When voters in Toronto Centre headed to the polls last fall, it was the culmination of a byelection campaign waged largely online, with strict limits on in-person activities as COVID-19 cases rose in one of Ontario’s pandemic hot spots.
Less than a year later, the riding’s fledgling Liberal incumbent Marci Ien and her main rivals Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, NDP candidate Brian Chang and Conservative candidate Ryan Lester can count on more face time with voters as they hit the hustings with fewer restrictions, though the pandemic still looms heavily over the election.
For Ien, a former broadcaster who joined the political ranks last year, those in-person interactions are key to making connections, she said.
An ice cream social organized by her campaign recently drew upwards of 400 people, she said, including constituents she had only spoken to remotely earlier.
“Just to talk and connect and say hi and say, ‘How are you doing, how is your family doing, what kinds of challenges are you facing, what can we do for you, how can we serve you better, are you getting what you need?’ to be able to do that in person was everything,” she said in an interview.
While she’s held her seat less than a year, Ien said she’s already begun making her mark, noting that funding for initiatives such as a Black entrepreneurship program has started to flow.
“We may not have been able to see people in person, but I think of so many initiatives that we’ve been able to be a part of, even virtually, and make a difference in,” she said. “We have moved the needle a little bit. Do we have to move it a lot more? Absolutely.”
Read more: Canada election results: Toronto Centre
Looser public health rules have also allowed Paul, who came in second in the byelection, to set up a campaign office in the downtown riding something she opted against last time in light of the COVID-19 situation, the Green Party leader said.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a passerby popped into the office to ask Paul about her platform as a handful of masked volunteers worked in the back. Team members rushed to the man’s side to hand out literature and set up a time for a longer chat.
Though it’s her third time vying for the seat, and close on the heels of the last ballot, Paul said she doesn’t think she needs to change her pitch to woo voters.
At the time of the byelection, which was triggered by the resignation of former Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau, Paul had been at the head of the Greens for only weeks, and her campaign did only virtual outreach due to the pandemic, she said.
The fact that she did so well under those circumstances suggests people are receptive to her message, she said.
What’s more, “the needs that existed 10 months ago are the same and if anything, they’ve been exacerbated,” she said in an interview, pointing to the worsening opioid crisis as well as tensions over homeless encampments in parks.
The ground gained in the byelection is bringing momentum to the campaign, Paul said.
“The pandemic may have been sufficiently transformative enough,” she said. “It might have been enough of a disruption that people are ready to take that step.”
Located at the heart of the city’s downtown, Toronto Centre includes the Eaton Centre mall, Ryerson University and the city’s gay village, as well as Regent Park, the site of Canada’s first public housing development, and Moss Park, where people experiencing homelessness have set up an encampment.
Housing and homelessness are likely to be “front and centre” in the riding during the campaign, in part because of the encampments, said Andrew McDougall, a political-science professor at the University of Toronto, who also lives in Toronto Centre.
Still, even at the local level, the conversation will largely focus on the pandemic and economic recovery, particularly as cases rise again, he said.
Candidates across Canada will have to be careful not to do anything that could be portrayed as violating health orders, McDougall said, noting things will be “particularly tricky” for Liberals who may face criticism over the party’s decision to call an early election.
Ien won 42 per cent of the vote last October, a 15-point drop from what Morneau achieved in the previous general election. Paul, meanwhile, drew nearly 33 per cent of the vote, a significant spike from the seven per cent she won in 2019.
For both politicians, the stakes in this election are high, McDougall said.
Toronto Centre has typically been one of the Liberals’ “crown jewel ridings” and part of the party’s core support, remaining red since 2004 in its current form and since the late 1990s under different boundaries, he said.
“The legacy of the Liberals that have been elected there in the past, the amount of attention that the Liberals have given and the incumbency advantage and the amount of support that they seem to have to lose Toronto Centre would be ? very rough for the party,” he said.
While Greens face an uphill battle in any riding, Paul has the advantage of being the party leader, which could win over some voters, he said. Her coming in second in the byelection also suggests some openness to the Greens in a riding where New Democrats have traditionally been the Liberals’ biggest competitor, he said.
At the same time, Paul has for months been “at war with her own party,” something voters aren’t likely to ignore, he said. Paul had to fend off a non-confidence motion 10 months into her leadership, weeks before the federal election call.
“She is really going to want to demonstrate her electability, as much as she can, and demonstrate her value to the Greens,” he said. “If she were to do very badly in Toronto Centre I think that would make her political future much more difficult.”