Carter Banks and his buddy are perched on the tailgate of a pickup truck enjoying a sandwich on a fine spring day, when a reporter asks them what issues matter most to them during this Ontario election campaign. The two men point to the gas station across the street, where gas is two bucks a litre.
Here in Perth – a small town in Eastern Ontario, a part of the world where either you drive to where you want to go or you probably don’t get there at all – rising gas prices and rising inflation in general trump all other concerns.
“I’m renting with my dad because I can’t afford a one-bedroom apartment,” says Mr. Banks, who is 20.
Brandon Wellman, who is buying groceries with his wife, Kayla Cordick, is just as concerned about what’s happening at the pumps. “I spend my whole life driving and it’s crazy,” he says.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, who campaigned in the previous election against the federal Liberal carbon tax, and who promises to temporarily reduce the provincial gas tax as of July 1, “has my vote, 100 per cent,” says Mr. Wellman. Ms. Cordick is still undecided.
Some of the dozen people interviewed on a pleasant spring day also cited health care, internet access and services for seniors. But gasoline prices and inflation were top of mind for most of them.
The question is whether suburban Ontario shares their concerns and their voting inclination.
Southern and Central Ontario, which account for more than 90 per cent of the province’s population, consist of three distinct voting blocks. Rural and small-town Ontario tends to vote Progressive Conservative provincially. All the rural ridings in Eastern Ontario went Progressive Conservative in the 2018 election, though Glengarry–Prescott–Russell MPP Amanda Simard left the caucus over cuts to French-language services and now sits as Liberal.
Liberals and New Democrats battle over the cities. In Eastern Ontario, Ottawa Centre and Kingston and the Islands are NDP ridings, while Ottawa–Vanier and Ottawa South are Liberal.
Elections are won and lost in the suburban ridings surrounding the big cities. In some elections, especially those in which economic concerns are top of mind, suburban voters often align with their country cousins, bringing Progressive Conservatives to power. In elections in which concerns about health care, education or the environment dominate, they tend to show solidarity with the city centres, and Liberals rule at Queen’s Park.
In 2018, the suburban Ottawa ridings all went Progressive Conservative, with the exception of Orléans, whose large francophone population reliably votes Liberal.
If suburban Ontario votes in this election based on concerns over inflation in general and gas prices in particular, the vote on June 2 could deliver a second majority government for Mr. Ford. For the Liberals or NDP to do well, other issues will need to push to the front.
The riding of Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston, where Perth is located, consists mostly of towns, villages, farms and bush, stretching from Lanark County south to Highway 401. The unemployment rate and the median income are close to the provincial average; the median age of 48.5 is considerably older than the provincial average of 40.4. There are relatively few immigrants.
It has a famous MPP: Randy Hillier, a fierce libertarian who led the Lanark Landowners Association and then the Ontario Landowners Association, before being elected to the provincial legislature in 2007.
In 2019, he was expelled from caucus after serial acts of bad behaviour. He flouted pandemic restrictions, has been unanimously condemned by members of the Ontario Legislature for promoting COVID-19 conspiracy theories, was a prominent supporter of the protesters who occupied downtown Ottawa in the winter, faces nine criminal charges related to those protests and is banned from entering downtown Ottawa as a condition of his bail.
After flirting with the notion of creating his own political party, Mr. Hillier announced in March that he would not seek re-election.
Ahmad Almdhe cuts Mr. Hillier’s hair – though “I like the idea of the NDP,” he says. Mr. Almdhe, his wife and three children came to Perth as refugees from Syria in 2016. Today he has two more children, Canadian citizenship and his own downtown barbershop. He loves Perth –”I am a five-minute walk from my house and children” – and his customers, who spend much of their time complaining about how unaffordable houses have become and how much it costs just to drive into Ottawa, 80 kilometres to the east. “Everybody says it’s just crazy now.”
In much of Canada, the pandemic accelerated a flight to hinterland from city that was already under way. The Rideau-St. Lawrence Real Estate Board, which encompasses Lanark, Leeds and Grenville and parts of Dundas County, reports that housing prices increased 19 per cent between April 2021 and April 2022.
“It’s just phenomenal,” says Scott Somerville, a Perth realtor, of the housing market in town. He believes that Perth is gradually turning into a satellite of Ottawa. “After all, Kanata is only 40 minutes away,” he points out, referring to a western suburb of the national capital.
Economic issues aren’t the only concern of some Perth voters. This is Mr. Hillier’s old riding, after all. “Mandates and tyranny,” Matthew Larabie, who works in a clothing store, replies when asked what concerns him the most in this election campaign. “I’m tired of the mandates, tired of the BS, tired of the lies.” He doesn’t know how he’ll vote, but it won’t be for any of the major political parties. Along with the three major parties, and the Greens, there are candidates for the New Blue Party, the People’s Political Party and the None of the Above Party.
As a whole, Perth is doing well, with almost no vacant storefronts in the gracious Victorian buildings that dominate one of the most beautiful downtowns in Ontario.
“People who don’t live here should wish they did,” says Brenda Boudreau, a retired nurse who cites services for seniors as the most important issue for her in this election.
But once you go north of Perth, into the Lanark Highlands, the farms get smaller, some of the homes more ramshackle.
“We’re slowly dying out here,” says April Labelle, who works in the general store in the village of Lanark.
The traditional subsistence economy – working in the bush in the winter, helping bring in the harvest in the summer, what Ms. Labelle calls “anyone-can-do jobs” – has largely disappeared. Farms are aging out, the young moving to town. The local restaurant closed recently.
There’s no work here for anyone to do, other than looking after the needs of campers and snowmobilers, she says.
But people are proud and resent government interference. Most of them are staunchly conservative in attitudes and votes.
Mr. Hillier took 52 per cent of the vote in Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston last election. Precedent suggests that PC candidate John Jordan, the former chief executive officer of ConnectWell Community Health, will win the riding.
But the Liberals came close in 2007 in the former riding of Lanark–Frontenac–Lennox and Addington, on which Lanark-Frontenac-Kingtson is largely based. And in the last election it was the NDP who placed second. Drew Cumpson, an accessibility advocate, represents that party in this election, while Amanda Pulker-Mok, an elementary school teacher, is running for the Liberals.
The commuters and telecommuters who make up an increasing portion of the riding may be shifting its political colours. The riding’s population grew to 101,630 in 2016 from 98,424 in 2011, according to Statistics Canada. The town of Carleton Place, 30 kilometres to the east, is ringed with subdivisions both new and under construction.
Rural Ontario as we know it may not exist for much longer as cities burgeon, farmland becomes suburb and professionals migrate to the countryside and telecommute.
In this election, Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston may stay blue. But Ontario’s political culture could be in flux, as rural Ontario becomes less rural by the year.
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