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Why the outcome of one Toronto byelection could be consequential for Trudeau, Poilievre

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The stakes are high in a looming June 24 federal byelection in a long-held Liberal riding in Toronto, and if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's party shows signs of slipping, it could spark a bigger conversation, pollster Nik Nanos says.

"I think a lot of people are going to be reading the entrails on this because we are getting closer to the election. Byelections are sometimes referendums on the government of the day," Nanos said on the latest episode of CTV News' Trend Line.

"If it's close, that'll create for some … nervous Nellies in the Liberal caucus, and it's going to be interesting to see what happens."

The Ontario riding, Toronto-St. Paul's, is a textbook definition of a Liberal stronghold, within an overall Liberal fortress in Toronto.

Though, with Trudeau's national and personal polling numbers looking dire, political observers are speculating that if Liberal support slips considerably, or if the party loses the seat, it could trigger more forceful questions about the prime minister's future.

Murmurs about whether Trudeau is considering stepping down — and who might be the contenders contemplating runs to replace him — have been swirling for months, despite the prime minister's repeated assertions that he does not intend to step aside before the next federal election.

Nanos said as much as Liberal loyalists may try to mobilize after the byelection if their party doesn't put up a strong showing, they too could be buoyed by the results, snuffing out the simmering leadership speculation.

"If the Liberals do as well in the byelection as they do in the general election, it'll be like that song, 'Don't worry, be happy,'" Nanos said.

The other element CTV News' pollster is keeping a close eye on is whether Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre will be the Official Opposition leader to help his party break through in the Toronto area.

"If the Conservatives are starting to do better in the city of Toronto, just multiply that … when it comes to the suburbs … that means that they're probably going to be even more of a force in the surrounding Toronto suburban area," Nanos said.

Beyond this, with a record-setting number of candidates on the ballot, there's lots to watch with this race. With less than two weeks to go until e-day, here's what you need to know.

Riding history, candidate info

The riding has been Liberal-held for three decades, with the latest seat occupant Carolyn Bennett winning the seat in 1997, before going on to hold it in the several elections that followed.

That chair in the House of Commons became vacant earlier this year when the family doctor-turned cabinet minister stepped down. She's since been appointed as Canada's ambassador to Denmark.

In her last election in 2021, the margin of victory between her and the runner-up Conservative opponent was considerable, but not as wide as it had been in 2019. Bennett secured the seat with 49.2 per cent of the vote in 2021, with 26,429 of the 53,698 valid ballots cast, while the Conservative candidate took about 25 per cent of the vote. Byelection turnouts are historically lower than in general elections.

Running to replace Bennett and keep the riding Liberal red is Leslie Church, who previously worked as Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland's chief of staff. Church has also worked at Google and the University of Toronto, between political staffer positions.

The Conservative candidate is Don Stewart, an employee at the Canadian Investment Regulatory Organization. Stewart has both engineering and business degrees, and has spent time working on Bay Street.

The federal NDP candidate is non-profit director and community organizer Amrit Parhar, and running for the Greens is self-described political operations professional Christian Cullis.

Poilievre, Trudeau campaign

While not uncommon for byelection candidates to be joined door-knocking by sitting MPs and top party faces, there's been no shortage of high-profile campaigners out on the hustings in the lead-up to, and since Trudeau called this race last month.

Among those out talking to voters with Church have been the prime minister, his deputy and her former boss Freeland, Housing Minister Sean Fraser, Defence Minister Bill Blair, Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, Trade Minister Mary Ng, Health Minister Mark Holland, Justice Minister Arif Virani and several other high-ranking Liberals.

"As a strong progressive voice, she'll be an excellent advocate for her community," Fraser said in a social media post sharing pictures of his door-knocking day.

Visits from Poilievre in April and May, as well as his deputy, Melissa Lantsman, have bolstered Stewart's ground game. Conservative MPs Andrew Scheer, Anna Roberts and Arpan Khanna have also hit the doors.

"Workers here are sick of a government that taxes food, punishes work, doubles housing costs and unleashes crime and chaos in the community," Poilievre said, posting about one of his stop-ins.

Nanos questioned whether Poilievre and his party would be showing as much face-time in the riding if they didn't think they'd have a respectable showing.

How motivated the Liberal and Conservative voters are in that riding will be a key question, he said.

Nanos is also keeping an eye on what will happen with the NDP support.

"In the other byelections we've seen NDP support decline and the Liberals gain at the very last minute, I'm sure Justin Trudeau is probably hoping for something like that in Toronto-St. Paul's," Nanos said.

Historically long ballot

Advance polls open on Friday and run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. local time through Monday, June 17, before the big day on June 24 when polls open from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. 

And, when voters in this riding are handed their ballots, they may be in for a surprise.

In a historic first, there are more candidates to choose from in this riding than in any other federal race before.

Elections Canada has confirmed that this byelection has the longest ballot in the history of federal elections, with 84 candidates in the running.

This is a result of a coordinated effort by electoral reform advocacy group the "Longest Ballot Committee" that hopes its attempt at having some fun with how elections are run can give voters a moment of reflection, when casting their ballot, about how democracy could work better.

Previously, the largest number of candidates on a single ballot was 48, in the 2023 Winnipeg South Centre, Man., byelection, also a result of this group's work. 

To accommodate the onslaught of names, Elections Canada is using a unique two-column ballot that will also be larger than usual. 

Watch the full episode of Trend Line in our video player at the top of this article. You can also listen in our audio player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. The next episode and our last one of this season comes out Thursday, June 20.

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