Tight race in Ontario bellwether as campaign nears end
The bridge under the Peterborough Lift Lock, the highest hydraulic lift lock in the world, pictured on Oct. 5, 2019. (CTV News / Rachel Aiello)
OTTAWA – Election campaigns in bellwether ridings are watched closely as potential reflections of how the nation is feeling.
In 2019 it seems that Peterborough-Kawartha is living up to its reputation as a decades-long history as a bellwether—where the outcomes offer an indication of the overall election result.
Voters here are quick to say they know it’s a close race between the Liberal incumbent and Conservative challenger, but they will sigh or roll their eyes when asked about the mudslinging they’ve seen both locally and nationally, and wonder about turnout and the impact of voting for another party.
CTV News first visited the riding on the first day of the federal election campaign to get a sense of how the race was shaping up. At the time it was looking close with two clear frontrunners, and affordable housing, the local opioid epidemic, and the unpopularity of Ontario Premier Doug Ford top of mind for constituents.
After two more trips down the highway from Ottawa—coinciding with visits from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer—it’s clear the story of the riding is more layered than that.
A reflection of the country?
On a sunny but brisk early Saturday morning in early October a few dozen people milled about a farmers’ market. Among them was local artist Connie van Rijn. When asked if she had decided how she was going to vote in this election, she paused, sighed deeply and said: “Yes and no.”
“I always live in fear—fear may be a little too strong— of the split. And so I tend to vote one way in order to support the more likely [party],” she continued.
Asked who she would vote for if she didn’t feel casting a strategic ballot was necessary, van Rijn said the Green party. Strategic voting is the practice of casting a ballot in favour of the party one thinks has the best chance of ensuring that the party they dislike doesn’t win.
She was one of several voters in the riding that CTVNews.ca spoke with who said that because of the bellwether nature of the riding they’ve always felt their choices were to vote blue or red despite their personal preference being either the NDP or the Greens. And this time, they’re having a harder time making that choice.
“It’s like between a rock and a hard place, a really difficult choice. That's where I am right now and until I sit there and look at that ballot, I won't really know,” said van Rijn.
Both NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May have spent considerable time during this campaign trying to convince their supporters to vote with their values. However, based on current polling and past election results in this riding, both parties still have long odds of breaking through the nearly 40-year bellwether trend.
“We've seen in the last couple of local elections, that things are shifting here. The demographics have changed. And though you know, there still is a certain feeling of it being a bellwether riding in a lot of ways, the gap between the NDP and the other parties has been narrowing,” said NDP candidate Candace Shaw. “There's a lot of people in this riding, who have very comfortably and confidently voted NDP in the last couple of elections.”
In the 2015 federal election the NDP garnered 18.8 per cent of the vote, while the Greens were the recipients of just 2.7 per cent of the ballots cast. In the 2018 provincial election the NDP candidate came second, with 33.9 per cent of the vote, while the Green candidate trailed in fourth with 3.3 per cent of the support.
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 slowly becoming another bedroom community for Toronto, despite it being a two-hour drive.
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.
Hunter Street in downtown Peterborough is lined with local restaurants and bars, pictured here on Oct. 5, 2019. The main three parties' candidates campaign offices are all located nearby. (CTV News / Rachel Aiello)
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 then, winning 43 per cent of the vote to his 35 per cent, but if more of the supporters of the NDP or the Green Party decide to park their votes with the party they prefer this time, then that margin gets smaller.
Despite this, both Monsef and Skinner say they like their odds.
“It's going to be very tight between ourselves and the Liberals,” Skinner said.
Mudslinging happening there, too
Similar to the frustration that voters across Canada have expressed, people in Peterborough spoke disparagingly about the mudslinging they’ve seen play out both at home, and between the party leaders.
Federally, there have been revelations that Trudeau has donned black and brownface enough times to be hesitant to say definitively, as well as Scheer keeping close to his chest that he’s still an American citizen while overstating his insurance industry credentials. Neither controversy has seemed to hit this riding with any real impact.
Nor has the local churn on the candidates’ pasts, which has included the local paper The Peterborough Examiner publishing 2004 photos of the Conservative candidate Skinner drinking in a limousine. And, and early on in her candidacy the NDP candidate Shaw had to wipe expletive-laden tweets from her account.
Though, some wondered if the negative tone of the campaign was resulting in a higher number of undecided constituents and could lead to voter disengagement and fatigue. So far, nationally advance polling and on-campus turnout numbers look positive.
“The people I talk to, it's been an issue with them. We're tired of seeing the mudslinging, I guess they call it, which isn't what it is. It's childishness,” said another market-goer, Barry Llewellyn.
When asked, the candidates say it’s something they’re trying to avoid.
Shaw said that if we want more “normal people” to get involved in politics in an age where everyone has been on social media for years, “we have to move past this point where photos of someone having a drink in the back of a limo could sink a political career.”
“In business, you don't attack your competitors, you might highlight your competitors’ weaknesses while you're highlighting your strengths,” said Skinner, a Peterborough-born entrepreneur with a background in clean technology and who is well-known in the local business community. “We're keeping it very much about policy and not personal. I don't think personal attacks are things that people want to hear.”
That’s what he said he’s being doing when talking about Monsef.
“I wouldn't call them attacks, but we're obviously framing our strengths as a party very much around some of the weaknesses and the past track record from the Liberal government,” Skinner said.
It came out in 2016 that Monsef was born in Iran and not Afghanistan as she had stated and did eventually immigrate from. It was something Monsef said she didn’t know about until questions were asked.
At the time, Skinner told the local paper The Peterborough Examiner that he was already aware of the birthplace questions during the 2015 race and chose not to bring it up.
Monsef joined ‘Team Trudeau’ in 2015 and quickly became one of the more high-profile cabinet ministers. Her last four years included political highs, lows, and a few cabinet shuffles before landing as the minister for women and gender equality, and international development.
As Trudeau is campaigning and being held accountable federally for the last four years, Monsef is being measured by what she has delivered for the riding, while facing criticism in this race that she was an absentee MP.
“People want to make sure they've got a representative that's going to look after them and you know, answer their phone calls and return the emails once elected,” said Skinner, who has pledged that if he was in cabinet and it became too much to balance with the riding work, he would step down as a minister to focus locally.
In response, Monsef said it’s not true that she hasn’t been around, and cited her parliamentary predecessor as a reason for what might have been a backlog in constituency work. The previous MP was Conservative Dean Del Mastro, who was convicted for elections offences in 2014 and resigned his seat.
“Let's think about where we were in 2015. In 2015, Peterborough didn't have an MP and hadn't had one for over a year… In 2015 there were no satellite offices going to each municipality… All of that changed when I got elected, and I'm really proud of the service that I've offered to this community,” she said.
Trudeau, Scheer bring leaders’ tours to town
Both Trudeau and Scheer paid Peterborough-Kawartha a visit during the 40-day campaign. Trudeau held an evening rally at a hockey arena on Sept. 26 where he spoke about how “Peterborough matters,” alongside Monsef and candidates from nearby ridings.
Scheer stopped in on Oct. 5, first at a massive Buddhist temple in a neighbouring riding and then visited at a longstanding pizza place with Skinner.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was among the honoured guests participating in the opening of a massive Buddhist temple near Peterborough, Ont. (CTV News / Rachel Aiello)
He’s also had a handful of other high-profile Conservatives come to town, including deputy party leader Lisa Raitt, who wrote she has a “green chair in Ottawa waiting” for him, on his campaign office’s “inspiration wall.”
It’s hard to say what kind of impact these visits can have when they’re so brief and matched by their main competitor days or weeks later, but the party faithful in attendance appeared confident in their party’s chances.
“You could feel it. It was it was positive, it was organic, all sorts of people showed up… And I look forward to his next visit,” Monsef said of Trudeau coming to town.
Volunteers waiting in line for Trudeau at that rally seemed to share that same optimism.
“She's got a really good chance. I mean, there's always incumbency issues with any government or any candidate who's got four years of incumbency against them. But I mean, Maryam has done a really good job in this riding,” said self-described “die-hard” Liberal supporter Peter Stewart. “Sometimes we get people who hang up on us, but that's normal, we get that anywhere.”
Another campaign volunteer said Monsef remains well-respected in the riding, which is now home to more Syrian families thanks to the Liberal government’s resettlement of thousands of refugees early in its mandate.
In 2015, Monsef’s victory came from voters in the city, while Skinner had a strong hold in the rural part of the riding.
This time Skinner said he’s leaned in to the retail politics aspect of campaigning and he and his team had by the day of Scheer’s visit, knocked on 37,000 doors and made 24,000 phone calls.
“If you come right into Peterborough, there are more red signs, but I live out in a rural area and blue is everywhere. It's going to be tight,” said Kathy Katula, the woman who made headlines after making a tearful plea about her bills at a 2017 Trudeau townhall.
Speaking with CTVNews.ca after Scheer’s visit a few Saturdays ago, Katula was wearing a Conservative-blue “Team Skinner” T-shirt and said that the moment at the townhall two years ago made her realize that “all of our votes count.”
“As long as every Canadian gets off the couch and get out there and votes, we can turn this sinking ship around,” Katula added.
Talking to other Conservative supporters at the pizza place after Scheer’s bus rolled on to the next campaign stop, they acknowledged how close the race was.
“I'm hearing undecided, and support, because this is obviously a tight election. But I think it's going to be a win for Mike,” said 12-year-old Chris Carson who, despite still not being able to vote for another six years, is helping knock on doors with Skinner’s campaign.
“The last election was not a vote for Justin Trudeau. It was a vote against Stephen Harper… And now I think it's not going to be a vote against Justin Trudeau, it's going to be a vote for Andrew Scheer,” Carson predicted.
NDP support ‘picking up,’ Greens buoyed by climate
NDP support has been rising in this campaign, exceeding some people’s pre-writ expectations that the party could be in a hard battle to hold on to seats.
As the campaign has waged on Singh put up a good showing at the national leaders’ debates, and is looking like an appealing choice for young voters, including those who came out for the first time in 2015 for the Liberals and have been disappointed by the outcome.
This bump is being felt on the ground in this constituency, says Singh’s candidate Shaw.
“I'm hearing so many good things about the way people are seeing [NDP Leader] Jagmeet [Singh] at this point in the campaign that's been really nice because as people get to know them, they're more and more impressed,” said Shaw, who added she was surprised at how much “fun” an election campaign can be.
It’s her first time running. She’s the founder of a non-profit, runs a recipe blog, and has a background in event production.
“I feel that we are picking up momentum as others are you know, plateauing,” she said, citing an uptick in donations and lawn sign requests.
Shaw cited the so-called “Ford factor” as something else that has been a consideration for voters here. Several schools faced the prospect of closing if the CUPE education workers had gone on strike, something that was thwarted at the eleventh hour when a deal with the province was reached.
Andrew MacGregor, the Green Party candidate, is a financial advisor who was one of several locals interested in carrying the party banner this campaign. His campaign appears to be also experiencing the same climate change bump that May is nationally, with the issue coming up regularly in conversation and at people’s doorsteps.
“The environment is the thing we should tackle, right? Like yesterday… That's the only issue at this point. I think we can talk about social things after once we fix the environment because without the environment there's no point having bonuses for parents, or all that kind of stuff,” said market-goer David Bergeron.
Trent University, which is located in the riding held an all-candidates’ debate on climate change and it was at capacity with some 200 people in the main hall, and another 100 having to watch on a TV in an overflow room.
The Green Party in the riding is seeing “a bit of a surge,” as Skinner put it, adding that he’s glad that the Conservatives have an entire policy document dedicated to their environmental plan
“If the Green Party does very well in this community, I think it's going to send a message to everybody you know, independent from who wins. I honestly don't think the Green Party in this particular riding is going to win. But, the bigger number they have it sends a much stronger message everyone how important the environment is,” Skinner said.
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.
An entirely unscientific drive around the core of the riding shows hardly any campaign signs for the still fledgling party in comparison to the other four candidates.
It is possible that the importance of supply management in the rural farmland areas of the riding is contributing to the People’s Party not being able to catch a foothold.
If Maxime Bernier—the now-leader of the People’s Party—won the Conservative leadership, Skinner said he wouldn’t have ran again because he knows getting rid of supply management would be a non-starter locally.
Two other big issues that will continue to be pressing for whomever is elected as the next MP are the opioid crisis and housing shortage. The city has a one per cent vacancy rate, and nearly 30 people have died in the city so far this year of suspected overdoses.
Midway through the election campaign one of the remaining tent cities that had formed in the downtown core, was dismantled. A few days later what remained was one tent, marks on the grass where the others had been, and some left-behind furniture in a pile of belongings.
One of the remaining tent cities that had formed in Peterborought's downtown core was dismantled. (CTV News / Rachel Aiello)
Shaw said that with just over a week to go in the campaign, she has the impression that there are still a lot of undecided voters.
“As I understand it, more than usual,” she said. It’ll be election day before it’s known which party’s final-week messaging these voters were sold on.
The youth factor, and engagement
Peterborough also has a reputation as a more engaged riding, with higher than average voter turnout. People here know their reputation of predicting political tides.
“Oh Peterborough cares, and Peterborough is engaged… People show up to debates, and people call and ask questions. And when we knock on their doors, they take the time to have a conversation with us,” said Monsef.
“This community knows that the country is watching us and they take that responsibility very seriously, too.”
There are around 15 debates or all-candidate meetings being held in the riding during this election, and that’s down from the 30 there were in 2015. These chances for the five candidates to take each other on and lay out their policy proposals included a meeting on the Curve Lake First Nation reserve northeast of the city.
As well, with millennials making up the largest demographic voting block this time, Peterborough could also serve as an indicator of the effectiveness and impact of student-outreach.
“I think there's such a divide between age groups,” said 23-year-old Natalie Wagner about which parties or policy priorities would be better for the riding.
With both Trent and Sir Sanford Fleming College in the riding there is a sizable student population in this riding and a new non-partisan organization called Future Majority is at work on those campuses to encourage young people to vote, offering day-of polling notifications and information about each party’s platform.
All the people that I talked to they are interested in voting,” said Wagner. “You know, it really could go either way,” Wagner said.
Edited by CTVNews.ca senior producer Mary Nersessian and producer Phil Hahn. Graphics by Jesse Tahirali.