Some time on Saturday, John Fraser’s stint as interim leader of the Ontario Liberals will come to an end, when the party selects its new head at a convention in downtown Toronto.
It’s a role the Ottawa Liberal MPP has held twice since 2018 – first after former premier Kathleen Wynne’s devastating election loss, and then after short-lived leader Steven Del Duca’s disappointing finish in the 2022 campaign.
So when people introduce him as interim leader, Mr. Fraser likes to remind them he’s actually the two-time interim leader.
“It doesn’t have the same ring as two-time world champion, but I still like the sound of it,” Mr. Fraser, a 64-year-old grandfather of three, said in an interview at Queen’s Park.
“It’s a little bit sad, but not. What’s coming up is what we need.”
The Ontario Liberal Party will announce its new leader on Saturday after a race that has reignited interest in the third-place party. Bonnie Crombie, the mayor of Mississauga, is the best-known candidate and considered the front-runner in the contest. The other contenders are Nate Erskine-Smith, a Toronto Liberal MP; Yasir Naqvi, a former provincial cabinet minister who is also a Liberal MP; and Kingston and the Islands MPP Ted Hsu.
Mr. Fraser won’t reveal who he supported in the race – “I voted for the next leader of the Ontario Liberal Party” – but he believes all the candidates have an ability to grow the party. The Liberals are using a ranked ballot for the first time, meaning the winner needs support from every corner of the province.
First elected in 2013, Mr. Fraser was a long-time volunteer and staffer for former premier Dalton McGuinty, whom he’s known for 35 years. Mr. Fraser is known around the legislature as a likeable, level-headed and at times loquacious leader, capable of communicating what he calls the party’s pragmatic position to the masses. He’s been the face of the former ruling party at Queen’s Park for the better part of three years, as the Liberals underwent tremendously tumultuous and trying times.
Mr. McGuinty called Mr. Fraser “selfless” and “a godsend for our party.”
“It’s one thing to serve as an opposition leader and it’s a completely different thing to do so when the wind is in your face,” Mr. McGuinty, who will be participating in a video tribute to the interim leader on Saturday, said in an interview.
“He’s demonstrated so much calm, and conviction and resolve and determination, and he’s held it all together at a very challenging time in the history of our party.”
Greg Fergus, the Speaker of the House of Commons, first met Mr. Fraser in 1989 while working in Ottawa. He said Mr. Fraser will be remembered for “experience, good judgment and a real passion, and authenticity.”
Mr. Fraser’s goal has always been simple: to keep Liberals together, and do things that people thought weren’t possible.
That includes the party paying off its $10-million debt, winning two recent by-elections in Ottawa and Scarborough (the party came fourth in this week’s Kitchener Centre race), and gaining in popular vote in the last election (although it didn’t translate into increased seat counts).
Mostly, Mr. Fraser said, the party has worked hard to remain relevant, despite having only nine members in the legislature.
“We’re in the mix. And I think we punched above our weight.”
Derided by Premier Doug Ford as the “minivan” party – because of the size of the Liberal caucus, which was down to seven seats after the 2018 election – Mr. Fraser said the Progressive Conservatives are fixated on the Liberals.
“They’re afraid of us. I’ll say that,” Mr. Fraser said. “Why would they spend so much time on us?”
Lacking official party status and with few resources at his disposal, Mr. Fraser said he came up with his own simplified mantra for communicating the party’s positions: What are the three things he needs to focus on?
“That’s the rule. And then you don’t worry about things that you can’t change.”
Although he plans to run again in the 2026 election, Mr. Fraser said he’s happy to take a back seat come Saturday, or serve in any capacity he’s asked.
“The next leader is going to be out every night, they’re going to be busy every day all day, busy on weekends. They need to run an election campaign,” he said. “And when they’re successful – the next thing is even harder.”