Liberals face tough battle over wallets in key part of Ontario that will decide Trudeau’s fate
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept to power in 2015 on a surge of support from suburban Toronto voters such as Sohaila Khoda, an Iranian-Canadian who was once a fan of the Canadian prime minister. Four years later, she’s considering his rival.
“We’re getting to the time that we have to go Conservative,” Khoda said after attending a boisterous all-candidates debate at a community centre in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a city just north of Toronto. “The Liberals are going to lose seats.”
Like Ohio in the U.S., the sprawling suburbs around Toronto will likely dictate who will win the Oct. 21 election. After sweeping the diverse, immigrant-rich region four years ago, the Liberals are facing a difficult battle against Conservative Party led by Andrew Scheer in the bellwether region known for its 905 area code.
While polls tip Trudeau to win the most seats, his party is riding neck and neck with the Conservatives in the popular vote. If the Liberals sink to a minority government, or lose the election, chances are it will be because Trudeau lost support in this key area over his handling of foreign policy issues such as Iran and China, and the soaring cost of living.
Khoda came to the evening debate seeking answers from Liberal incumbent Majid Jowhari on his position of resuming ties with Iran — a country she fled 33 years ago — even though she has made her choice. The Liberals’ views on Iran, and “upsetting” efforts dealing with the U.S. on trade, led her to switch support to Conservative candidate Costas Menegakis.
Others packing the gym suggest a close two-way battle between the Liberals and Conservatives in a riding pollsters say favours the incumbents.
“I think Majid Jowhari has a good chance,” said Mohammad Mahmoudzadeh, 66, chairman of a local construction firm, though he no longer expects the Liberals to win a majority government.
The Richmond Hill riding has about 110,000 people with a median total household income of $73,563 (US$55,245), similar to Ontario’s provincial average. Three out of every five people here are immigrants, of which 72 per cent are from Asia — led by China, Iran and Hong Kong, according to the country’s statistics agency. Almost two thirds of the population view themselves as “first generation” Canadians.
Richmond Hill is one of 25 ridings in the 905 that includes the cities of Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan and Markham. They’re family-oriented communities whose homeowners carry large mortgages, leaving little left over for spending elsewhere and often commute to Toronto for work, where lack of public transit is a perennial complaint.
“This is a community that’s been really hampered in its growth by the lack of a subway station,” said Karen Mortfield, executive director of the Richmond Hill Board of Trade, which hosted the debate. “That’s a big deal.”
In 2015, the Liberals captured all of Toronto’s 25 ridings and all but three of the suburban districts, helping Trudeau win a majority government with 184 of the 338 seats in Parliament. But the seats often flip. In 2011, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives captured most of the suburbs and parts of Toronto to gain a majority. The two regions together make up 50 seats, accounting for 15 per cent of the entire country.
“Since the early 1960s the suburban belt around Toronto has determined which party comes to power and whether it’s going to be a majority or minority,” Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto political science professor who specializes in Canadian politics, said in a phone interview. “And in this election, the Liberals are going to sustain significant losses — they might lose half of those seats.”
Winning this region involves swinging votes by a couple percentage points and the Liberals are playing defence versus 2015, when Trudeau’s “Sunny Ways” mantra of hope appealed to Canadians wanting change after nearly a decade of Conservative rule, Wiseman said. He anticipates lower voter turnout this time, especially among younger Canadians, which favours the Conservatives since they tend to gain the older vote.
The Liberals have 36 per cent support compared to 35 per cent for the Conservatives, while the New Democratic Party is third with 13 per cent, according to a Nanos Research survey published Wednesday by CTV News and the Globe and Mail. Seat projections compiled by Canadian Broadcasting Corp. put Trudeau on track to win in 153 districts, short of the 170 required for a majority.
At Hillcrest Mall, one of Richmond Hill’s biggest shopping centres, voters were divided. For Soroush Yousefi, 23, voting Conservative is a no-brainer even though he backed Trudeau four years earlier. Scheer’s tax cuts and promises to boost the economy.
“Back then, a lot of the things Trudeau promised seemed better, but since he’s been in power, everything has been going downhill,” said Yousefi, a sales associate, who points to the lofty cost of housing. “Everything just keeps getting more and more expensive and the jobs aren’t paying enough to keep up with your expenses.”
A few stores away, employee Emma Hamilton said she’s probably voting Liberal.
“I’ve been working 40 hours the entire summer each week just to save up for school so my biggest concern is everybody’s stance toward education and I don’t like the direction the Conservatives are going,” Hamilton, 20, said while closing shop after a late weeknight shift. “I feel like Trudeau’s all talk as well, so I’d like to vote NDP, but they never win.”
No one at the mall or community centre took issue with Trudeau’s blackface controversy, photos of him in dark make up as a younger man, released earlier in the campaign.
Even Richmond Hill’s mayor wouldn’t predict the outcome of the federal contest in his backyard during an Oct. 2 phone interview.
“It’ll be very close and it might end up being a party where the two governments have to work together,” Mayor Dave Barrow said.