After weeks of speculation surrounding a federal election call, a five-week countrywide campaign is now underway after Liberal Party of Canada Leader Justin Trudeau visited Governor General Mary Simon on Sunday to ask for Parliament to be dissolved.
With Ontario having the highest number of ridings up for grabs set against an emerging fourth wave of COVID-19 and heightened criticisms surrounding the provincial government’s handling of the pandemic during the third wave, the current dynamic raises questions of how Premier Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario could impact federal party standings in the province.
During the 2019 federal election campaign, Ford was asked why he wasn’t campaigning with then-Conservative Party of Canada leader and Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer. In mid-September weeks before voters went to the polls that year, he said he was too “busy governing” to campaign.
Ford and his Progressive Conservative government were elected in June 2018, but by the time the 2019 federal election came around his popularity had fallen, particularly after a spring budget that was rife with cuts. Ford was also among a trio of conservative premiers who opposed the federal government’s moves on carbon pricing. Trudeau often tried to bind Scheer to Ford, suggesting at the time that Ford’s governing in Ontario is indicative of what a Scheer government would look like.
Scheer, meanwhile, didn’t use Ford’s name when directly asked about the premier, preferring instead to criticize the former Ontario Liberal government. But he denies making any attempt to distance himself from Ford.
However, throughout the course of the year-and-a-half-long pandemic, there has seemingly been increased co-operation between Trudeau’s Liberal and Ford’s Conservative governments even as Ford and other premiers pushed for actions from the feds. For example, Trudeau in May announced $12 billion in funding to back a transit expansion plan for Toronto and Hamilton championed by Ford and his government.
Ford also previously boasted about his friendship with Chrystia Freeland, who served as deputy prime minister during the pandemic.
But fast-forward to this campaign with Durham incumbent Erin O’Toole at the helm of the federal Conservatives and many might be wondering how the campaign map will look this time given how Ford’s approval ratings saw a sharp drop earlier this year.
Global News contacted Ford’s office to ask how the premier might be involved during the campaign, if members of his government will be working to support federal candidates, if there are any concerns about having an election campaign during the pandemic, and if there are Ontario-specific commitments Ford is looking for.
Ivana Yelich, Ford’s director of media relations, issued a brief statement in response to questioning surrounding the election.
“The premier and our government are focused squarely on the pandemic and getting as many Ontarians vaccinated as possible. Our hope is that all levels of government continue working together to ensure the people of Ontario have the support they need as we continue our fight against COVID-19,” she told Global News before the campaign began.
CANADA ELECTION 2019: Did Doug Ford laying low work for Andrew Scheer?
Multiple political experts Global News spoke with, for the most part, said they believe the campaign will see Ford and the Ontario PC Party caucus members keep a lower profile.
Tim Abray, a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University who focuses on political behaviour and voter decision-making and a former radio journalist, also speculated the federal Liberals won’t heavily target the PCs on the campaign trail, especially when it comes to the handling of the pandemic.
“They don’t want to push people back into the arms of Doug Ford, so I think they’re just going to let that dynamic do its own talking,” he said.
Stéphanie Chouinard, an assistant professor with the department of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada and at Queen’s University, said she believes 2021 will be like 2019 in that the federal Conservatives aren’t “keen” on campaigning with the PCs, noting the need to make inroads into the Greater Toronto Area.
“Obviously in a campaign, even a short one, things can change, but what we’re seeing in the polls right now is that there will be some pretty tough fights for Conservatives in southern and northern Ontario but also Liberals in the GTA,” she said.
At the time of Parliament’s dissolution, there were 76 Liberal MPs, 34 Conservative MPs, six NDP MPs, four independents and one vacancy.
Jacob Robbins-Kanter, an assistant professor at Bishop’s University, echoed the previous sentiments and said if there’s a role for the PCs to be had, it might be in fundraising. However, despite a seemingly stronger position for the Liberals and NDP in Ontario, O’Toole and his party shouldn’t be counted out, Robbins-Kanter said.
“Ontario could surprise people I think. Erin O’Toole is a GTA MP and he, I think, makes more of a skilled campaigner than people are giving him credit for. He did well in the Conservative leadership race and surpassed expectations and I think he might be able to do that in Ontario,” he said.
Abrey, Chouinard and Robbins-Kanter all concurred on where, as of the beginning of the campaign, there could be potential seat flips based on polling and modelling data: west of downtown Toronto in Davenport, the Windsor-Essex region and northern Ontario.
Overall, they said parts of British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and the Maritimes will likely have more of an impact on federal party standings.
However, when asked to reflect on how the campaign will play out, Seher Shafiq, a writer and consultant who focuses on elections and civic engagement, noted with the fourth wave of COVID-19 and return to school in September, those issues could weigh into the overall campaign messages and that she sees opportunities for provincial Conservatives to weigh in.
“What I’m interested in seeing is how we move through a fourth wave that is likely going to impact unvaccinated people, how we move through this fourth wave and whether or not people remember everything that we’ve gone through over this past year and a half or if people are just focused on living their life,” she said.
“That could very well be the path for majority to the Liberals.”
Meanwhile, Abray said with people largely focused on day-to-day navigation of life in this stage of the pandemic, this election campaign faces extra unknowns that affect predictions, calling it “very unusual.”
“It’s an election being called when one isn’t strictly speaking necessary,” he said.
“People’s votes have an awful lot to deal with comfort, habit and values, and all three of those have been put into question over the past couple of years. If there was an election to expect the unexpected, this might be the one.”
Election day in Canada has been set for Sept. 20.