The Liberals hold Toronto Centre in by-election

Anne Kingston on Chrystia Freeland’s victory

<p>Liberal Candidate Chrystia Freeland (right) stands with Bob Rae as she celebrates after winning the Toronto Centre Federal byelection in Toronto on Monday November 25, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young</p>

Liberal Candidate Chrystia Freeland (right) stands with Bob Rae as she celebrates after winning the Toronto Centre Federal byelection in Toronto on Monday November 25, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

(The Canadian Press)

11 a.m.: Belmont House polling station

There is no more clichéd photo-op than a candidate casting her or his ballot. Yet the election coverage staple explains the TV crews hanging outside Belmont House, a seniors residence turned polling stations for today’s by-election. They’re waiting in the cold for Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland, who’s scheduled to cast her vote for herself at 11. While they wait, they’re busy doing streeters, asking people how they voted: “I’m not telling you,” one women snaps, before allowing that she hoped the vote would be close. “This riding needs a shake-up.”

There are 11 candidates on the ballot for #TorCen, a Liberal seat for two decades most recently held by former Liberal leader Bob Rae. Freeland leads in the polls, followed by NDP candidate Linda McQuaig. The former journalists have both made the vanishing middle class their central platform during a combative campaign that included cameo appearances from their party leaders. Toronto Centre has a lot of symbolic freight: a Liberal loss, unlikely according to polls, would be a major blow to #teamJustin; a surprise NDP win would be a boost for Thomas Mulcair and a continuation of the Orange Crush to the west of Toronto Centre that saw the Toronto riding of Davenport swing from Liberal to NDP in 2011, joining Trinity-Spadina.”

At Belmont House, they’ve seen a steady stream since it opened at 9:30 a.m. “Voters left,” “visitors right,” the woman at the front desk tells people as they walk through the sliding doors. She reports there was big excitement when Freeland campaigned with Justin Trudeau there a month ago: “He’s so lovely,” she gushes.

Inside the polling station, one voter with the same last name as one of the candidates becomes angry when a woman manning a district desk mentions it: “I’m reporting you,” he says as he huffs off.

11:30: The camera crews are still waiting. Bob Rae, who has publicly endorsed Freeland, has come and gone. He showed up to vote at 11, offering handshakes and sound bites to clustering cameras. Rae caused a flutter in the last days of the campaign with a letter to residents that supported Freeland and noted voter turnout was being monitored.

11:45: At McQuaig headquarters two blocks away, volunteers are manning the phones to get people out to vote. McQuaig, who voted in an advance poll, is spending the day working the southern end of the diverse riding, including Regent’s Park and the St. James housing project which has an equal number of votes as the more affluent northern neighbourhoods. But it’s a demographic that’s far less likely to vote, says the campaign’s communications director Kiavash Najafi. “Many are juggling several jobs; they don’t have the time.”

The NDP wrap party will be held at Hot House Café, the same spot Rae celebrated his victory in 2011. Was it picked as some sort of portent? “No, it’s just a fun place,” says Najafi. The Liberals will be gathered at a Jack Astors. Just how those parties will play out is still anybody’s guess.

5:30 p.m.:  Chrystia Freeland HQ

The first sight greeting a visitor at Freeland’s campaign headquarters in Toronto’s financial district is a wall of inspirational sayings-of-the-day, one from American judge Charles W. Pickering: “A healthy democracy requires a decent society; it requires that we are honorable, generous, tolerant and respectful.” (The first message visitors see at Linda McQuaig’s campaign HQ, on the other hand, is the assurance that it’s a “nut free” zone.)  A handful of volunteers remain in the space; “Justin” signs dominate. Freeland has come and gone. Her day included the obligatory early-morning transit stop meet-and-greet, casting her ballot with her children in tow, thanking her many volunteers and a final swing around the riding with Justin Trudeau, which included a photo-op at a Tim Horton’s. (NDP leader Thomas Mulcair remained in Ottawa today to question the prime minster over “a criminal cover-up organized out of his own office.”)  Campaign spokesperson Rebecca MacKenzie reports Freeland plans to watch election returns with her family before she makes an appearance at the campaign’s party. Advance polls yielded 5,000 votes, MacKenzie reports, a significant turnout.

The campaigns continue to ferry voters to polls which close at 9:30. Then we’ll begin gauge the temperature of a riding that includes $10-million houses and homeless shelters,  Chanel and Dollarama—the very rich-poor divide that animated both Freeland’s and McQuaig’s campaigns. It’s ironic that by the time the 2015 election rolls around, Toronto Centre as we know it will exist no more, bifurcated as well into two new ridings

11:05 p.m.  Chrystia Freeland finally takes the stage at Jack Astor’s at Young-Dundas Square to thank the people who helped elect her—and express what a “huge, huge honour” it will be to represent Toronto Centre. Results had been touch-and-go earlier in the evening, with runner-up McQuaig edging ahead by a hair on occasion. But by 10:30 p.m. a Liberal victory seemed assured—with Freeland making history as its first female MP. “We stayed positive, we stayed focused on what the people of Toronto Centre wanted,” a jubilant Freeland, her voice hoarse, told the boisterous, filled-to-capacity room. The turnout was so large that dozens of  volunteers were forced to mill outside the front doors, hoping for entry. Standing behind Freeland on the stage, in what might be a symbolic gesture, was Bob Rae, whose sudden retirement this summer paved way for Freeland’s surprise entry to political life. Freeland acknowledged the by-election was “the first act of the 2015 election” before taking a swipe at runner-up McQuaig, for “personal attacks,” referring to the NDP candidate’s criticism that Freeland had lived out of the country for more than a decade and didn’t understand the political landscape. Freeland also slammed the NDP for “trying to divide this riding, they tried to say that Regent Park and Rosedale were opposed to each other, that we can’t have a solution that brings Toronto Centre together.”

The by-election won, Freeland now must turn her attention to a new job in a new city where she’ll help create policies that will address her campaign’s central platform, one that echoes the Liberal party’s latest rallying-cry: the plight of the “squeezed middle class,” a population that lives somewhere in between Rosedale’s million-dollar mansions and Regent Park’s social housing. To date, Freeland has been vague on details. When running for the Liberal nomination, she told Maclean’s it would be “presumptuous” to discuss such matters before winning. She was little more forthcoming during the campaign. During Toronto Centre debates she spoke in vague terms of “growing the middle class from the inside out,” which sounds like the plot of a horror movie. She does claim tax increases aren’t in the cards (unlike McQuaig, who supported higher corporate taxes): “Now is not the time to raise taxes; now we need to focus on creating jobs,” Freeland promised.

As part of Trudeau’s inner circle, Freeland will be on the front line determining these policies: the Liberal leader named her a co-chair of his Economic Council of Advisors in September, immediately after she won the Toronto Centre nomination. In a recent interview, Freeland acknowledged she would be part of “writing our party’s economic policy as we move towards 2015.” Her award-winning book Plutocrats is frequently cited as evidence of the former journalist’s insight into the plight of the middle-class. But as anyone who has read the book knows, it’s an extremely well-written, thought-provoking account of rise of and lifestyles enjoyed by the global uber-rich; to see it as a policy roadmap is like reading Madame Bovary for marriage advice.

Freeland is not alone in seeing the by-election as a stepping stone. Several blocks away, the NDP was spinning the loss in positive terms. In her concession speech, McQuaig referred to the race as an “uphill battle” and admitted she was disappointed; she also claimed the party did “better than we’ve done in Toronto Centre.”  Elections Canada reports Liberals won 49.1 per cent of the vote, and the NDP won 36.4 per cent. In 2011, Rae won 41 percent of the vote; the NDP won 30 per cent. At the McQuaig party, Toronto NDP MP Peter Tabuns expressed hope that the redrawing of Toronto Centre before the 2015 election—which will yield the new riding of University-Rosedale to the north and two yet-to-be identified ridings to the south—will buoy the party’s prospects. The party could never make inroads with “the fortress of Rosedale,” Tabuns says. With southern areas redrawn, Linda “could own it,” he says. We’ll see. Right now, 2015 seems light years away.