Profile of a decades-long bellwether seat: Peterborough-Kawartha
OTTAWA – Situated between Ottawa and Toronto is one of this country’s most interesting ridings from an electoral perspective: Peterborough-Kawartha. It has a nearly 40-year record as a bellwether riding, meaning the party with the winning candidate locally has been the party that forms government by the end of election night.
CTV News visited the riding on Wednesday to get a sense of how the race is shaping up. With a third of federal seats coming from Ontario, knowing how voters are feeling here is key for any party hoping for a victory on Oct. 21.
So far, it’s looking close but it’s also certainly too soon to tell. As they say, campaigns matter and this riding is no exception. Though, as has been the case historically, the electorate is likely to vote Liberal or Conservative.
The riding is an urban-rural mix; home to 118,176 people, according to the 2016 census. It includes the city of Peterborough, the Curve Lake First Nation Reserve, and farms, cottages, and small communities on the outskirts of the city.
Peterborough is in many ways a microcosm of Canada. It is home to thousands of post-secondary students and a large senior population. It is demographically blue-collar, with a median total household income of $62,181. It is predominantly English-speaking, with a gradual diversification happening, in part because it is becoming another bedroom community for Toronto, despite it being a two-hour drive.
The incumbent in this riding is Liberal Maryam Monsef. She’s facing off against the same Conservative candidate she defeated in 2015: Michael Skinner. She bested him, winning 43 per cent of the vote to his 35 per cent, but bolstered by more preparation time and already a visit from Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer this summer, Skinner likes his odds this time around.
“I think it’s a very tight race, basically myself and the Liberal candidate I think are pretty neck-and-neck,” said Skinner, a Peterborough-born entrepreneur who is well-known in the local business community. He was acclaimed as the Conservatives’ candidate in the spring of 2018 and says he’s been getting a positive reaction at the doors.
“People are definitely looking for a change,” says Skinner.
Monsef had the advantage of making several sizeable funding announcements in the region over the summer. While her political experience prior to going to Ottawa amounted to a second-place showing in a Peterborough mayoral race, Monsef says she has learned “to work the machine in Ottawa to Peterborough’s advantage.” She said that’s resulted in over $200 million in investments in the area.
“What I hear at the doors a lot is people’s fears and anxieties about what’s happened with the Ontario election, that seems to be top-of-mind for people, so the motivation for folks is a bit different this time, but my job is to remind people that we have a plan,” Monsef said, citing what could be called the Doug Ford factor, given the PC premier’s unpopularity in the province.
Both the Liberal and Conservative teams say they are organized and ready to go, one focused on protecting the progress that’s been made, and the other ardently focused on taking a new path.
Meanwhile, NDP candidate Candace Shaw is looking to rise above the 18 per cent of the vote her party put up in 2015. She’s the founder of a non-profit, runs a recipe blog, and has a background in event production.
“We can do so much better than we’ve done,” says Shaw. “When I speak to people, they’re at a point right now where they can see that both the Conservatives and the Liberal party are struggling, they’re not providing really solid leadership and they’re looking to us as an excellent choice.”
The local Green Party candidate is Andrew MacGregor, a financial advisor who was one of several locals interested in carrying the party banner this campaign. The People’s Party is running Alexander Murphy, a local construction engineering student who spent time in Kuwait as a member of Joint Task Force Iraq HQ.
Monsef’s last four years included both political highs and lows. She became the first Afghan Canadian to be appointed to cabinet, but was then shuffled from the democratic institutions portfolio to status of women, where she seemed to put her head down and was eventually given the additional responsibility of international development.
Her opponents aren’t strangers to putting out political fires, either. During the 2015 race, Skinner faced criticism over a 2008 event an outside company held at his nightclub, while early on in her candidacy this campaign Shaw had to wipe expletive-laden tweets from her account.
Personalities aside, there are several pressing issues that are set to be front and centre in this campaign, according to constituents CTV News spoke with.
Housing is set to be a major campaign issue, as is the opioid crisis. The city has a one per cent vacancy rate, people are living in tents and on the streets downtown, and according to the local paper it tops the province in opioid deaths. As of Sept. 6, 25 people have died in the city so far this year of suspected overdoses.
Another unique characteristic about this riding is its level of political engagement. The turnout in 2015 was 74 per cent, higher than the national average.
During that campaign there were more than 30 candidate debates or meetings by election day. It seems that voters here also take their time in deciding how to cast their ballots.
Just ahead of the vote in 2015, one local paper had plans to have their photographer float between the three main candidates’ election night parties because they weren’t sure how the chips would fall.
“Coming from the last campaign I saw that those decisions come fairly close to the end. I think we’ve got a very informed electorate that really take the time to read through the policies, follow the debates, and really get engaged,” Skinner said.
Monsef said she knows she has a lot of door knocking ahead, but said that the fact that “this community takes its time... that they watch the numbers and are aware,” are among the reasons why she is proud to represent the region.
In 39 days she’ll know whether she will get that opportunity again.
With files from CTV News’ Annie Bergeron-Oliver