Isaac and his parents stood in silence as they waited for Ontario Premier Doug Ford take the stage. They were among thousands who descended on the fairgrounds in Markham, Ont., last Saturday evening for Ford Fest, the annual barbecue for Ford supporters.
Lines formed for the Tilt-a-Whirl ride and free food as a train carrying children waving “For the People” flags snaked through the crowd.
WATCH BELOW: Doug Ford rallies base in Trump-style speech at Ford Fest 2019
At just 16 years old, Isaac can’t vote but he’s still a die-hard fan of Ford and his Progressive Conservative Party.
“He’s saving the province money,” Isaac said. None of his family had been to Ford Fest before, and it was Isaac’s idea to make the hour-and-a-half drive from Fergus to check it out this time. It didn’t take much convincing on his part because his parents are already longtime Conservatives.
“Both on the provincial and federal levels,” said Issac’s mom, who didn’t want their full names published over fears of a backlash due to her job in public education. The Ford government has faced immense outcry — and low polling numbers — following a suite of social services cuts that include education and healthcare reforms, and capping autism program funding. Services for Indigenous Peoples and refugees have also been rolled back.
As the festivities unfolded, a plane flew overhead with a sign that read: “Public education cannot afford Ford.”
But it’s the sort of cost-cutting approach that Isaac’s family, and many Ford supporters, hope will continue, and will be implemented nationally by Andrew Scheer and the federal Conservatives should they win the federal election this fall. However, Ford’s recent unpopularity is posing a problem for Scheer, who needs to conquer the battleground province, and cement his own identity.
Ford’s woes were amplified further over the last couple weeks. He was booed by the massive crowd during the Raptors NBA championship parade in Toronto, he shuffled key cabinet members shortly after, and his chief of staff abruptly resigned a day before Ford Fest amid accusations of nepotism.
“I notice that Scheer’s not here. So that speaks volumes,” said Isaac’s mom as she looked around at the crowd forming in front of the stage adorned with large ‘Ford Nation’ flags on either side of the podium. “They both wear blue. But I just hope that they have the same morals and values.”
In April, one year from when PCs toppled the Ontario Liberals and came to power, Ford made good on his campaign promise to rein in spending through the government’s budget entitled ‘Protecting What Matters Most.’ It proposed to reduce the $11.7 billion deficit, resulting in cuts across a wide range of social services and programming.
Federal Liberal MPs jumped at the opportunity to slam the province. Federal Employment Minister and Thunder Bay MP Patty Hajdu called the budget “reckless” at a press conference on Parliament Hill alongside a handful of other Liberal MPs for Ontario.
“From my perspective, Doug Ford and his cronies are trying to pull a fast one on Ontarians,” Hajdu said. “It’s quite clear that Andrew Scheer would take exactly the same tactic.”
A couple of weeks later, the PC government announced it would adjourn the provincial legislature for an extended summer break — until a week after the October federal election. Opposition members alleged the move was made to help Scheer and the Conservatives get elected.
Third-party attack ads continued to link Scheer and Ford, saying that “Andrew Scheer will never stand up to Ford.”
WATCH BELOW: Ontario legislature set to adjourn until after federal election
Scheer’s office told the Globe and Mail it played no part in Ontario’s extended adjournment, and that neither Ford nor any of his government staffers have any plans to campaign on behalf of the federal Conservatives.
However, newly elected Alberta Premier Jason Kenny, formerly of the federal Conservatives, will reportedly stump for Scheer around the critical Greater Toronto Area in the lead-up to the election.
Until then, a Members of Parliament, both Conservative and Liberal, have discussed how their constituents are voicing complaints about the Ford government and his cuts.
Experts monitoring the impact of Ontario on the federal election agree.
“Ford and Scheer are like gifts to Trudeau,” Laura Stephenson, a professor of political science at Western University in London, Ont., told Global News. “Because what they have done is highlight what might be far more extreme than Scheer would ever want to be.”
“What you’ve just had is someone running under the banner of a Conservative Party make a lot of steps that are pretty dramatic. And anger a lot of people. Going after elementary, high school, and university students all at once. Wow.”
Stephenson said that Liberals will have a good opportunity to continue vilifying Scheer and lumping him in with Ford, in part because he is less known than his predecessor former prime minister Stephen Harper.
“Trudeau couldn’t have asked for a better foil,” she said.
WATCH BELOW: Doug Ford revokes 2 foreign Ontario government appointments after allegations of nepotism
Scheer has been taking strides to present as moderate, distinguishing himself from his more hard-line provincial counterparts.
His newly released climate proposal, for example, purports to eliminate the current carbon tax system in favour of a cap, or a price, on carbon for large emitters.
And in contrast to Ford, Scheer has said his party would not rush to balance the federal budget, and would, instead, aim to cut the deficit in five years if elected.
Polls suggest that his rhetoric is serving him well. The Conservatives are registering at 35.3 per cent, while the Liberals are at 29.9 per cent, according to CBC’s poll tracker.
In a speech about immigration last month, Scheer said his party would do things differently from the Liberals, but would not give specifics on how many immigrants his government would welcome.
What he did want to communicate was that his party would not tolerate xenophobia, something that the Liberals and NDP have accused it of fostering.
“There is absolutely no room in a peaceful and free country like Canada for intolerance, racism, and extremism of any kind,” Scheer said. “And the Conservative Party of Canada will always make that absolutely clear.”
Last Tuesday evening, Scheer’s supporters threw him a barbecue of his own in Ottawa. There were families and free burgers, but no carnival rides or little blue flags. It was an understated affair at the Billings Estate, a heritage home that serves as a museum.
A small group of protesters with the group Extinction Rebellion stood at the estate entrance. One woman waved a pink inflatable uterus and Fallopian tubes with a sign on it that said ‘PRIVATE.’
“The Conservatives are going to take away your right to choose,” said one protester who does not believe, or is perhaps unaware of Scheer’s vow, that his Conservative government would not reopen the abortion debate if elected.
A couple hundred people gathered on the lawn. The crowd lit up with excited chatter when Scheer entered.
“Thatʼs very likely the next prime minister. One day you will look back on this,” one man said to the toddler he held in his arms as people posed for photos with the party leader.
In his speech that day, Scheer told the group he had been thinking about the differences between Conservatives and Liberals.
“It comes down to one simple difference: Conservatives put their faith in the people,” he said. “We trust people to make their choices.”
“Preach!” yelled a man who sported a long braid and a white shirt with blue stripes.
After the speech, Scheer posed for more photos. The man with the braid, Mathieu Champagne, said he used to be a Liberal supporter and voted for Trudeau in 2015, the year he turned 18.
“I’ll be very honest, I was a lot younger, didn’t know much about politics, and he wanted to legalize pot. That’s why I voted that way,” Champagne said.
But things have changed a lot in four years, both for the Liberals and for Champagne, who says he has become increasingly troubled by “political correctness” and discussions about white privilege and gender fluidity.
“People have called me a Nazi for my views. But I’m not,” he said.
Champagne says his concerns around freedom of expression have drawn him to the Conservatives, even if the topic is not something they are explicitly talking about.
He said he just trusts them.
“Scheer doesn’t really address it, but I know that the grand majority of Conservatives around us think the same as me,” he said. “I don’t even need to ask them, it’s just in our hearts. It’s an understanding that most Conservatives have.”