From the most unwanted election in Canadian history emerged its most unwanted winner.
In the Toronto riding of Spadina—Fort York, voters elected the disavowed Liberal candidate Kevin Vuong as their new member of Parliament on Monday night. But many thousands of his supporters wouldn’t have known the party had disassociated itself from the candidacy of a young man who — just a month earlier — had seemed like a dream recruit: successful son of Vietnamese refugees, social entrepreneur extraordinaire, and a naval reservist who’d been presented to the Queen as a model of global youth leadership.
Those voters were duped.
Vuong had been dropped from the Liberal roster just two days before the election after the Toronto Star reported that he’d been charged with sexual assault in 2019. There wasn’t time to reprint the ballots to erase either Vuong’s name or his party affiliation.
The 2019 criminal charge against Vuong was eventually withdrawn, but that doesn’t matter.
During the vetting process to become a Liberal candidate, Vuong had evidently failed to disclose the dropped charge to party officials. He’d risked bringing “controversy or disrepute” upon the party, in contravention of Liberal screening policies that require candidates to divulge “any information that could impact upon their acceptability.”
Vuong issued a statement after the quashed sexual assault charge came to light, insisting “unequivocally” that “these allegations are false.”
Again, it doesn’t matter. Voters casting their ballots on Monday who hadn’t caught wind of the controversy in the news would have assumed Vuong was a certified Liberal candidate in good standing with the party.
When former Liberal MP Adam Vaughan announced on Aug. 8 he would not be running for re-election in Spadina—Fort York, the 32-year-old Vuong seemed an ideal replacement.
He is “the proud son of Vietnam War refugees, and has dedicated his life to serving Canada,” noted a glowing profile of Vuong issued in March 2021 by the Royal Canadian Navy press office.
The PR piece celebrated Vuong’s various achievements as an Acting Sub-Lieutenant in Canada’s naval reserve, where he served as public affairs officer with HMCS York. He had recently been selected as Canada’s representative for a NATO young leaders’ program — earning personal congratulations from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — and in 2017 had met Queen Elizabeth after his appointment to another young leaders’ program named in her honour.
Vuong was also described in the RCN profile as a lecturer on financial markets at Western University as well as a “social entrepreneur” who founded TakeCare Supply. The company had “responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by developing Canada’s first evidence-based reusable mask and manufactured 750,000 masks for North America, employing nearly 200 Canadians in the process.”
Is it any wonder the Liberals quickly arranged an uncontested nomination to have Vuong represent the party in Spadina-Fort York? He was declared the Liberal candidate in the riding on Aug. 13.
Then came a Sept. 1 Globe and Mail story that Vuong and his TakeCare business partner had been sued for $1.5 million in a dispute with a former female associate who claimed to have been unfairly edged out of the ownership of the mask-making firm just as it began raking in millions of dollars in sales.
Liberal officials claimed the party was aware of the “commercial dispute” and had still approved Vuong’s candidacy. The vetting rules explicitly state that would-be candidates must disclose “any claim, litigation or dispute of any sort” that could create controversy for the party.
Then, on Sept. 16 — just four days before the election — came the Star story about the sexual assault charge. The female complainant had told police that she and Vuong met through a dating app, were watching TV one night and went to bed, and that she was woken up by Vuong touching her.
The Crown later withdrew the charge, citing “personal issues” faced by the complainant and apparently after concluding there was no reasonable prospect of a conviction.
The Liberals claimed they only became aware of all this through the Star story, and announced that Vuong would be suspending his campaign pending a probe of the situation.
Soon after, party officials announced Vuong would be stricken from the Liberals’ election roster.
“After further review, Mr. Vuong will no longer be a Liberal candidate,” they stated.
But because there was no way to remove Vuong’s name or original party affiliation from the ballot, there was a chance he’d win the vote anyway in the Liberal-held riding.
“Should he be elected,” the party declared, “he will not be a member of the Liberal caucus.”
On election night, voters in Spadina—Fort York made Vuong their MP. Nearly 17,000 people, or 38 per cent of the riding’s voters, marked their ballot for Kevin Vuong, “Liberal.”
Runner-up Norm Di Pasquale of the NDP drew 15,635 votes, or 35 per cent support.
Thousands must have voted for Vuong in advance polls, before the Star’s revelation about the withdrawn assault charge. Thousands more, either unaware of the Liberals’ disavowal of Vuong or unmoved by it, voted for him on election day.
Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca, who had campaigned with Vuong just a few days before the Star story was published, said this week: “I think Kevin needs to reflect really carefully. I think he needs to examine his own conscience and realize that the people of Spadina—Fort York do need to have a representative who is beyond reproach.”
He’s right. The solution here is for Vuong to resign before he even takes his seat in the House of Commons.
If Vuong believes he was wrongly accused by the complainant, feels he was poorly treated by the Liberals, and thinks he would still make an excellent MP for Spadina-Fort York, he could run as an independent candidate in the byelection.
But voters this time would know Vuong did not have the backing of the Liberals. In fact, his former party would certainly run a candidate against him.
But it’s only right that the public should be aware of Vuong’s non-affiliation with the Liberals when casting their ballots. The Sept. 20 vote was a distortion of democracy.
When rumours began floating in early August that Vuong was being courted to become the Liberal candidate in Spadina—Fort York, he was cagey about his plans to enter politics.
“I think at this point, it’s just continuing to think about what are the different ways that I could help and serve in my community,” Vuong told a reporter at the time. “I welcome every opportunity to serve.”
He has just such an opportunity. As soon as possible after an election that — under false pretenses — won him the privilege of serving in Canada’s Parliament, he should resign the seat. He can best help and serve his community right now by letting them have the fair election they were denied on Monday.
Any suggestion that Vuong should step aside and allow the second-place NDP candidate to become Spadina—Fort York’s MP, if that’s even possible, should be firmly rejected.
Voters duped into thinking Vuong was a Liberal candidate should be given another chance to support that party — or not — in the by-election to come.
So how about it, Kevin Vuong and citizens of Spadina—Fort York — back to the polls?
Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and former Postmedia News national reporter.