For Phat and Mo Nguyen, the chance to choose a government is no small privilege. In the spring of 1980, the couple fled Communist Vietnam, setting off with their four young children from the Mekong Delta among refugees who would become known, collectively, as the Boat People. “We almost died,” says Mo, shuddering at the memory of 10 miserable days spent adrift in a leaky river boat on the South China Sea, with dwindling reserves of fresh water, food and hope. But for a family seeking a few simple liberties—free speech, the right to vote—the risk seemed worth it.
Three months after landing half-starved and exhausted in Marang, Malaysia, the Nguyens got the break that changed their lives: an invitation to Canada—land of freedom and one of only a handful of countries unreservedly welcoming Vietnamese asylum seekers. They settled in Toronto’s western suburbs, both finding jobs with the airline catering giant Cara Foods. For years afterward, the Nguyens based their voting on gratitude. “We loved Pierre Trudeau,” says 68-year-old Phat, now retired. “Fifty thousand Vietnamese he let into Canada. That was a great thing. We voted Liberal many times.”
Yet now, standing in the foyer of his Mississauga, Ont., home, Nguyen ticks off the strengths of another, much different leader who positively loathed Trudeau: Stephen Harper. His Conservatives will get Nguyen’s vote on May 2 for reasons rooted in both his conscience and pocketbook. Harper won his approval in 2006, he says, when he voiced concern about human rights in Vietnam during an APEC conference in Hanoi. After that, Phat watched with satisfaction as Conservative strength in southern Ontario grew.
The party’s pro-family messaging has resonated among his Vietnamese friends, he says, as have Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s annual appearances at events observing the anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
Phat could go on about conservative values. And he seems prepared to before his wife interjects: “Don’t forget the tax-free savings account,” she says, prodding him. “Helps us save money.”
The Nguyens represent the sweet spot for Tory strategists. Their switch from Liberal to Conservative was based on both principle and pragmatism. Winning over many more like them—formerly Liberal-voting, middle-class suburbanites, often new Canadians—is the top Conservative aim again this election. Especially in Ontario. It’s not just that the most populous province has, naturally, the most seats—106 out of 308 in the House. “More than in any election I can recall,” says Frank Graves, president of the polling firm EKOS, “Ontario is going to determine what happens.”
Graves surveys the national electoral map this way: “B.C. is mildly interesting. The Atlantic is sort of interesting, but not a lot of seats. Quebec is a federalist wasteland, with the federalist parties in this ineffectual deadlock way behind the Bloc Québécois,” he says. “But Ontario is very interesting—modest shifts in popular vote in Ontario could translate into dramatically different outcomes.”
Still, the likelihood of wholesale changes in Ontario shouldn’t be overstated. That’s partly because a major realignment has already happened. When Harper first led his newly united right into a national campaign in 2004, he had to rebuild almost from scratch in Ontario. The province had slammed the door on the old Progressive Conservative, Reform, and Canadian Alliance parties for three successive Liberal-sweep elections. But in 2004, Harper won 32 per cent of the Ontario popular vote, good for 24 seats. In 2006, he notched up to 35 per cent and 40 seats. In 2008, his Tories leapfrogged over the Liberals, besting their popular vote 39-34 and their seat total 51-38.
Scooping 11 Ontario seats from the Liberals last time out was an underrated advance for Harper. It was made even more important by the fact that his hopes for a Quebec breakthrough in 2008 were dashed, all but silencing talk of Harper recreating the Quebec-and-Western-Canada formula of previous Tory majorities, both Brian Mulroney’s and John Diefenbaker’s. For Harper, breaking through big in Quebec would require a watershed turn by francophone voters away from the Bloc Québécois. By contrast, Ontario has already proven susceptible to a gradual courtship. And along with ridings won, the Tories missed winning by 10 per cent of the vote, or less, in 14 Ontario ridings last time out. Harper needs to add only 12 MPs to command a majority in the House.
Yet capturing any new ridings in Ontario is looking, in the early going of the 2011 campaign, like an uphill struggle. Asked how they would vote if the election were held today, 37 per cent of Ontario respondents on Innovative Research Group’s Canada 20/20 online panel for Maclean’s and Rogers Media backed the Conservatives, while 33 per cent supported the Liberals. That’s closer than the Tories’ 5.5 per cent popular vote edge in the province over the Liberals in 2008. Even doubling the Tory margin of victory to about 10 per cent would, according to the seat projection model used by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy at Wilfrid Laurier University, net Harper as few as three to five additional MPs. If the margin narrows, the Laurier institute identifies at least four Ontario seats Harper won in squeakers last time that might swing back to the Liberals.
These are, not surprisingly, among the most intensely watched constituencies. One of them is Kitchener Centre. Conservative Stephen Woodworth won there by a mere 339 votes last time, ousting Liberal Karen Redman, who had held the riding since 1997. She had won comfortably in 2006, and played a prominent role in the Liberal caucus under Paul Martin and Stéphane Dion. So Redman’s fall shocked her party. She wasn’t able to sell Dion and his “Green Shift” platform to her past supporters. As the Tories grew their Kitchener Centre vote by a modest 349 over 2006, Redman’s vote plummeted by 5,573. “Liberals stayed home last time,” Redman says. “A lot of Liberals recognize that’s not something that can be repeated.”
Over the first week of this campaign, Michael Ignatieff looked far more formidable than Dion ever did on the hustings. Guy Giorno, Harper’s former chief of staff and current campaign chair, said positive early media coverage of Ignatieff only showed that Dion set a low bar. “Of course, given the leader they had last time, the campaign they ran last time, they can’t help but do differently this time,” he said. “A lot of people are reporting that as momentum. Well, just not falling on your face is momentum.” Lest that sound like he’s underestimating the adversary, Giorno added, “We’re under no illusions; we’re up against a tough Liberal campaign.”
That reality is felt even in fairly safe Tory seats, like MP Harold Albrecht’s Kitchener-Conestoga riding. It straddles two prime Conservative vote-hunting grounds: the spreading suburban edge of a small city and the remaining small towns just beyond.
Knocking on doors in a new subdivision last week, Albrecht gestured out beyond the roofline of single detached homes toward the countryside, saying, “These are my roots.” He grew up on a nearby dairy farm, and was a dentist and a pastor before jumping into politics. On the doorsteps, he met mostly smiling supporters, yet he’s not cocky. “We’re not going to have the kind of margins we had last time, we know that,” he said. “Last time, many Liberals stayed home.”
If Albrecht, 62, fits the older, male image of the classic Tory, Eve Adams, 36, is challenging that stereotype in staunchly Liberal Mississauga-Brampton South—the Nguyens’ riding. The newly recruited candidate jogs between houses while canvassing, clad in yoga pants, white trainers and a short-cropped Lululemon jacket. Her website is packed with photos showing her surrounded by constituents of varying ethnicities, practically beaming at the camera.
She is also a moderate. In seven years on Mississauga council, Adams made her name partly through causes you won’t find in the Tory playbook, from “greenification” (15,000 trees planted!) to dedicated routes for city buses. Months before the campaign, she was approached by Grit organizers about running under the Liberal banner in one of the hotly contested Toronto-area ridings that might well swing the election. Instead, she accepted the Tories’ invitation to seek the nomination on her home turf—even though it meant taking on a powerful Liberal incumbent, Navdeep Bains.
Adams says she’s always been a fiscal-first kind of politician. “People know where the money comes from, and how much they have left in their pockets at the end of the day,” she says in an interview. But she is also the beneficiary of some old-style politics. Mindful of the crucial races looming there, the Harper government has sprayed more than $250 million in infrastructure and stimulus around Mississauga since the last federal election, funding everything from an ambulance station to bicycle trails. Far from blushing about this old-school largesse, Adams says it persuaded her the Conservatives were serious about winning. “There were a lot of things the community needed but didn’t have, despite being a major urban centre,” she says. “I feel the Conservatives were very responsive.”
The benefit to the Tories of Adams’s candidacy is obvious: she has a ready-to-roll electoral machine, in a riding comprised of 60 per cent visible minorities. Within four days of announcing her nomination, her local constituency association had signed up 350 volunteers to canvass and put up signs—many of them high school and university students belonging to the local Asian and South Asian communities. Aqsa Mian, a 17-year-old baccalaureate student from nearby St. Francis Xavier High School, recruited dozens of her classmates to pitch in. “I wasn’t really in favour of one party over another,” she says. “But when I found out Eve was running, I wanted to help.”
So it goes these days for the Tories in Ontario. Minority groups once put off by the Canadian Alliance now lend the Conservatives organizational muscle—persuaded it provides a viable alternative to the Liberals. Last January, six South Asian organizers defected from the constituency team of Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla to that of Parm Gill, her Tory opponent in Brampton-Springdale. In Mississauga-Erindale, where about 26 per cent of residents are of Asian descent, influential Chinese businessman Victor Oh has been setting up meet-and-greets for Conservative incumbent Bob Dechert, who edged out Liberal Omar Alghabra by just 397 votes in 2008. “When the Progressive Conservatives were wiped off the map, we had no one to support,” says Oh. “Now there’s a choice.”
On one level, this is the party tapping into a long-dormant base of small-c conservatives. On another, it is a battlefield strategy for a fast-changing political landscape. Gone are the Rotarians and Kiwanis Clubbers who once did the grunt work of local campaigning in the whiter Ontario of old, notes Jason Kenney. The Tory immigration minister has just finished a walkabout at a sprawling Asian supermarket in west Mississauga, and is seated in an upstairs meeting room, surveying the posters for local Chinese-Canadian community organizations that plaster the walls. “These are people who are activists, who like networking, who like getting to know people in government,” he says. “They’re not political organizations per se, but they talk about politics and some of their members get involved.”
Local organization will have to count for a lot if Harper proves a less reliable lure to voters than the Conservatives hope. While the Tory campaign touts him as its greatest asset, Innovative Research’s probe of voter attitudes suggests Ontarians remain conflicted about the PM. Some 34 per cent of respondents to the 20/20 panel said Harper would make the best prime minister, compared to 26 per cent who gave the nod to Ignatieff. Yet nearly six out of 10 agreed with the statement “Stephen Harper scares me”—more than the number who said so before the 2008 election.
That finding suggests a tenacity to the fear factor Tories insist is in their past. “Liberals had no trouble going to all sorts of different parts of society—seniors, new Canadians—and said, ‘Tories will do this and do that,’ ” Giorno said. “What has happened in the last five years is: the ability of our opponents to distort our positions has been eroded and eliminated by the reality of the track record of the government.”
If concerns linger among some, those who like Harper like him a lot. Twenty per cent of Ontario respondents said they have a strongly favourable impression of him, a slight increase from ’08, while another 17 per cent had a somewhat favourable view of him. As Greg Lyle, Innovative Research’s managing director, points out: “You don’t need half the vote to win. That’s not how our system works.” If Harper increases that level of approval slightly, Lyle says, he stands a good chance of tipping the balance in the pivotal ridings.
Beyond the leaders’ personas, economic issues could resonate with voters, particularly in Ontario. The province’s manufacturing sector was hit hard by the 2009 recession, and unemployment remains above the national average while job creation dropped off in the second half of last year. According to Giorno, that’s why Harper’s message emphasizes unfinished business on the economy. “We’re in the middle of a plan,” he says. “The election is interrupting this important work.” But Jeff Kehoe, Ignatieff’s Ontario campaign co-chair, spins it the other way. “Ontario voters don’t believe the recession is over,” he says. “I don’t think the Harper version of the challenge—finish the job—is appealing to them.”
Ontario isn’t just a two-way race. Jack Layton’s NDP won six new seats in the province in 2008, all at the expense of the Liberals. The party is looking to take more Liberal ridings this time, notably targeting some downtown Toronto seats where the Tories aren’t a serious threat. However, Layton also finds himself playing defence. Harper is targeting NDP MPs who pledged to oppose the federal gun registry, then switched when a bill to scrap it came up for a vote in the House. It was no accident that Harper reasserted his vow to eliminate the registry in the Ontario riding of Welland, whose NDP incumbent, Malcolm Allen, voted against eliminating it. Tories have vilified Charlie Angus, a northern Ontario NDP MP, over the same issue.
That sort of riding-by-riding attention to detail reflects how tight Ontario races are looking, and thus how hard-won any gains will be—and how heartbreaking any losses. With so many seats up for grabs, the prize looks huge from a distance. Up close, it’s another story: not mass shifts between parties, but gritty, house-to-house electoral combat. Harper made his party competitive in the country’s biggest electoral battleground in past campaigns. This time, he’s being tested to prove that he can keep advancing against real competition. Charlie Gillis and John Geddes
Ontario-only results for the Canada 20/20 panel are drawn from 754 randomly selected respondents who live in the province and are part of Innovative Research Group’s nationwide online survey. Responses were gathered from April 1-3; the margin of error for Ontario results is plus or minus 3.57 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.