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Juanita Nathan, who is vying for the chance to take over John McCallum’s House of Commons seat, is accusing the Liberals of playing favourites. (Elections Canada)
Juanita Nathan, who is vying for the chance to take over John McCallum’s House of Commons seat, is accusing the Liberals of playing favourites. (Elections Canada)

Liberal candidates competing with Trudeau aide say race in Toronto-area riding is unfair Add to ...

Two candidates competing with a senior staffer for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to secure a plum Liberal nomination in a Toronto-area riding are publicly complaining the race is unfair.

The Markham-Thornhill seat vacated by former immigration minister John McCallum is one of five ridings across Canada where new members of Parliament will be selected through by-elections set for April 3. Markham-Thornhill’s ethnic makeup is more than 35 per cent Chinese and more than 30 per cent South Asian, according to census data.

Past performance suggests the riding should turn Liberal red again. Mr. McCallum won it with 55 per cent of the vote in 2015.

The vote to pick a Liberal candidate in this riding is set for March 4 and the contest has attracted a top member of Mr. Trudeau’s team in Ottawa. Mary Ng, director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office, has taken leave to seek the Liberal banner in the riding. Ms. Ng, a friend of Trudeau chief of staff Katie Telford, bills herself as “the highest ranking Chinese-Canadian to have ever served in the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Read more: Trudeau aide Mary Ng, vying to run in by-election, highlights her relationship with China

Read more: McCallum to play key role as Canada seeks to expand trade with China

Juanita Nathan, one of Ms. Ng’s opponents for the nomination, said it appears the race is tilted in favour of the PMO operative and she appealed Monday for Mr. Trudeau to intervene. She is a member of the Markham-Thornhill riding association board and a local school board trustee.

Both Ms. Nathan and rival nomination candidate Nadeem Qureshi say the Liberal Party hurt their chances by setting such an early cut-off date to register new members who would be eligible to vote in this nomination contest.

Ms. Nathan is upset that the party on Feb. 20 told her that only members who had been registered by Feb. 14 could cast ballots in the nomination contest.

She said this means about 1,300 memberships that she signed up, but registered after Feb. 14, cannot be employed to help her win the nomination.

Ms. Nathan alleges that a member of Ms. Ng’s campaign team had asked her to step aside in favour of the PMO staffer.

Ms. Ng’s campaign, however, denies this. Her spokeswoman said that a staffer met with a member of Ms. Nathan’s team in a “courtesy call” but she insists no such request was made. “She was neither requested nor expected to withdraw,” Ng spokeswoman Amanda Alvaro said of Ms. Nathan. She notes Ms. Nathan herself did not attend this meeting.

Ms. Nathan released a statement Monday where she alleged the “actions of the Liberal Party in this nomination race are very clearly unfair, favouring one particular candidate, and are preventing the residents of Markham-Thornhill with a fair chance to exercise their democratic right to nominate a candidate of their choice.”

The Mary Ng campaign said its candidate has not been handed an advantage by the membership registration cut-off and some of the members it signed up were also rendered ineligible to vote in the nomination fight.

Mr. Qureshi said he was not given sufficient time to sign up many members. “This is not a fair race,” he said. He said that the Liberals should have warned him about the retroactive member registration deadline.

Both Ms. Nathan and Mr. Qureshi, a businessman, say the impression remains that Ms. Ng is the candidate “preferred” by Liberal Party hierarchy.

The Liberal Party rejects these accusations. It says it has no preference for a candidate and that membership sign-ups were open for weeks after Mr. McCallum signalled he was leaving.

Liberal spokesman Braeden Caley noted that Mr. McCallum announced he intended to leave politics Jan. 10 “and registration for new Liberals in Markham-Thornhill continued to be open for another five full weeks” until Feb. 14. “The next Team Trudeau candidate for Markham-Thornhill will be decided in an open vote by local registered Liberals this Saturday,” Mr. Caley said.

Liberal Party nomination rules include a retroactive cut-off date for new member registrations – between two to seven days before the notice of the date of the nomination contest is announced.

Jack Siegel, a former co-chair of the party’s constitutional and legal affairs committee, explained this cut-off measure in a Facebook post Monday.

“The Liberal Party has had retroactive blind cut-offs for close to 25 years. The idea is to prevent candidates from hoarding memberships … and engaging in ‘nomination by ambush,’” he wrote. This stops candidates from “dumping thousands of forms at the deadline, keeping their signups secret and overloading the party’s membership systems with the flood of forms, all in urgent need of inputting.”

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