What it will take to dominate Ontario during the federal election

A blue Porsche Cayman pulled up in front of the Big Rock Brewery in Etobicoke, Ont., its hue nearly matching that of the Conservative election sign hanging in the window for Barry O’Brien, the party’s local candidate hoping to take the Etobicoke—Lakeshore riding from the Liberals.

A man in a button-up shirt with a flower print went inside where there were trays of food and bartenders pouring pints of craft beer for those attending the fundraiser for O’Brien last week. Erin O’Toole, Conservative MP for Durham and the party’s shadow foreign affairs critic, was the guest of honour. The invitation suggested a donation of $400. 

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The riding has been important for the Liberals, having been previously been represented by former leader Michael Ignatieff. It was last held by the Conservatives from 2011 until 2015, until they lost it to Liberal incumbent James Maloney. When the Conservatives won their biggest majorities under Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper, Etobicoke—Lakeshore went blue, but not during the party’s minority years.

And the Conservatives have their eye on Etobicoke—Lakeshore this election, with leader Andrew Scheer making a campaign stop there on Friday.

It straddles the two distinct fights in the battle for Ontario: Liberals versus Conservatives in the ring around Toronto, and Liberals versus NDP within Toronto proper.

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The brewery was a fitting venue for O’Brien’s fundraiser. He’s currently the dean of Centennial College’s School of Business and served for years as a director at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. His bio touts that he developed its first overseas sales channel in China.

O’Brien said he is hearing from many people in the riding who voted Liberal last time, but who are looking for a change. “I’m certainly finding the people at the doors very friendly.

“We have a lot of families in our riding,” O’Brien continued, placing his drink on a wooden barrel beside the bar. “They’re working hard, they’re employed, they have multiple jobs, some of them have side hustles. But they are having trouble getting ahead.”

A campaign fundraiser for Conservative candidate Barry O\’Brien in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. (Rachel Browne/Global News)

It’s a paraphrase of the Conservative federal election campaign slogan, “It’s time for you to get ahead,” which forms the basis of the party promise to lower the cost of living.

That message is one that O’Brien and his fellow candidates hope will convince voters to choose them over the Liberals, who in 2015 captured the vast majority of the ridings in the diverse and vote-rich GTA that has played kingmaker in elections past.

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“For the party that’s in government, it’s hard to win without that broad region or without big parts of it,” Peter Loewen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News.

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“It’s basically two parties fighting over the same set of voters who have the same concerns, but the parties have quite distinct approaches to addressing those concerns. So that makes it an interesting testbed to see which approaches to government are going to be the ones that win out there.”

Loewen said that the Tories will likely take a page from the playbook of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose Progressive Conservatives won a majority in 2018, by playing up how they will directly support families and doing away with the carbon tax. The Liberals, he said, will likely tout their Canada child benefit, and link the carbon tax to environmental stewardship.

If a party’s approach wins in the GTA, chances are it can win over most places in the rest of the country.

WATCH (Sept. 11, 2019): Conservative leader Andrew Scheer launches campaign

The GTA, home to more than 6 million people, contains a number of key battleground ridings. The Liberals came out on top there 2015, by a tiny margin in some ridings.

That was the case in Vaughan—Woodbridge, currently held by Liberal Francesco Sorbara, who won the riding by a margin of 4.9 per cent against Conservative Julian Fantino, a former federal cabinet minister who held the riding previously known as Vaughan since 2010. 

Sorbara is determined to keep it, and he’s willing to put up a fight.

Liberal Francesco Sorbara, left.

“I’m a grinder, I work hard,” Sorbara told Global News. He likened his work ethic to that of hockey player John Tonelli, a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the New York Islanders.

“I put myself in that category,” he said. “And God willing we can continue to do the good work that our team has been doing up here.”

One of the top issues for his constituents is climate change, he said. 

“(In) placing a price on pollution, we need to drive innovation, strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which our government is doing. And I think we have become global leaders,” he said.  

“Our government, rightly, is returning those funds through the climate action incentive rebate to help my seniors, to assist any families that are impacted.”

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Sorbara said the district is a hub for small businesses and large manufacturers and serves as a logistics hub for companies such as Home Depot, Costco, and Saputo. 

“We’re a big barometer of how things are going in the GTA and if you look at that barometer, things are going with confidence for businesses and consumers,” he said. “Whether it’s helping our seniors out with the cost of living, whether it’s helping families out with the Canada child benefit, I really think that the feedback I hear at the door has remained unchanged.”

The fact that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer spent the latter half of his campaign’s first day in Vaughan—Woodbridge signals the area’s importance.

“We have got the best candidates running in these ridings all over across the GTA to represent Canadians,” Scheer told a crowd of hundreds there on Wednesday evening. 

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The Vaughan—Woodbridge Conservative candidate, former broadcaster Teresa Kruze, does not live in the riding but says she plans to move there if elected. Her brother-in-law Martin Kruze came forward in 1997 as one of many victims of child sexual abuse at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in the 1970s. He died by suicide shortly after.

Kruze has been a long-time advocate against child abuse, something that forms her desire to make the riding safer. 

“We have had an outbreak of crime that has been nothing short of horrendous,” Kruze said in an interview. “We had a series of gangs roll through Vaughan—Woodbridge,” she said. 

She says residents are telling her they feel the Trudeau government is too soft on crime. “And I have to agree with them. I myself as a citizen do not feel as safe under a Justin Trudeau Liberal government as I did under Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.”

As for the NDP, it has its sights on the few ridings in the region where it has a chance. In Toronto, that includes Parkdale-High Park, which is a heated front for the NDP versus Liberals. It was won by Liberal Arif Virani in 2015 by less than 2 per cent against NDP candidate Peggy Nash. Nash was the president of the party until 2011 when she became the Parkdale-High Park MP until 2015.

Current NDP candidate Paul Taylor is vying for the seat.

Another tense riding in the city is set to be Davenport, which is steadfastly Liberal and currently held by Liberal Julie Dzerowicz. She will face-off against former NDP MP Andrew Cash.

In the suburbs, Brampton is crucial for its five ridings, all of which were won by Liberals in 2015. It’s unique for its population growth and demographics, made up of around 70 per cent of people who identify as belonging to visible minorities.

Provincially, it is represented by three NDP MPPs. This includes Brampton East, which is represented by MPP Gurratan Singh, the brother of federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who also previously served as an MPP for the area from 2011 until 2017.

In one of his first campaign stops, Jagmeet Singh appeared in Brampton on Thursday morning to announce that his party, if elected, would provide federal funding for a new hospital there.

He spoke about long wait-times for healthcare. “After four years of having these five Liberal MPs, people in Brampton continue to suffer,” he said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh makes an announcement in Toronto on Monday, September 2, 2019. (The Canadian Press/Christopher Katsarov)

The Canadian Press / Christopher Katsarov

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In Milton, about an hour west of Toronto, long-time Conservative MP and deputy leader Lisa Raitt says this campaign feels different from the last time, when she was one of the few Conservatives to win in the entire GTA. She won by nearly 5 per cent over her Liberal opponent at the time.

“A lot of people will say, ‘You know, Lisa, I didn’t vote for you last time. I voted for you all the other times, but I didn’t vote for you last time because I didn’t like Stephen Harper,’” Raitt, who served in several cabinet positions under Harper, told Global News.

Many of those people, she said, are now moving back into the Conservative fold.

“What it comes down to is their disillusionment with [Justin Trudeau] and his agenda, and how he actually didn’t live up to what they had thought he was going to do,” Raitt said. “In the case of the fiscal swing voters, they are very disappointed in the deficit, very disappointed in the fact that the spending continues, on and on and on. And there’s no plan for them to come back to balance.”

Lisa Raitt in her Milton riding. (Lisa Raitt/Facebook)

Raitt said that Liberal talking points about the Canada child benefit might not play that well in Milton, an affluent community where the median income is more than $100,000. “The reality is it doesn’t come up at the doors, like ever, because they’re not getting it,” she said.

Raitt added, though, that these families are “still feeling the pinch and they’re still feeling like they can’t get ahead.”

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Raitt’s main opponent, Liberal candidate and Olympic kayaker Adam van Koeverden, said that the number one issue that comes up at the door is education.

“This is one of the youngest ridings in Ontario,” van Koeverden told Global News. The average age in the community is around 34.

“We suffered cuts this year and we have a provincial government that doesn’t seem to think that the quality of the education that the next generation is receiving should be a top-line priority,” he said. 

“Conservatives love to ridicule our prime minister for being a teacher but I know that he cares about education and I know that he cares about public education because his three kids go to Ontario public schools.”

Liberal candidate Adam van Koeverden canvasses in Milton, Ont. (Adam van Koeverden campaign)

Van Koeverden said that he’s “happy to stand up against potential subsidies for private school, which I think are a terrible idea,” referring to a proposal Scheer made in 2017 during the Conservative leadership race to give tax deductions to parents who home-school or send their children to private schools.

Scheer has recently said that his party would not “at this time” pursue such a policy.

Like his fellow Liberal candidates, van Koeverden says that climate change and the economy are other top priorities.

“The progress on the environment is real. We’ve protected more marine coastal and terrestrial land in Canada than any previous government before us,” he said. 

“On growth in the economy, we’ve seen a good 2.1 per cent healthy growth in the economy, with very small deficit spends. So I’m confident. Things are good.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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