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Marit Stiles, incoming leader of the Ontario NDP, during a news conference at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Feb. 1.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles knows how the governing Progressive Conservatives and other critics will try to portray her: just like her predecessor, Hamilton-born Andrea Horwath, but a latte-sipping version from downtown Toronto.

But Ms. Stiles is prepared to counter that. For one thing, she’s not even from Toronto.

“They haven’t met me yet, if they think that’s what I am,” says Ms. Stiles. “And also, frankly, I don’t know who’s more Toronto than [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford.”

The new Leader of the Ontario New Democrats, who took the helm of her party on Saturday, has represented the Toronto riding of Davenport since 2018.

But she was born and raised in Newfoundland by her American ex-pat parents, on a small farm with goats and a lacklustre vegetable garden, before departing for Ontario to attend university and better economic prospects. It’s a history she plans on harnessing as she begins her new role as Official Opposition Leader.

“What I bring is that ability to connect, actually, with folks beyond Toronto certainly, but also here,” says Ms. Stiles, seated in a boardroom of her new office in Queen’s Park.

That connection will be crucial: For Ms. Stiles, the 2026 election campaign has already begun.

“Absolutely,” she says. “For me, the campaign to defeat Doug Ford … started when this leadership race began.”

It wasn’t much of a competition, however. Despite several of her fellow MPPs announcing that they were exploring leadership bids, Ms. Stiles was the only person to meet the criteria and officially enter the race. She faced a confirmation vote among the party faithful on Saturday, where she addressed the party at a leadership showcase at a convention centre in downtown Toronto.

There were other potential candidates for leadership, such as departing Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo, who said while the party was eager for contenders from diverse communities, the rules and requirements made it more difficult to join.

Ms. Stiles says the party can take a look at the barriers and obstacles facing certain communities. But she prefers her acclamation to what could have been a fractured and polarizing race.

“It’s a great opportunity to move forward with a really unified caucus. And to get going, because we only have a little over three years until the next election,” she says.

Her battle could be more complicated if a moribund Liberal Party resurges, but its own leadership race is at least months away, and the party is facing internal dissent over a pitch to recruit Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner.

For the NDP, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The party has railed against the government’s move to expand the use of for-profit health care clinics and its plan to open up some parts of the Greenbelt to development, despite Mr. Ford’s previous pledge to the contrary.

“Doug Ford is his own worst enemy,” says Ms. Stiles. “Every decision he’s making right now speaks to how little he understands about the priorities of Ontarians.”

In a statement, a spokesperson in the Premier’s office said Mr. Ford recently made an announcement with Ms. Horwath, who is now the mayor of Hamilton, and is willing to work with people from all political stripes to “get things done for the people of Ontario.”

“In the same spirit of collaboration, we sincerely hope that Ms. Stiles puts aside her blind ideology and turns the page on her long history of saying ‘no’ to work with us as we continue to build Ontario,” Caitlin Clark said.

In the meantime, Ms. Stiles, whose first name is pronounced MAH-RIT, but which is often mispronounced by political foes and allies alike, will need to put her stamp on the party, which Ms. Horwath led for the past 13 years.

A 53-year-old mother of two, she is a former Queen’s Park staffer, school board trustee and president of the federal NDP. She also worked for a decade as a researcher and bargainer with ACTRA, the national union of professional performers.

She believes the public’s disengagement and cynicism about politics was a significant factor in Mr. Ford’s return to majority power last year.

While the New Democrats held on to second place, the party lost nine seats and about 10 per cent of the vote it garnered four years earlier.

Gurratan Singh, who lost his Brampton East seat in 2022, said the party’s messages weren’t able to punch through in his diverse community west of Toronto. “I do attribute a lot of what happened in Brampton to low voter turnout. Of course the message needs to be more direct toward Bramptonians. … Clearly there were huge issues there, and that’s something we’re going to work on and develop,” he says.

Still, he has faith in Ms. Stiles’ leadership: “She is a new fresh face for the party.”

Former long-time NDP MPP Gilles Bisson, who held his Timmins riding for 32 years, was among those who lost last year. He says Ms. Stiles, who worked for him at Queen’s Park 30-odd years ago, brings a new perspective that will serve her well. “She comes across as a person with joy and happiness,” he says. Former leaders Howard Hampton and Ms. Horwath “looked angry sometimes. She doesn’t come across that way.”

Political strategist and former federal NDP leader Jack Layton adviser Kathleen Monk calls Ms. Stiles a “formidable campaigner” and communicator who can fit in with any crowd. “She can speak to a rural audience, she knows what it’s like to live and to seek better financial opportunities for herself. And she can also be part of a crowd of downtown Toronto elites.”

While Mr. Ford successfully wooed some trade unions to support his party in the last campaign, Ms. Stiles believes the honeymoon will be short-lived, especially after the government’s ill-fated attempt last fall to ban education workers from striking.

“We are the party of labour, of working people,” she says. “We will never be afraid or ashamed of that.”