myself and Islanders. I can and will do better."
King has also been fielding concerns about social media activities of one of his candidates, Donalda Docherty, who shared with her Twitter followers tweets written by high-profile anti-vaxxers promoting discredited conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccines.
One such message was written by former Olympian Jamie Salé and compared those who resisted COVID-19 vaccines to the victims of the Holocaust. Another, written by former NHL star Theo Fleury, claimed the pandemic was a deliberate plan to depopulate the world and form one world government.
Docherty, a newcomer to politics, is running in the hotly contested New Haven-Rocky Point riding against Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker and Liberal Leader Sharon Cameron. Bevan-Baker handily won the district in 2019 with over 53 per cent of the vote.
In a statement to The Canadian Press, Docherty said the posts she shared are "not consistent" with her views, adding that it is "well known on social media that retweets and shares do not equal endorsements."
“As an employee of the public schools branch who drives a bus to ensure kids get to and from school safely, I know the effect that the pandemic has had on families and children and how we all had to work together to get through it,” Docherty said in her statement.
“I am fully vaccinated myself and appreciate the work done by government to ensure vaccines and testing were accessible to all Islanders.”
King stressed he does not endorse the views or claims in the posts Docherty shared. After speaking with the candidate, he said he believes they are also not views she shares fundamentally, and he has made no move to remove her as a candidate.
“I think anyone who’s running for us needs to understand what my beliefs are and what the fundamental beliefs of Islanders are, and that’s what I expect her to hold herself to,” King told reporters Monday.
On Tuesday, King spent time helping Docherty campaign door-to-door in her district ahead of the April 3 vote.
Both the Greens and Liberals have jumped on these campaign controversies, accusing the PCs of having one set of views in private while denouncing those same views when challenged on them in public.
“Islanders deserve to know which Dennis they may be voting for — the 'official Dennis' or the 'off-the-record Dennis,' whose comments are very concerning,” Cameron said of King’s transgender remarks. The same concerns exist regarding his support of Docherty’s social media activity, she added.
Bevan-Baker also denounced King’s comments about the transgender community and said it is “incredibly disappointing” he is endorsing a candidate who used her social media to share “opinions that diminish the Holocaust by equating it to providing a vaccine for COVID.”
“Leaders have a responsibility to call out hate and harmful speech, even when they find it personally hard or uncomfortable to do so,” Bevan-Baker said.
Pride P.E.I. responded Monday by suspending the entry of all provincial political parties in the annual summer Pride parade until more tangible commitments are made and enacted on LGBTQ issues.
Meanwhile, the Liberals have faced their own campaign hiccups in recent weeks.
The party was forced to drop one of its candidates shortly after her nomination in late February after questions about her Indigenous heritage were raised. That candidate, Jessica Simmonds, is now running as an Independent in another riding.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Liberal candidate Jessica Simmonds was running as an Independent in the same riding after being dropped by the Liberals.