NDP and Liberals duke it out for Toronto Centre

Supporters wave a "Stop Harper" signs as NDP leader Thomas Mulcair speaks at a rally in London, Ontario October 4, 2015.
Supporters wave a "Stop Harper" signs as NDP leader Thomas Mulcair speaks at a rally in London, Ontario October 4, 2015. GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

TORONTO – It’s fitting that the Liberal and NDP candidates for Toronto Centre have their campaign offices on Parliament Street – a nod to their political ambitions, but also to a street representative of the economic diversity of the riding.

Mere blocks away from trendy restaurants, a fair trade jewelry store and a shop selling homemade bow ties and kitschy, vintage tumblers, a man sleeps on the stoop of an abandoned storefront.

Toronto Centre encompasses the stereotypical Toronto elite as well as some of the most disadvantaged people in the city and is a microcosm of the city at large.

It’s also representative of the highly competitive battle the NDP and Liberals are waging for these all-important seats. Particularly in and around downtown Toronto, the two parties are spending a lot of time and energy wooing the desire-for-change vote.

“It’s very hard to imagine how the Liberal party and the NDP form government without significant gains … the city of Toronto and obviously the (surrounding area) as well,” said Liberal pundit Rob Silver.

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“The Conservatives, if I’m being honest, could form a minority government while losing seats in the city of Toronto, but for both the Liberals and the NDP, while anything is possible, it is hard to find how the math works without lots of seats.”

The few square kilometres of Toronto Centre are home to pricey condo buildings, the affluent Cabbagetown neighbourhood, the gay village, the Regent Park area in the midst of a massive revitalization project, Ryerson University as well as highly vulnerable and impoverished communities.

But a common political thread ties them together: anti-Conservative – or, more specifically, anti-Stephen Harper – sentiment runs deep in the riding.

“He’s mean,” two women can be overheard agreeing at a Cabbagetown deli.

While her friend, who isn’t a Toronto Centre resident, is happy to continue discussing her political views, Gerta Kaegi, 83, is later reluctant to discuss her own, saying she doesn’t like to reveal how she votes.

“(The riding) is very diverse, so it’s important to work together and you don’t want anyone polarizing society as Harper has done,” she says.

Being anti-Harper, here, reveals nothing. Is the whole riding against him?

“God, yeah,” she replies. “They better be.”

The Conservatives are not a factor in Toronto Centre is a common refrain.

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Perhaps they pose no threat at the ballot box, finishing a distant third in nearly every election since Bill Graham won the riding for the Liberals in 1993. Bob Rae kept it in the fold after Graham.

But the Tories are very much a factor.

The NDP has been using Liberal support for the Conservatives’ wide-ranging anti-terrorism legislation to conflate Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Harper. Many campaign signs for Toronto Centre NDP candidate Linda McQuaig have small anti-C-51 signs perched on top.

Nowhere was the strategy more in evidence than at a town hall meeting which NDP Leader Tom Mulcair held in the riding this week. He mentioned Bill C-51 no fewer than 11 times in his speech and almost never mentioned Trudeau without linking him to Harper.

“In this election there is a clear choice: there’s Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, who stood together to support Bill C-51 and who are standing together again to support a secret trade deal that could hurt this country,” he said, broadening the attack to include the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The tactic is not unique to Toronto Centre – it’s a message the NDP has been driving home in various big cities – but McQuaig said it’s a big issue in this riding because a large number of people belong to minority groups.

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“I think it’s the kind of thing where they’re quite frightened about the danger of CSIS deciding to do extra surveillance or disruption of their groups if they disagree with the agenda of the Harper government,” she said.

Liberal candidate Bill Morneau said he is hearing narrower issues from the different pockets of the riding, but what come up most often are youth unemployment, economic growth, transit and housing.

“This community, broadly, is looking for change,” he said.

Like many areas in the city, residents often list affordable housing and transit infrastructure as their priorities – typical urban issues.

“For the most part, Harper does not realize that the infrastructure for these cities is very important,” says Michael, a longtime Toronto Centre resident who declined to give his last name.

“He really doesn’t care about the city or cities, period.”

That’s where the NDP saw an opportunity, releasing a platform geared specifically to Toronto, highlighting the policies the party believes will most resonate with Torontonians, such as $12.9 billion over 20 years for Toronto transit infrastructure and 165,000, $15-a-day child-care spaces in the city.

That plan is evidence the federal NDP learned lessons from last year’s provincial campaign, said NDP pundit Marit Stiles. The Ontario NDP lost some key Toronto seats in 2014 in part because they didn’t talk enough about cities, she said.

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“Everybody kind of says, ‘Oh, Toronto, centre of the universe,’ so it’s a bit risky to be talking about Toronto all the time outside the city,” Stiles said of Mulcair’s urban strategy.

“The reality is he’s done it because it’s the economic centre of the country.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Toronto proper holds 25 enticing seats.

Redistribution hived off Rosedale, one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, to the new riding of University-Rosedale. That is giving the NDP hope that even though Toronto Centre has been Liberal for more than 20 years, a piece that skewed Liberal is gone.

All three newly distributed ridings in the downtown core are expected to be tough battles. Toronto Centre has no incumbent candidate.

Spadina-Fort York pits Liberal Adam Vaughan, who won in the former riding in a 2014 byelection, against Olivia Chow, who is trying to win her way back to the House of Commons for the NDP.

University-Rosedale has Liberal Chrystia Freeland, who beat McQuaig to win a 2013 byelection, against the NDP’s Jennifer Hollett.

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