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Will your election lawn sign provoke a backlash?

Someone left an anonymous critical note on Stephanie Robinson's car a few days after she placed a Conservative sign on the lawn of her family's Lytton Park home.

Della Rollins/Della Rollins/Globe and Mail

Like many Canadians, Stephanie Robinson decided to show her political support during this election campaign by allowing party officials to place a candidate's sign on her lawn. But Ms. Robinson, a Toronto resident who votes Conservative, wasn't expecting to get a complaint about the public display of her political leanings.

A few mornings after the Tory candidate's sign went up on her lawn in the long-time Liberal riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, she found a letter on the windshield of her car that offered a long rebuke for her Conservative Party support.

"Wake Up Neighbour!" the typewritten note begins. "Noticed your lawn sign and thought you might like some information before you are totally embarrassed by your choice. Do you not receive any newspapers or watch anything other than reality TV shows[?]Are your favourite news sources the attack ads you watch on TV? It could be the only explanation for your apparent lack of judgment."

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Stunned, Ms. Robinson wondered who could have left the letter, which was signed, "A concerned neighbour."

"At first, I stood there for a moment and just looked up and down the street and wondered, 'Who's done this,' " she said. "Every time I saw someone, I thought, 'Was it you?' "

Later that day, she called her local Conservative Party office and asked them to put the biggest sign it had on her lawn.

"It makes me more resolved and I think, 'Well, I'll defend my views and no party is perfect and no platform is perfect, but this is the great thing about Canada and the democratic system,' " Ms. Robinson said, adding that she suspects that the letter writer does not know her family personally.

With the election campaign heating up, political signs are cropping up on lawns across the nation, bringing with them questions about etiquette and concerns about ruffling neighbourly feathers.

Suddenly, Liberal supporters are looking differently at the people across the street who have lawn signs supporting the Greens. Other households are agonizing over the decision to erect an NDP sign, fearing a possible backlash from Tory neighbours.

As Ms. Robinson discovered, publicly declaring political allegiances can rile neighbours with differing views.

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That fear has so far kept Dave Duncan from planting an election-campaign sign on his lawn. Mr. Duncan, who lives in Toronto's East York area, said he is worried that some neighbours may take offence if he puts a Liberal sign on his lawn.

Politics rarely comes up when he runs into his neighbours at the dog park or speaks to them on the street. As a result, he is unsure of the reaction he might get from a lawn sign, and because he and his wife plan on staying in the area for some time, that is cause for concern.

For instance, during last year's Toronto mayoral election, Mr. Duncan recalled being surprised when a neighbour revealed that he was a big fan of Rob Ford, an admission he admitted made him look at the neighbour differently.

"In any established neighbourhood where you're getting to know the people on a really superficial level, the question of etiquette kind of rang in my mind," he said. "If I put a sign up on my lawn, people are going to think, 'Oh he's one of them' and it might change their mind about me."

But he is also worried that publicly declaring his party allegiance will be akin to imposing his views on others - something he and many other polite Canadians typically shy away from. "Am I forcing others to think about whether they agree or disagree with my political leanings?" he said. "Generally in Canada, we're a very polite society and so we don't like to get in people's faces."

The stereotypical niceness of Canadians is what makes the enthusiasm for lawn signs during election campaigns such a contradiction, said Royce Koop, who teaches political studies at Queen's University in Kingston.

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Lawn signs represent one of the few times that Canadians publicly declare partisan leanings, and, as a result, it can produce an emotional response in voters. "Most people are not partisans and most people that are partisans don't wear it on their sleeve in Canada," Dr. Koop said. "Putting a lawn sign out, it's a blatant demonstration of party support and it can be provocative."

Although there have been reports of some lawn signs being defaced during the current election campaign, such as crosshairs being painted on an Ottawa Liberal candidate's signs at the beginning of the month, those incidents are not common, Dr. Koop said.

Canada is one of the few countries in which political lawn signs are a major part of local campaigning, with competing parties working to outdo each other with the number of signs in any given riding, he said. "It's like an arms race now," he said. "I think that not many people realize how uniquely Canadian this whole lawn-sign thing is. It's something you do not see in other countries."

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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