The By-Election of 2009

Coming back to Laurie’s riding of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock under the political circumstances that have unraveled provincially was a rare treat for an intern. Laurie’s decision to step down and make room for party leader John Tory to run in a by-election and earn a seat in the legislature had been known since January, but as a result of the Premier calling the by-election for March 5, I was fortunate enough to go up to the riding and observe the campaign first-hand before the OLIP switch-over date of March 2.

I could already sense the campaign mode around me, once I reached Highway 35 to Lindsay, as blue signs with John Tory’s name appeared near the side of the road. Beside the tory banners one could spot the Liberal red and the NDP orange signs with the names of local candidates Rick Johnson and Lyn Edwards, respectively.

The first event of the evening was a pancake dinner organized by the Knox Presbyterian and Christ Anglican churches in the touristy town of Bobcaygeon. There, I caught up with Laurie and John who were in full campaign mode, explaining the by-election and Laurie’s decision to constituents. Soon thereafter, Rick Johnson and Green Party candidate Mike Schreiner showed up to meet and greet the locals – mostly a senior crowd. We slowly made our way to the all-candidates’ debate that evening, which was organized by the Bobcaygeon Promoter.

The main issues were not unlike those facing most of Ontario; manufacturing sector job losses, access to health care services, the plight of farmers, and an overall sense of uncertainty that the difficult economic times have brought with them. Following initial introductory statements, the candidates took questions from the audience which they answered with a view to maximize political points. Contrary to what one might expect, the reason for the by-election did not emerge as an issue overshadowing other pressing matters facing the riding. Mr. Tory was also quite frank in admitting that he did not have “an encyclopedic knowledge” of the riding, considering his Toronto roots, but pledged to work hard and make a difference for people. Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson championed himself as the local candidate who could deliver results for people as a member of the governing party. The rest of the candidates voiced their views as well, mostly focusing on issue-areas like environmental degradation (Green Party) and the break-down of the family as a foundational social unit in modern society (Family Coalition Party). The debate was concluded very cordially, despite previously stated differences and moments of passionate expression.

The next day consisted of a whirlwind of activities for which I got to shadow John and his driver Luc: a morning visit to a gas station café in Omemee where we met local farmers, an over-the-phone interview with 980 Cruz, an interview with the Toronto Sun’s Christina Blizzard in a Lindsay coffee shop, a tour of the Holsag chair factory, and finally, a tour of the Armada car parts manufacturing plant. In between these events, I tagged along with John and Laurie as they canvassed the main street in Lindsay, casually chatting with people about the daily challenges they face, and what the province could do to improve their lives. That evening we also went to the hockey arena to enjoy a ‘good ol’ hockey game’ between Lindsay and Sunderland, which was quite entertaining, although John was in the predicament of which team to cheer for since both communities were in the riding.

My last day there was no less filled with intrigues and scheduled stop-overs throughout HKLB’s vast, geographically dispersed communities. A luncheon organized by the Ladies’ Auxiliary in Woodville was first on the agenda, followed by an agricultural round-table on a dairy farm close to Omemee. I found the round-table to be particularly interesting, as farmers expressed their grievances in terms of dealing with governments, banks, and other institutions that have a huge impact on their livelihoods. The hosts then kindly gave us a tour of the farm, which was quite sophisticated and used the latest machinery to milk the cows. My time on that farm really gave me a glimpse of life in rural Ontario, and offered me a somber reminder of how extensive and complex farm operations actually are.

We then headed back to Lindsay to hold some more face-to-face meetings with constituents and prepare for the final debate that was to be held that evening in the local high school. As before, the candidates had short introductory remarks before plunging into their answers to questions posed by the local sponsors of the event (mostly from the media) and attuned citizens. On many issues, what was said was a repetition of the previous debate in Bobcaygeon, but this event had a much bigger crowd (the gym was packed) and I would assume that more people at this debate were genuinely undecided. Fully aware, the candidates did their best to convey their themes to voters.

After the debate, I had to drive back to Toronto, so I said my good-byes to Laurie, John and their incredibly gracious and welcoming staff, reflecting on the unprecedented opportunity to witness a by-election campaign of such crucial importance for a party leader whose fortunes will be tested on March 5.

– Igor

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