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Julian Fantino arrives at his election night party after winning the by-election in the Vaughan riding. (Chris Young/Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
Julian Fantino arrives at his election night party after winning the by-election in the Vaughan riding. (Chris Young/Chris Young/The Canadian Press)


Vaughan by-election loss adds to Ignatieff's woes Add to ...

Julian Fantino's snatching of the Greater Toronto riding of Vaughan in Monday's federal by-election will further cloud Michael Ignatieff's troubled leadership and offer a glimpse of a possible Conservative majority government after the next election.

The loss of their long-held seat in Vaughan to the Conservatives is disquieting for the Liberals on several fronts. For one thing, the party is 1-for-7 in by-elections under Mr. Ignatieff, after they took Winnipeg North away from the NDP Monday. Every loss deepens the hole the Liberals must climb out of to form even a minority government.

The riding, which the Liberals have held since it was created 22 years ago, has a large Italian community, and both parties ran Italian-Canadian candidates. The Conservative victory suggests that Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's relentless campaign to win the so-called ethnic vote away from the Liberals is succeeding.

Even more important, the switch in Vaughan continues the momentum away from the Liberals and toward the Conservatives in the so-called 905 region surrounding Toronto, putting a dozen Liberal ridings, from Brampton West to Ajax-Pickering, in play.

Every one of those Liberal MPs will be alarmed by the loss of Vaughan.

The by-election result introduces a major new player onto the national political stage. Mr. Fantino, the former Toronto police chief and commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, is a prominent, if polarizing, personality. He was a media magnet in his former career, though his handlers kept him hidden through most of the by-election.

The former top cop will almost certainly make it into cabinet at the next shuffle, where his large and sometimes abrasive personality will come in direct contact withy the all-controlling Prime Minister's Office. Public Safety would be a natural place for him, though the current minister, Vic Toews, enjoys his portfolio and might be reluctant to make room for him.

Coupled with conservative councillor Rob Ford's victory in the Toronto mayor's race and the growing support in the region for provincial Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, the natural question is whether a Toronto Tory trifecta is in the making that could sweep Stephen Harper's Conservatives to a majority government in the next federal election.

"If you look at the electoral map, the whole of Toronto is blue," observes Ipsos Reid pollster John Wright. "The time is right for Conservatives to move into the area."

But a major caveat remains. At the federal level, Liberals are still more popular with Toronto voters than the Conservatives. Many Torontonians continue to view the Harper government as hostile to the city, a view reinforced by the Tories' refusal to compensate losses and expenses during last June's G20 summit.

"Just because Toronto is trending blue, that doesn't mean you can paint it Super Blue," Mr. Wright believes. Progress for the Conservatives "will have to be taken one step at a time."

Nonetheless, any hopes Mr. Ignatieff might be harbouring of reversing Conservative gains in the GTA are, at this point, baseless.

The Liberals found some comfort in Manitoba, Monday night, where two other by-elections were held. While former Conservative MP Inky Mark's Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette seat was impregnable, the Liberals were victorious in Winnipeg North, which they wrested from the NDP.

But Manitoba doesn't decide elections. Southern Ontario does. Monday's result will not inevitably foreshadow a coming breakthrough by the Conservatives in the GTA ridings closest to Toronto, and perhaps even in the suburban ridings of Toronto itself. Sometimes a by-election is just a by-election.

But it was a heartening night for the Conservatives. The last thing Mr. Ignatieff should want right now is an election.

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