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Top Toronto Centre contenders square off early

Linda McQuaig, who won the NDP nomination in the by-election for Toronto Centre MP, takes a seat after speaking in Toronto on Sunday, September 15, 2013.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

The fight for the key federal riding of Toronto Centre will be fought over the state of the Canadian middle class.

Days after nomination battles were settled and before a by-election is officially called, the race is under way – with two top contenders already squaring off on the economy.

Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist, was appointed Tuesday as co-chair of her party's economic council of advisers, a prominent posting Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau hopes will underscore his party's focus on income inequality. But NDP challenger Linda McQuaig isn't shying away from the issue either, challenging Ms. Freeland to a debate on a subject that both have written about extensively.

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Mr. Trudeau had personally wooed Ms. Freeland and backed her candidacy. He has repeatedly spoken about the pressures facing the Canadian middle class, a subject that was a pillar of Ms. Freeland's recent book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. She says the issue resonates on the campaign trail.

"What was tremendously interesting and important for me, in fighting for the Liberal nomination in Toronto Centre, is learning you do not have to be an economist, you do not have to have a PhD, to know that that squeeze is happening, and to feel it," Ms. Freeland said in Ottawa on Tuesday.

Mr. Trudeau brushed aside questions of what role Ms. Freeland would play if she didn't succeed in retaining the long-time Liberal seat.

But Ms. McQuaig is already putting up a fight.

"It's hard to imagine what useful economic advice Freeland can offer Trudeau," Ms. McQuaig said in a statement. "Rather than assuming she's going to win, she should come to the riding, where I've invited her to debate rising inequality and what can be done about it."

That debate isn't likely to happen. A spokesperson for Ms. Freeland said only that she looked forward to debating Ms. McQuaig "in all-candidates debates once the by-election is called."

Ms. McQuaig is the author of several books, including The Trouble With Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World (and How We Can Take It Back). The NDP argues Ms. Freeland and Ms. McQuaig have "come to very different conclusions about the causes and solutions to rising inequality."

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"We've heard for years that this is just the reality of the global economy, and we just have to put up with this. We've heard, tighten our belts, learn to do with less, just work harder," Ms. McQuaig said at a campaign appearance in Toronto on Tuesday. "There is nothing natural or inevitable about the dramatic increase in inequality and the tremendous increase in precarious employment."

Ms. Freeland is a former Globe and Mail journalist who served most recently as a senior editor at Thomson Reuters in New York. Ms. Freeland said Tuesday she hopes to help build the Liberals' economic platform leading up to the 2015 election.

"This is not something you can sit down and write a bumper sticker about. It's not a three-point plan you can come up with on a napkin one morning. This is a really, really hard problem. And we are rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on it, starting today," Ms. Freeland said.

Mr. Trudeau called Ms. Freeland a "tremendous source of strength and expertise for us," and had little doubt she'll clinch a seat vacated by the retirement of former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae. "She is going to win the confidence of the people in Toronto Centre," Mr. Trudeau pledged.

Both Ms. Freeland and Ms. McQuaig won their nominations Sunday. The seat has been held by the Liberals for several elections, but support has waned. Mr. Rae won the seat in 2011 with 41 per cent of the vote, down from the 54 per cent share he won in 2008. The NDP, meanwhile, earned 30 per cent, up from 15 per cent in 2008. The by-election date for Toronto Centre and three other vacant ridings has not yet been set.

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