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Canada Provincial by-election in Scarborough a three-way battleground

At the midway point of her four-year mandate, Premier Kathleen Wynne must prove her government’s baggage isn’t weighing it down in the Scarborough by-election.

Eduardo Lima/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It's 30 degrees in the shade on United Square, a blue-collar cul-de-sac in the Malvern area of Scarborough, and Fred Kamil's anger with the Ontario Liberal Party is rising faster than the mercury.

Sitting in a lawn chair in the driveway of his white brick bungalow on a recent morning, the 71-year-old retired auto worker lists all the ways he believes that the province's governing party has let him down: rising electricity prices; the lack of public transit in this corner of the city; the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants.

"With all the scandals, who has to pay for it? Not Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty – me and you do," he says. "I voted Liberal for 45 years, man, but they've lost me."

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This is what the Liberals are up against in Thursday's by-election in Scarborough-Rouge River. At the midway point of her four-year mandate, Premier Kathleen Wynne must prove her government's baggage isn't weighing it down – and that neither the privatization of Hydro One nor the many delays in bringing a subway extension or new LRT (light-rail transit) to Scarborough will end the party's dominance of this crucial seat.

Related: Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown won't 'scrap' Ontario sex-ed curriculum

A Liberal fief since its creation in 1999, Scarborough-Rouge River is now a three-way battleground. The NDP came within 3,000 votes of snatching it away in the past two general elections, with the Progressive Conservatives close behind. A working-class area with large Tamil, Chinese and Caribbean communities – about two-thirds of residents were born outside Canada – it lies in the vote-rich Toronto suburbs where provincial elections are decided.

Rookie PC Leader Patrick Brown badly wants a victory here to prove that his much-vaunted outreach to immigrant communities is translating into political support. The NDP, for its part, desperately needs a breakthrough in the suburbs to be considered a serious contender for government.

The vote is also unfolding in the wake of the mysterious resignation of Bas Balkissoon, who abruptly quit politics in March after holding the seat for more than a decade. He has been tight-lipped about his reasons for quitting. In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, he said only that "the time has come for me to retire" and asked for privacy.

Mr. Balkissoon has not campaigned for the Liberals in the by-election, leaving candidate Piragal Thiru to field questions about his departure.

"Could you tell me why Bas Balkisoon left?" asks one middle-aged man who beckons Mr. Thiru to his doorstep. "Nobody seems to know. I'm trying to find out. Everyone's giving me a different answer."

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"He retired to spend more time with his family," Mr. Thiru replies. "It's important that we respect that."

It's not the only tough question Mr. Thiru has to contend with as the standard-bearer for the governing party. But the boyish 37-year-old, who works as a transportation planner in nearby York Region, has polished, pat answers for them all.

On hydro prices, he pledges government subsidies. On transit, he sidesteps the fractious debate between subway advocates and LRT proponents by contending that it is up to city government to decide what to build and that the province's role is to provide the money.

Two neighbourhoods away, the NDP's Neethan Shan is doing his best to stoke the anger Mr. Thiru is fighting.

"Car insurance and hydro bills are skyrocketing while incomes haven't been keeping up," says Mr. Shan, 37, a school trustee making his third bid for a provincial seat. "And people want the subway to be built and built now, instead of discussing over and over again."

Such bread-and-butter concerns go over well at the door. "My [hydro] bill is for $452. I think: Why? There are only three people here," says Martha Gomez de Asuad, 60, gesturing at her modest bungalow as Mr. Shan's canvass team nods along.

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The PCs are stoking an issue of a different sort. In a letter signed by Mr. Brown and distributed in Scarborough last week, the Tories promised to scrap the Liberals' new sex-education curriculum.

The letter was an apparent about-face for Mr. Brown, who vowed in June not to repeal the curriculum if elected premier. But the Tories changed their tune after discovering discontent with the curriculum among some new Canadian communities in Scarborough.

For several days after the letter was uncovered by media, Mr. Brown defended it on Twitter. Then, he pulled another about-face: In an op-ed in the Toronto Star Monday, Mr. Brown disowned the letter, claiming it had been written by campaign staffers in Scarborough who "went too far." He promised not to repeal the curriculum.

The Tory leader's double U-turn is likely to revive old tensions within his party, which has long been divided on whether to cater to socially conservative voters. It also handed the Liberals an opportunity to portray Mr. Brown as an insincere opportunist.

"Why did he change his mind on such an important issue? To win a few votes," Education Minister Mitzie Hunter wrote in a Sunday e-mail to Liberal supporters seeking donations. "Patrick Brown is literally willing to say anything, to anyone, at any time."

The other internal Tory debate figuring in the by-election is the presence of Doug Ford. The former councillor and mayoral candidate is co-managing PC candidate Raymond Cho's campaign. The decision to give Mr. Ford a role raised eyebrows among some Tories, who worry that Mr. Ford could overshadow the party's message.

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But Mr. Cho insists that such concerns are overblown. "He's helped me a lot. People in Scarborough, they love Doug Ford," the 80-year-old councillor says. "I don't know the internal politics. I just concentrate on my campaign."

And a factor even bigger here than Mr. Ford is the cultural one. When Mr. Cho discovers that voter Chris Ratna is Tamil, he launches into a brief speech condemning genocide in Sri Lanka. Mr. Ratna is pleased. "I'll vote for you. … You give the respect, you're a very genuine guy," the 48-year-old furniture factory worker says.

Mr. Cho says Mr. Brown's outreach efforts, which include attending copious events and regularly meeting with leaders of immigrant communities across the province, are paying off.

"Two years ago, when I was running as the PC candidate, some people were asking 'Why are you running for the white people's party? Why are you running for the rich people's party?' " he says. "This time, nobody asks that kind of question."

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