Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland has a message for the voters of Toronto Centre: She wants to champion the cause of the middle class. The NDP's Linda McQuaig has a message for those same voters: she wants to attack the inequality that has kept middle-class incomes stagnant.
But where is the middle class in Toronto Centre?
This is a riding unlike any other in the country. It's home to Canada's largest gay and lesbian population. A little less than half the constituents live in apartment buildings taller than five stories. Adults here are more likely to be single than married and tend to be younger than the rest of the population. It has very little of the geography or demography typically associated with the middle-class, suburban voter who has recently proved the decisive factor in national elections.
Middle-income earners are actually in the minority here. By far the largest groups are the wealthiest and poorest segments of society. About 25,000 people in the riding (one in five) rank among the richest 10 per cent of Canadian households. Another 25,000 are in the bottom 10 per cent, measured by annual household income.
As you move south through the riding you tend to slide further down the income scale. Along a gritty stretch of Parliament Street, near the redeveloped Regent Park, Jamie Lynne sits studying her phone in a coffee shop.
She is a single mother who lives here in the riding's poorer southern half.
She lives on a disability benefit, which is just enough to cover her groceries and the $869 monthly rent for the bachelor apartment she shares with her 11-year-old daughter. She last worked as an exotic dancer, but she's 38 and can't do the work anymore, she said. She's working toward a diploma in counselling. Despite her financial struggles, she sees herself as middle class. The income inequality debate resonates with her. She wants to see a political system that distributes wealth more equitably, so she is leaning toward the NDP.
"I just want those people who have more money to understand that they're not the only people on the planet," she said. "If wages were high enough people would have an incentive to get off their asses and work. That would make a difference. Child care would make a difference. Health care. Those are the things that are important."
In the heart of the 18 high-rise apartment towers that make up St. James Town, Oktay Adner, an immigrant from Turkey, says like many immigrants he left his middle-class status behind when he came to Canada. A university graduate with a career when he arrived, it has taken six years of struggle to get a glimpse of the middle class here in Canada. He hopes to get there soon.
"I will be back at the zero point after 10 years," he says.
To Mr. Adner, a 41-year-old social worker, a middle-class life would mean a job with a decent salary, enough money to eat out once a week and a brief holiday every year.
As he looks around his community he sees pressing issues for politicians. This area is described as one of the most densely populated in the city. More than half of residents are immigrants. Unemployment is high and incomes are low. About 40 per cent of people spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.
"It's unbelievable, the hidden poverty in Toronto, one of the wealthiest cities in the world," he said.
He hasn't yet decided how he will vote.
The NDP has been campaigning aggressively in the neighbourhood. It has been pushing a national housing strategy as a key policy plank. It can take as long as three years just to get into subsidized housing, Mr. Adner said, a major issue. Resident John Roche said he's had several visits from NDP canvassers in his St. James Town apartment tower. He has also received four calls from pollsters, he said. Mr. Roche, 61, is a lifelong Liberal, but he sees strong NDP support this time.
"Everywhere you look you see NDP signs," he said. "The NDP has been in this building every day for a few weeks and at [his friend's] door five times."
Mr. Roche, who lost a leg in an accident and takes his income from a disability pension, said he sees himself in the bottom half of the middle class.
Toronto Centre has been a Liberal stronghold for 20 years. Bill Graham and Bob Rae won here with more than 50 per cent of the vote, although the 2011 Liberal collapse narrowed Mr. Rae's total to 41 per cent, a margin of 6,000 votes over the NDP. But population growth in the riding is all in the south, where the map takes on a distinct NDP orange hue. The Liberals win through the riding's middle, starting at Gerrard Street and extending north of Bloor Street. Conservative support is concentrated in wealthy Rosedale.
The stakes are highest for the Liberal Party. Defeat in what must be considered one of its safest seats would be a crushing blow to Justin Trudeau's leadership. It's unlikely to happen. Last week's Forum Research poll showed a 15-point lead for Ms. Freeland. But by-elections are hard to predict. A party with an effective voter identification and get-out-the-vote machine might, if everything broke their way, steal a victory. "The NDP's specialty is by-elections and they're pouring everything into this seat. I'd say it's still in play for the NDP, but it's an uphill battle," Forum president Lorne Bozinoff said.
If NDP support booms, it could also signal that the electorate, encouraged by Tom Mulcair's performance as the first NDP Opposition Leader, is growing more comfortable with the idea of the party forming a national government. If the NDP fails to topple Ms. Freeland, it can think positive thoughts about next time. In time for the 2015 election, the riding's boundaries are set to be redrawn, creating a smaller Toronto Centre, minus Rosedale, which joins the new University-Rosedale riding. The new Toronto Centre boundaries will favour the NDP.
Jane Anderson lives at the riding's eastern edge on a quiet Cabbagetown street of Victorian row houses. She counts herself among the lucky ones. At 66, she's semi-retired after a varied career that included teaching and industrial real estate. She plans to support Ms. Freeland, whom she met twice during the campaign. But she hopes she finds something other than the vexing issue of middle-class incomes to latch onto. The problems will prove too hard to correct, she fears.
"I find the whole thing so puzzling," Ms. Anderson said. "What's the answer? I don't really think it has anything to do with taxing and redistributing income away from the 1 per cent. It's about finding ways to get people working and earning real money."
Ms. Anderson said she's not even sure what middle class means in Toronto. It could mean people who earn anywhere from $35,000 a year up to $125,000, she thinks. In her own neighbourhood, she sees young families moving in, people she considers the middle class, buying homes for between $800,000 and $1.2-million.
"How they afford it is a big mystery to me," she said.
Up the hill in Rosedale, standing outside the pricey stores known as the "five thieves," Brynn Lackie describes life in this area as "a bit of a bubble." She grew up here, bought her own place and now sells real estate, often to first-time buyers who, like her, want to live in the area where they grew up, often paying a million dollars or more. The homes are beautiful, families are well-educated and well-heeled. They have the time and money to go to the gym, enjoy a coffee at Starbucks, hire a nanny even when they're not working. This is something beyond even the comforts of being middle class.
Asked about what matters to her in this race, Ms. Lackie says she's concerned about the gap between rich and poor. She began her career as a teacher at a high-needs school in Thorncliffe Park and knows first-hand the deprivations some families face.
"I do believe you should tax the rich more," she said. "The people who complain about taxes don't realize what a major difference a fractional increase in taxation could make."
Ms. Lackie has voted Liberal in the past and says she's impressed with Mr. Trudeau's honesty about his marijuana use and by his pledge to practise a more positive brand of politics. She's not optimistic, though, that things will change in a meaningful way.