Just as the Toronto mayoral race was ramping up in mid-summer, Prime Minister Stephen Harper invited front-runner John Tory to meet with him in Ottawa, The Globe and Mail has learned.
With just three weeks left in a 10-month campaign for Toronto's civic election, the Prime Minister has avoided commenting on the closely watched race – especially given that the candidates have all spoken about the importance of relationships with other governments. But privately, Mr. Harper – a public supporter of the Ford family before the drug and police scandals of the past year – sought a meeting with Mr. Tory at which the pair discussed a wide range of topics, including the mayoral race and the future of Canada's largest city.
Mr. Tory, who has maintained a commanding lead in the polls for the past several months, confirmed the meeting in an interview. However, he said he and Mr. Harper have met "many, many times" in the past – before he launched his mayoral bid in February.
"It wasn't in any particular context other than – Stephen Harper is, as everyone knows, a keen student of politics himself," Mr. Tory said of the recent meeting. "He obviously watches what's going on in Toronto, as well he would in the country's biggest city. And especially given what's gone on."
Mr. Tory said that during the meeting, the pair "talked about all kinds of things. We talked about Toronto, we talked about politics generally. We talked about family. It was a wide-ranging conversation."
His campaign refused to provide additional details of the meeting, calling it a "private discussion."
The Prime Minister's Office sidestepped the issue on Monday, neither confirming nor denying it. "We do not comment on the Prime Minister's personal schedule," PMO spokesman Stephen Lecce said.
Several federal sources with ties to the Toronto region said they were unaware of the meeting. Mr. Harper has not endorsed anyone in the race. Outgoing Mayor Rob Ford endorsed Mr. Harper's Conservatives before the 2011 federal election, in which the party made a breakthrough in the GTA that helped lift it to majority status.
Mr. Harper's Conservatives are trailing in polls heading into next year's scheduled election, which will have 30 new federal seats up for grabs, many of them in the greater Toronto region.
With transit – and the question of how to finance it – emerging as the key issue, all three leading contenders – Mr. Tory, Doug Ford, and Olivia Chow – have attempted to portray themselves as best-positioned to work with the province and Ottawa.
Ms. Chow, a former federal member of parliament, has touted her experience in Ottawa advocating for transit. "She was a member of parliament during minority parliament, when she did work with members of the Conservative Party and Liberal Party on everything from immigration to the criminal code, the head tax to prostitution," said her spokesman, Jamey Heath. He added that Ms. Chow has not met Mr. Harper since she began her mayoral race.
And at a debate last week, Doug Ford, who entered the campaign last month to replace Mayor Ford, who is being treated for cancer, boasted of a "fabulous" relationship with Mr. Harper.
Mr. Harper has previously allied himself publicly with the Fords – a relationship that appears to have shifted in the past year. After Rob Ford was elected mayor, Mr. Harper appeared at a Ford family barbecue in 2011. He spoke of a fishing trip the pair had taken, and thanked Diane Ford – mother of Rob and Doug – "for giving us this great Conservative political dynasty that we have here with the Fords."
But as drug and police scandals connected to Mayor Ford continued over the past year, the Prime Minister has distanced himself. In May, after The Globe revealed the existence of a second videotape allegedly showing the mayor smoking crack cocaine, Mr. Harper called Rob's behaviour "very troubling."
Jeff Silverstein, a spokesman for Doug Ford's mayoral campaign, said the candidate has met Mr. Harper "on a number of occasions," and that Mr. Ford has "an open channel of communication with him, a working relationship with him." He did not know when the two had last met.
Throughout his campaign, Mr. Tory – a former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party – has touted his relationships at Queen's Park and Ottawa as evidence he could get his $8-billion Smart Track transit plan built.
Mr. Tory has been formally endorsed by at least nine federal members of parliament from both the Conservative and Liberal parties, and seven members of provincial parliament – several of them in Premier Kathleen Wynne's cabinet.
With a report from Josh Wingrove