TORONTO–An Ontario Tory’s statement that he doesn’t believe in evolution has puzzled and frustrated his fellow Conservatives who admitted Wednesday that stance doesn’t help a party trying to rebuild after four consecutive election defeats.
Progressive Conservative Rick Nicholls surprised the legislature Tuesday when he responded to a Liberal taunt by saying opting out of teaching students evolution “was not a bad idea.”
Nicholls’s heckle during debate on an updated sex-education curriculum was greeted with howls from the Liberal and NDP benches and even raised eyebrows among the Conservatives, but he wasn’t backing down Wednesday.
“For myself, I don’t believe in evolution,” Nicholls told reporters. “But that doesn’t mean I speak for everyone else in my caucus. That’s a personal stance.”
Interim PC leader Jim Wilson insisted Nicholls’s views on evolution were not representative of Ontario Tories, and admitted the outburst “obviously didn’t help” a party in the midst of a leadership race.
“He’s entitled to his opinion, but it’s not shared by the majority of caucus members that I know of,” said Wilson. “It’s the first I’ve ever heard of it actually.”
The Liberals were quick to pounce on Nicholls’s opposition to evolution, using it to deflect from a steady barrage of questions from Tories and New Democrats about allegations of bribery in a recent byelection in Sudbury.
Health Minister Eric Hoskins, responding to an Opposition question about drug funding, used his answer to mock Nicholls for his comments.
“We had one member of the PC party questioning whether we should even be teaching evolution in schools,” said Hoskins. “I can’t even begin to imagine what may be coming next: perhaps we never landed on the moon.”
Nicholls, who represents Chatham-Kent-Essex, insisted he had not received any negative feedback from his caucus colleagues over Tuesday’s outburst about evolution: “No one said anything to me at all.”
But he later issued a release correcting his earlier statement to reporters.
“Steve Clark, house leader for the Official Opposition, spoke to me yesterday on behalf of the PC caucus,” Nicholls said in the statement. “I acknowledge that my comment is not reflective of Ontario PC party policy.”
A stern looking Clark told reporters he had spoken to Nicholls Tuesday.
“What he said yesterday in the house is obviously not party policy,” Clark said. “I met with him and indicated that if I was asked he certainly didn’t profess party policy and he spoke on his own.”
PC leadership hopeful Christine Elliott, the party’s deputy leader and widow of former finance minister Jim Flaherty, put some distance between herself and Nicholls.
“I don’t agree with the views that were expressed with respect to evolution,” Elliott said after question period.
The two other PC leadership candidates, Barrie MP Patrick Brown and London-area MPP Monte McNaughton, did not respond to questions about whether they believe in evolution. Nicholls is co-chair of Brown’s campaign.
Nicholls’s original outburst about not teaching evolution in schools came during a heated exchange between McNaughton and Education Minister Liz Sandals over the new sex-ed curriculum.
McNaughton’s criticism of Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is gay, was branded as “homophobic” by Sandals. McNaughton accused the Liberals of not consulting enough parents on the new curriculum and fumed about being labelled a homophobe by the Liberals.