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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, was a surprise guest Wednesday at a campaign reception in Toronto hosted by MP Patrick Brown, the front-running candidate for leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives.

Patrick Brown's unlikely rise to front-runner in the contest to lead the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party is being funded by an eclectic group of donors, including well-heeled real estate developers, a local hockey-team owner, onion farmers, a medical marijuana businessman, influential Indo-Canadians and even his tennis partner, a long-time Liberal who worked in Jean Chrétien's Prime Minister's Office.

Mr. Brown, a backbench Conservative MP from Barrie, is not well-known around Queen's Park, and was not considered a huge threat when he joined the race last September.

But his hustle is attracting attention – and funds to fuel his campaign. The 36-year-old politician says he attends between 10 and 12 events a day, has put 80,000 kilometres on his Chevrolet Equinox since September, and has extra drivers.

Now Mr. Brown, who has leveraged his ties with minority communities, especially Indo-Canadians, into membership sales, claims to have signed up more members than his opponent, party establishment candidate Christine Elliott, the Whitby-Oshawa MPP and PC deputy leader. Both candidates say they have raised about $1-million for the leadership race, which will be decided in early May.

Last week, Mr. Brown managed to have visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi show up at his leadership rally – quite a coup for a backbencher.

Mr. Modi was mobbed, and Mr. Brown got his money shot with the two of them together on stage. The young politician met the Indian leader six years ago when he travelled to Mr. Modi's trade conference in Gujarat. At the time, Mr. Modi, chief minister of the state in western India, was under a cloud of controversy over religious riots in his region; Canada and Japan were the only countries to support him.

Mr. Brown travelled again to India last January, with friends, where he asked for the Prime Minister's support and invited him to the rally, according to Walied Soliman, the co-chair of Mr. Brown's campaign and a senior partner at Norton Rose Fulbright who made the trip with him. Mr. Soliman is one of Mr. Brown's big donors, giving $25,000.

"Patrick knew that Prime Minister Modi means a lot to the Indian diaspora and he's absolutely committed to changing the face of the party," said Mr. Soliman, who wasn't sure if the Prime Minister would actually come to the rally. "And showing that level of respect to the leader of the biggest democracy in the world meant a lot. It was special."

The Brown campaign says it set a record for the month of March, raising $300,000, and is on track to collect the same in April.

His opponents won't acknowledge surprise at his quick rise. "I respect the work Patrick Brown has done to sell memberships and it's clear that he has done well in some pockets of Ontario," said John Capobianco, Ms. Elliott's campaign co-chair. "But I don't think he has the same broad base of support across all 107 ridings that our campaign has generated."

The Elliott team is encouraged by the number of small donations from a wide group of donors. Both candidates, however, have also received a number of large cheques – in Ontario, there is no limit on the amount an individual or company can contribute.

Deepak Ruparell, a Gujarati-Canadian who owns hotels across Canada, donated $15,000, for example, and a Toronto businesswoman and casino promoter donated $25,000 through a numbered company.

Hunter Milborne, a real estate broker in Toronto, gave $20,000. "I think he's got an attitude where he wants to meet business people and he wants to understand what the issues are for them," said Mr. Milborne, who met Mr. Brown once and had a short chat with him.

The owner of the Barrie Colts hockey team, Howie Campbell, knows Mr. Brown well. He wrote a $5,000 cheque. "Whenever we've called upon him for help … he's always been there," Mr. Campbell said. "You have to support our local guys when they step up …"

Another local business, Horodynsky Farms Inc., a large onion farming operation, has contributed $25,000 to the Brown cause.

Ben Ward operates Canada Cannabis Corp. and personally donated $5,000 – and gave the same amount to Ms. Elliott. His industry is under federal purview, but he will be creating 164 jobs at his new facility in Brampton. He says strong, motivated leadership in Ontario is good for business.

"I wouldn't say either of them ever said they support medical marijuana; I don't know if they would, but they both support economic activity in Ontario," he said.

Then, there are the donors who have nothing to do with business or the party, like Steven Hogue. The Chrétien Liberal started playing tennis at the same Ottawa club as Mr. Brown – and they became friends. "This is entirely personal," Mr. Hogue said of his $250 donation. "It has nothing to do with my political preferences. … It's just supporting a good friend and tennis partner."