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Conservative surge combined with ballot confusion could crack a Liberal stronghold in Toronto byelection

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Growing political discontent in a Liberal stronghold could lead to a Conservative breakthrough in an Ontario byelection that may put Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leadership to the test. On Monday, voters in the riding of Toronto--St. Paul's will head to the polls to elect a new member of Parliament.

The federal seat was previously held by Carolyn Bennett before she resigned last year and has remained staunchly Liberal for more than three decades. But with the Grits falling to record-lows in popularity, some now see the local race as a referendum on the Prime Minister.

With no incumbent candidate, the pressure is on Liberal candidate Leslie Church to keep the riding red. But she will have to fight off a surging competitor, vote splitting and possible ballot confusion to eke out a win.

Housing and homeless hot buttons

Last Wednesday, five days before the June 24 byelection, CTV News interviewed Church at her campaign office in midtown Toronto. Red lawn signs bearing her name were taped on the back wall, while two volunteers sat at a table facing the glass storefront. Four boxes of day-old discounted pink and chocolate donuts sat untouched on another table underneath a map of the riding.

Just before the interview started, a homeless man wandered into the campaign office seeking respite from the heat and was offered water by a staff member. The scene embodied the issues gripping Toronto--St. Paul’s.

"People are stretched right now. The number one concern I hear is around the cost of housing and rent. Sixty per cent of our households here are renters," said Church, when asked to explain what her doorstep pitch is to counter the desire for change in the constituency.

"Change doesn't mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Change doesn't mean abandoning your values, change means 'let's do things better.'"

A retro strategy

Church, who was the Chief of Staff for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, is trying to beat her rival with a strategy linking him to a provincial leader from another era.

"People are worried about the alternative here that is promising cutbacks, that is promising a Mike Harris-style conservatism that a lot of people in Toronto--St. Paul's actually remember," said Church, linking her Conservative opponent to the Ontario premier who came to power in the mid-1990s.

"The decade that came out of the Harris government where, you know, our teachers, our nurses, paramedics, our public services were just, you know, all broken. That's not what they want to go back to."

Clashing domestic and international politics

Other than housing and affordability concerns, data scientist and pollster Nik Nanos says the byelection could also turn on the "hot button issue of what's happening in the Middle East between the state of Israel and Hamas."

The most recent census from 2021 shows 15 per cent of constituents in Toronto--St. Paul's are Jewish.

The office of Conservative candidate Don Stewart is just across the street from Church’s headquarters. He took leave from his work at the Canadian Investment Regulatory Organization, an organization that regulates investment and mutual fund firms to run for office. Stewart did not respond to multiple requests for interviews from CTV News delivered over email, social media, phone calls and in-person.

But, he appears to be tailoring his pitch to Jewish voters. Of the three videos on his Facebook page, one echoes Pierre Poilievre's familiar refrain, that “after eight years of Justin Trudeau, crime, chaos and disorder are common in our streets," and that there’s a "marked rise in antisemitism and incitement of violence" near schools and synagogues.

There are signs on the residential streets near the Forest Hill Jewish Community Centre that Stewart’s message is resonating. Three homes on one street near the synagogue have put a Conservative sign on their lawn. Two of the homeowners said it was the first time they’ve publicly displayed their vote intention. They were long-time Liberal supporters who wanted to signal they had switched sides.

Amrit Parhar, the NDP candidate in the Toronto-St.Paul byelection. (Judy Trinh)

NDP appeals to the heart and head

During the 2021 federal election, the NDP came in third in Toronto-St.Paul’s. Nanos says he’ll be analyzing the data to see if voters on the left cast their ballots strategically.

"Will they hold their nose and vote Liberal in order to make sure that the Liberals hold on to this or will they stick with Jagmeet Singh and the New Democrats in order to send a message to Justin Trudeau?”

As Amrit Parhar canvases in apartment buildings, the NDP candidate says she’s hearing a strong desire for political change when she door knocks. In the last days of the race, the community organizer is boosting her ground game with an emotional appeal to dissuade would-be supporters from backing the Liberals to block the Conservatives.

"Not to react with fear, not to fall into that ‘I’m going to go in and vote this way because I’m scared of the Conservative…vote with your values and vote for a party that’s going to really hold to true to what is here in your heart,” said Parhar.

Reforming the longest list

Interest in the race in Toronto--St. Paul’s is made more intriguing by the record number of candidates running in the byelection. The ballot lists the names of 84 registered candidates - 76 of whom are part of a protest movement.

Glen MacDonald is one of the independent candidates for the “Longest Ballot Committee” pushing for electoral reform. He voted in the advanced polls and found his name halfway down the metre long ballot.

MacDonald says the goal of the protest of the longest ballot initiative is to force people to see the need for electoral reform.

"It’s more about getting people to think about what they’re doing when they are voting and really asking themselves - does my vote count?"

Elections Canada data shows that in the 2021 federal election, the Conservatives won 200,000 more votes than the Liberals, but got 41 fewer seats.

"How is that fair. The (first-past-the post) voting system distorts the results and discourages people from voting," said Macdonald, who advocates for proportional representation.

Still, the large number of candidates could splinter the vote, which could lead to more cracks in the Liberal stronghold, and more questions surrounding the Prime Minister Trudeau’s ability to lead his party to victory in the next general election. 

A screenshot from CTV News' results map from the 2021 federal election showing the results from the Toronto--St. Paul's riding.

Correction

A previous version used demographics from the 2016 census. The story now reflects the percentage of Jewish population in the 2021 census.

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