Battleground Ontario: The 30 ridings that could win or lose this election

How the Toronto suburbs turn will be critical, and the best place to watch the fight might be Milton, where Liberal star Adam van Koeverden faces Tory veteran Lisa Raitt

Glancing at the trim, dark-haired guy in the booth at the back of a retail-plaza restaurant in Milton, Ont., a lot of Canadians might have paused for a moment. Not quite a full-blown celebrity, but that face definitely rings a bell. It’s Adam van Koeverden, gold medal-winning kayaker from the 2004 Olympics in Athens, who carried the Canadian flag at the opening ceremonies for the Beijing games four years later.

Van Koeverden is watching the place fill up with supporters who are coming out to a fundraiser for his bid to win the Milton riding for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the Oct. 21 election. He’s a rarity in this fall’s campaign—a bona fide star newcomer to politics. Back in 2015, Trudeau’s roster of first-time aspirants to federal office was flush with them. This time around, with the party dinged up by four years in power, what’s on offer inevitably looks more battle-tested than fresh-faced.

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But van Koeverden, 37, provides an echo of that Liberal spirit of ’15. He is arguably the highest-profile new recruit anywhere in the must-win suburban swath surrounding Toronto. Depending on where the battle lines are drawn on the map, the so-called Greater Toronto Area, or GTA, encompasses 30 ridings. They have swung en masse from Liberal to Conservative and back again in recent elections, making this by far the biggest concentration of tantalizingly up-for-grabs seats anywhere on the national map of 338 ridings.

Yet van Koeverden says he’s not thinking about any of that. “I’m not focused on national things; I’m not focused on which ridings we’re going to pick up. I’m focused on Milton,” he says during an interview in that restaurant booth, occasionally interrupted by well-wishers wandering back to shake his hand. “We’ve always had Ottawa’s voice in Milton, but Milton’s never had a voice in Ottawa. That’s the No. 1 thing I hear at the door.”

Experienced political strategists tend not to talk like that. They know the harsh reality that local results in federal elections tend to closely mirror national and provincial shifts rather than riding-level factors. Still, sometimes a strong candidate can make the difference in an unusually tight race. In fact, the incumbent MP in Milton, Conservative Lisa Raitt, bucked the 2015 wave of Liberals ousting Tories across the GTA. And so Raitt is a different sort of rarity—a Conservative who brings her own proven name-recognition factor to this campaign.

If it came down to just the votes of long-time residents of the riding, Raitt’s chances of holding off van Koeverden for her fourth straight win in Milton would look secure. But, like the rest of the GTA, Milton is anything but static. According to the latest census, the city’s population swelled 31 per cent to 110,128 between 2011 and 2016, making it the fastest-growing in Ontario while skewing younger and more diverse. The key Muslim vote, which Conservatives have had trouble courting, has grown rapidly.

So it’s worth noting that van Koeverden’s fundraiser was held at an upscale, casual eatery specializing in halal Middle Eastern food, where no alcohol is served, and there’s a designated prayer room by the restrooms. Of course, voting by new Canadians isn’t monolithic or easily predicted. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives cleaned up in the Toronto suburbs in 2011—including in ridings where visible minorities made up the majority—before Trudeau’s Liberals took 24 of those seats in 2015, leaving the Tories clinging to just six.

Van Koeverden says the best part of running for office so far has been getting to know South Asian families. When he was growing up in neighbouring Oakville, the region was far less diverse. His father immigrated from Holland. His mother came to Canada as a refugee from Hungary in the late 1950s and managed community housing. She urged him to leverage his Olympic fame to some purpose. “My mom,” van Koeverden says, “she doesn’t do anything in her life if it doesn’t help somebody else.”

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt drives a tractor at the Halton Plowing Match, in Georgetown, Ont., in August (Photograph by Mark Blinch)

The workday reality of the GTA amounts, to a large degree, to desirable residential subdivisions funnelling commuters onto multi-lane highways. But a crucial element in the region’s appeal is proximity to the well-preserved, old Ontario town centres enveloped by the sprawl and to the prosperous farmland that’s still adjacent to it. The day after van Koeverden’s fundraiser, his rival, Lisa Raitt, drove into that countryside to the farm that was hosting this year’s Halton Plowmen’s Association plowing contest.

It can be hard to remember this sort of stuff goes on not so far from the housing developments and highway interchanges. Pickups are parked on the grass. Eyes are shielded from late-summer sun by trucker-style caps. Corn on the cob is free. Raitt gamely takes her turn at the wheel of a lovingly maintained 1953 Super A tractor to plow a few furrows. Most of the assembled rural residents have deep family roots in the region. Gord Krantz, 82, who has been Milton’s mayor since 1980, shows up and mingles easily with folks who already know him.

Raitt, who originally hails from Cape Breton, also seems at ease. She settles in for an interview at one of the picnic tables set up in a cleared-out barn, first making sure that her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, has his lunch and is sitting beside her. Unlike van Koeverden, she doesn’t mind talking politics.

At its early stages, she says this campaign feels, in one important respect, more like 2011, when the Tories won a majority, than 2015, when Trudeau turfed them from office. “People had made their minds up about Harper [in 2015], and they were not shy to let you know. There were lots of complaints at the door,” she says. “What they were struggling with was whether to give me another shot as the local rep. They did not like my leader.”

Raitt says her impression so far is that Andrew Scheer just isn’t well-known. “But that’s what campaigns are for,” she adds. Then there’s the wild card that is Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose provincial Conservative government’s unpopularity sideswiped federal Tories in the polls. Raitt says she’s hearing a lot less about that since the Ford government changed gears, especially on its bungled handling of autism funding, with a late-June cabinet shuffle.

As for her own persona, she says that at 51, with one kid in high school and another at university, and her husband’s health to consider, she shares practical concerns with plenty of voters. “I’ve just got a lot of worries on my mind,” she says, “as I’m trying to launch my kids into the next stage of their life, and I’m a caregiver.”

A formidable incumbent and a strong contender make it tempting to frame Milton in isolation. But the wider GTA dynamic might well prove to be more important. “You’ve got a lot of correlation across those ridings,” says Peter Loewen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “They do have a big uniform swing; if you do well in one, you do well in the others.”

This has been the case, Loewen points out, even though demographic factors—such as where immigrants come from, the mix of older and younger voters, education levels—vary considerably among the ridings. What cuts across them are some shared preoccupations, especially economic well-being. Both main parties play to those concerns. Liberals point to low unemployment; Conservatives emphasize anxieties about taxes and savings.

Loewen argues that Trudeau might have the tougher task of persuading voters to credit the Liberals for strong job growth. “Not a lot of self-respecting people think, ‘I’ve got a job; thank God for the government,’” he says. But can the Conservatives make a convincing case that their policies would help the typical suburban family save more? Their signature promise is to get rid of the Liberals’ carbon tax—even though most taxpayers get back more in the federal income-tax rebate than what the tax adds to their energy costs.

Liberals also contend that more suburbanites than might be assumed, even those who commute daily by car, are seriously worried about climate change. “There’s a vein of progressive environmentalism in suburban areas,” says Liberal MP Kyle Peterson, whose Newmarket-Aurora riding is in the GTA north of Toronto. “Partly that’s because they live near green spaces, and that shapes your mentality.”

Peterson, 48, isn’t running for re-election. He has two young sons and says the MP’s life demands too much time away from them as they grow up. He took a break from trailing after them at a Ribfest held in a park in Aurora—less than an hour from downtown Toronto by commuter rail—to be interviewed. As a campaign organizer before he ran himself, losing in 2011 before he won in 2015, he’s been a close student of GTA politics long enough to know its voters are more complicated than any suburban cliché.

Pocketbook issues matter, naturally, to the mortgage-paying families in his sort of riding. He calls these the “my life” issues and lists the top-of-mind among them: health care, job security, saving for retirement. But he says that doesn’t make the GTA a “small-c conservative bastion.” Peterson points out that his riding hosts a big annual Pride parade. He got a lot of unhappy emails from his environmentally conscious voters when the federal government bought the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, which extends from Alberta to the B.C. coast, to make sure its planned expansion went ahead.

And then there are other markers of identity that tend to influence voting. “The more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Liberal, and suburbia tends to have educated people,” Peterson says. The 2016 census found 54 per cent of Canadian adults, age 25 to 64, had college or university credentials. But Aurora-Newmarket is in York region, where 70 per cent had a post-secondary education, and Milton is in Halton region, where it’s 75 per cent.

Despite that promising educational profile, Peterson estimates that the reliable base of Liberal support in the GTA is around 25 per cent, a significant notch lower than the rock-ribbed Conservative base, which he says is around 32 per cent. So a low NDP vote is key to any Liberal victory, pushing more centre-left voters their way. Summer polls setting the stage for the fall campaign showed NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh—whose home base is in Brampton in the GTA, although he represents a B.C. riding—faring dismally. When this story went to press, polling analyst Philippe Fournier’s 338Canada seat-projection model wasn’t projecting any wins at all in the GTA for the NDP.

At any mention of political considerations such as vote splitting, seat projections, winnable ridings or demographic analysis, van Koeverden makes a face as if he had just pulled a muscle. “I’m not interested in politics. I’m interested in public service,” he says. “Politics is just how you get there.”

He’s not bad at retail politics, though. Two mornings after his fundraiser, he’s out on Milton’s classic old-Ontario main street, which is closed to traffic for a Saturday farmers’ market. He’s in his zip-up Olympics top, sunglasses propped up in his hair and coffee in hand. When a family stops to chat, he rushes to his nearby storefront campaign office to fetch them some giant freezies. Then the mom takes a phone pic of her three kids with the candidate.

Or maybe she thinks they’re with the gold medallist. Either way works. Van Koeverden doesn’t shy away from putting his Olympic glory out there. But he bristles a bit at what he perceives as a hint that athletic experience might not be a solid basis for politics. (He also has a degree from Hamilton’s McMaster University and has worked in management consulting and sports broadcasting.) “I feel very qualified to be an MP,” he says. “My first obligation is to meet people and listen to them.”

The federal politician he mentions with admiration most often is Transport Minister Marc Garneau, the former astronaut. Going to space three times, like winning four Olympic medals, sure beats most politicians’ backstories. And elections would be dull without interesting individuals, including at least a few with glamorous credentials, putting their names on the ballots.

When the votes are counted on Oct. 21, however, what will matter most about the Milton result isn’t whether the star rookie or the solid veteran has come out on top. It’s whether that MP is part of a wave of Liberals who have held Toronto’s suburbs or one of a bunch of Conservatives who have recaptured them. Every vote everywhere in Canada counts the same, but if there’s a single battleground where this election could be won or lost, or the difference between majority or minority determined, it’s the GTA.

This article appears in print in the October 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Battleground Ontario.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.


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