Federal political parties say they hope to hold lively in-person campaign rallies if an election is called – but, with pandemic restrictions still in place, they acknowledge that the events won’t look the same as they have in the past.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is widely expected to trigger an election soon, as Canada braces for a possible fourth wave of COVID-19. If there is a campaign, forgoing rallies entirely will not be an option, according to experts and party officials.
The events help a campaign show momentum, said Michele Cadario, who was the federal campaign director for the Liberals in 2004 and the deputy campaign director for the B.C. Liberals in 2013.
“You need to show that energy, and that’s what a rally really is,” Ms. Cadario said. But, she said, “it doesn’t have to be packing as many people as the fire marshal will let you get away with in a hall.”
Federal political parties are mapping out campaign plans that embrace the new normal: masking, physical distancing and elbow taps. At the same time, they are trying to keep some elements of traditional campaign rallies alive. Doing so will mean navigating a patchwork of provincial health rules, which could change throughout the election as case counts fluctuate.
Liberal, Conservative and NDP insiders say their campaigns are still trying to figure out the details of events. All three parties are planning to hold in-person rallies, in some form, within health rules.
The Liberals have already tested out virtual rallies. At the party’s April convention, Mr. Trudeau sat alone in a studio and spoke to 49 supporters displayed on a screen.
The Conservatives have set up a studio in Ottawa that Leader Erin O’Toole has been using for some announcements. With COVID-19 indicators and vaccination levels significantly improved, the party is now planning for in-person events. They are also making contingency plans, in case they need to revert to a virtual campaign.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s campaign last year made use of drive-in rallies, where supporters cheered and honked from their cars. That style of event has already been used in Canada during provincial elections. If an election is called, other possibilities include physically distanced parades and picnics, Ms. Cadario said.
“The metrics change in terms of what’s going to be seen as a victory,” she added.
The Conservatives and the NDP have both argued against the need for an election, but both parties are moving ahead with nominations. As of Thursday, the Tories had 272 candidates and the NDP had 121. The Liberals had 221. There are 338 federal electoral ridings.
NDP national director Anne McGrath said her party believes an election should not be held during the pandemic. But, if there is a campaign, the NDP believes the way Leader Jagmeet Singh connects with voters will be an asset. The more he can meet people, the better, Ms. McGrath said.
“In-person events and public rallies are key to that,” she said. “We want to be able to do that.”
Still, she said, pandemic logistics mean the party will likely organize fewer events than it otherwise would have.
The Liberals have already resumed some in-person events, like door-knocking and fundraisers. Spokesperson Braeden Caley said safety will be a priority as the party reintroduces more gatherings. Conservative spokesperson Cory Hann likewise said all Tory events will follow local rules.
Those rules vary widely across Canada. Alberta no longer has any size limit on indoor or outdoor gatherings and masks are not required. Ontario, meanwhile, has strict limits. Only 100 people are allowed outside and indoor events are limited to 25 people. On Friday, the province said it will lift its capacity limits once it meets its remaining vaccination targets.
Nik Nanos, founder and chief data scientist of Nanos Research, said parties will be careful to avoid the possibility of an event becoming a COVID-19 super-spreader. The result will be events that are more sedate than a pre-COVID-19 rally, he said.
“We won’t be seeing those panoramic glamour shots of Canadians packed in a room to listen to an uplifting speech by a federal party leader in this particular election because of the public health guidelines,” he said.
While the parties will want to avoid events with screaming supporters, Ms. Cadario said, they can find creative ways to replicate some of that energy. For example, they might give supporters thunder sticks – inflatable batons that make noise when banged together – to dissuade them from yelling. And if an election is called next month as expected, the campaigns will also benefit from the option of staying outside during summer weather.
Green Party spokesperson Rosie Emery said her party will hold rallies indoors and outdoors in accordance with provincial COVID-19 guidelines. As of Thursday, the party had 89 nominated candidates and the Bloc Québécois, which only fields candidates in Quebec, had announced nominations in 40 of the province’s 78 ridings.