He is white, middle-aged and speaks without an accent. And he really does not care for Dalton McGuinty.
Standing on the sunny porch of an older home, a few steps away from the stretch of Yonge Street that runs through Richmond Hill, he complains that taxes are too high. So are energy prices. And there’s too much waste in government.
Meet precisely the sort of person who formed the base of support for the Progressive Conservative Party back in 1995, when Mike Harris channelled anger against Bob Rae to conquer suburbia.
No doubt, he will vote for that party – now led by Tim Hudak – again on Oct. 6. But this time, people who fit his particular profile are unlikely to be enough for the Tories to carry places like this – something they’ll need to do if they’re to return to past glories.
As with much of the “905 belt” around Toronto, massive immigration has made Richmond Hill a very different place from what it was 16 years ago. More than half of its residents were born outside Canada; nearly half belong to visible minorities. And few of them are as passionate about provincial politics as the gentleman on his porch.
As much as providing an outlet for anger, Mr. Hudak’s challenge in 2011 is to shake voters out of the complacency that typically benefits incumbents.
Across most of the province – which had a record-low turnout of 52.7 per cent in the last provincial election and is suffering a degree of election fatigue after municipal and federal elections within the past 12 months – voter disengagement will be a recurring theme this fall. And Richmond Hill, for reasons both geographic and demographic, may be an epicentre of it.
Although a pleasant place to live, with a high average income and few social problems, it lacks the sense of community and shared interest that tends to spark political interest. Beyond a land dispute about the future of the David Dunlop Observatory, a heritage site that could be slated for development, there are few distinctly local issues. A city believed to be reaching the 200,000 mark (most of which is in one riding), it has little in the way of its own English-language media. Most residents are commuters, which means they spend limited time in their own neighbourhoods, and it’s difficult for canvassing candidates to catch them at home.
Reza Moridi, the Liberal MPP who has represented the riding since 2007, insists residents are “proud of their city.” But he acknowledges “they feel themselves to be a part of Metro Toronto.”
All this could be said about much of the Greater Toronto Area. But pockets of the GTA are home to immigrant communities that are highly politically motivated. (The Sikh neighbourhoods of Brampton and Mississauga are obvious examples.) Richmond Hill’s newcomers have tended to be much less so, in large part because of where they come from.
By far the largest minority group in Richmond Hill is Chinese, making up about 30 per cent of the population. Coming from a place where political involvement is heavily discouraged – be it Hong Kong or mainland China – those residents have tended to turn a blind eye here, avoiding direct engagement with candidates.
“For the Chinese, they have to have a lot of courage to come out,” says Daisy Wai, a past chair of the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce who is supporting Progressive Conservative candidate Vic Gupta.
The city’s large Russian population is a similar story, with a somewhat insular quality that makes it difficult for politicians to crack.
Smaller immigrant populations, while somewhat more engaged, hardly seem like target audiences for the Tories. The Italian-Canadians in the western part of Richmond Hill have traditionally been reliably Liberal. And Iranian-Canadians, responsible for much of Richmond Hill’s recent development, are likelier to rally around Mr. Moridi – a prominent nuclear physicist who left Iran in the 1980s.
The 40-year-old Mr. Gupta, whose parents emigrated from India and whose wife is East African, might be able to counterbalance that advantage with some support from the emerging Hindu and Ismaili Muslim populations. But to lay claim to the riding, he’ll need to break into less obviously fertile ground.
The federal Conservatives, who snatched Richmond Hill from long-time Liberal MP Bryon Wilfert last spring, have shown that’s possible – even managing to make significant inroads with the Chinese community. But the provincial Tories don’t really have their own version of Jason Kenney, the Immigration Minister who has worked tirelessly to win over “ethnic” voters. And the provincial Liberals haven’t taken those voters as much for granted as their federal cousins did.
Mr. Hudak’s party will try to make up for lost time this fall – seeking, through promised tax relief and hot-button tough-on-crime promises, to appeal to what it believes is latent small-c conservatism among many immigrant voters. And Mr. Gupta, a lobbyist with a long history in the PC backrooms, believes his personal story will help.
“I find that whether it’s in my community, or the Persian community, or even the Chinese community, there’s a sense of connection,” he says, “because they see me as someone of a diverse background who can relate to the trials and tribulations their family has gone through in coming to this country and struggling to make ends meet.”
At the least, Mr. Gupta can probably rest assured that this is the rare riding where being a bit of an outsider – he grew up in Richmond Hill, but until the end of August lived in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood – is unlikely to hurt his chances. But whether he can persuade voters that they’ve been underserved by the gentlemanly and soft-spoken Mr. Moridi, whom he calls “invisible,” is a different matter.
A mid-August walk along that stretch of Yonge Street – Richmond Hill’s main drag, and one of the few commercial stretches in the city that is walkable – reveals less unrest than indifference. Some shopkeepers won’t talk about politics at all; others are unaware an election will be held shortly. If there are strong opinions about Mr. Moridi, or even Mr. McGuinty, nobody is expressing them.
It’s a far cry from what it must have felt like back in 1995. Mr. Hudak, and Mr. Gupta, have four more weeks to convince the new version of Richmond Hill to share a little bit of that old-fashioned anger.