How much does Ontario really matter to the federal election?

ANALYSIS: All major parties have an eye on this province. But they have different goals and expectations — and face very different consequences
By David Moscrop - Published on Aug 28, 2021
There are 121 Ontario MPs in the House of Commons. (Steven_Kriemadis/ istockphoto.com)

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The House of Commons is made up of 338 seats, 121 of which are allocated to Ontario. But when you’re tracking federal campaigns, you might at times be forgiven for thinking there are few, if any, races going on outside the vote-rich province. Media coverage and the energy that parties, particularly the Conservatives and Liberals, put into Ontario (and sometimes Quebec) tend to obscure the role other provinces and territories in the federation play in determining the outcome of the election. But is that for good reason? Will Ontario decide the federal election?

As of the dissolution of Parliament, Ontario had 76 members of the House from the Liberal party, 34 from the Conservative party, six from the NDP, four independents, and one vacancy. When Parliament is dissolved, each of those seats becomes vacant and goes up for grabs. There are no members of Parliament now. No party has any seat in the House of Commons. Filling them once again is the purpose of an election. While we may speak, informally, of parties picking up or dropping seats, those turns of phrase really just involve comparisons with performances in the last election — or the previous standings in the House — and not an actual reflection of what happens. If the Liberals win, say, 72 seats in Ontario in the 44th general election, they won’t have lost four seats: they’ll have won 72. While the distinction may seem like pedantry, the point is that every seat is up for grabs, no candidate is guaranteed to be returned to the House of Commons — even if some are exceedingly likely to win — and campaigns matter.

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For the parties most likely to form government, Ontario matters a lot — especially its 905 region, which “essentially votes as a block” strategist Jason Lietaer told Ryan Rocca of Global News. The fact is, campaigns put a lot of energy into the province because it has more than a third of the seats in the House. But does it matter equally for each party? Elections analyst and author of The Writ Éric Grenier says, “For the Liberals, Ontario is primarily a place to hold what they had.” But given recent shifts in the polls, things may be changing. The party was counting on the province as a bulwark, Grenier says, but “the way things are going now, it’s a place where they really need to start scrambling to try to save their seats.” 

The math is different for the Tories. Ontario is essential if they wish to form government. “For the Conservatives,” says Grenier, “Ontario is always the most important province. You can’t have a Conservative government without a huge amount of seats in Ontario. When you’re not very competitive in Quebec, and Atlantic Canada is not that great for you either, you need to have your fill in Ontario.” 

As for the NDP, who are up in the polls, its support pushes it to rely on two regions. “The party seems to be really heavily weighted towards B.C. and Ontario,” says Grenier. “So for them to get to 40-plus seats, it probably means winning back seats in northern Ontario, winning some seats in Toronto — they’ve been shut out the last two elections — and maybe some of the smaller cities, such as Windsor and London. So it is pretty key for them.” 

Given varying seat-count math and asymmetrical support in other regions, each party will have an eye on the province, while keeping in mind different goals, expectations, and consequences. But federal elections don’t exist in a vacuum. In part, they’re conditioned by local and provincial particularities, and that is certainly true when it comes to Ontario. Premier Doug Ford and his government remain a wild card and a potential liability for the Tories, as well as a possible punching bag for the Liberals, who have mostly held off playing the Ford card so far

In September of last year, Ford said he wouldn’t campaign for O’Toole and the Tories in the next federal election, preferring instead, he said, to focus on provincial business. Ford was absent from the federal campaign trail in 2019, too, when then-leader Andrew Scheer was up against Trudeau. The Tories welcomed, and perhaps engineered, that. 

The unpopular Ford has kept his word — perhaps to the pleasure and to the advantage of the federal Conservatives. As the Globe and Mail reports, he’s even instructed his ministers not to campaign; if they do help out fellow conservatives, they’re meant to keep a low profile. As Laura Stone and Marieke Walsh write, “Mr. Ford’s cabinet members are being told that if they attend a community event at the same time as any of Mr. O’Toole’s candidates, they are not to post any photographs or digital evidence to social media, according to one of the sources.” 

Grenier notes, however, that this time around, there’s no guarantee Ford would hurt the CPC’s chances. But, given the looming uncertainty surrounding the pandemic in the weeks to come and the possible emergence of vaccine passports as a Liberal wedge issue, he says, “I’m not sure what role he plays. If he just stays out of it, maybe that’s better for everybody — because I’m not sure if he helps the Conservatives if he gets involved, but I’m also not sure he hurts them. So it might just be safer for the Conservatives not to open up that potential Pandora’s box.” Indeed. And it seems the party won’t.

Current projections and polls show a tightening race in Ontario. As of August 25, Éric Grenier’s Poll Tracker at the CBCshowed the Liberals at 36.7 per cent and declining, the Conservatives at 32.5 per cent and rising, and the NDP mostly stable at 21.9 per cent. At 338.com, Philippe Fournier’s federal-seat-projection averages, for the same date, have the Liberals with 57 seats in the province, the Conservatives with 48.3, and the NDP with 15.7—which would mark a considerable decline for the Liberals and leaps for the others, making the Liberal path to a majority government extraordinarily difficult and even putting a minority government at risk. But, again, campaigns matter, and there’s lot of campaigning left to do. History, after all, is ultimately made in the future.

Will Ontario decide the election, then? Grenier says it depends. “If the Liberals end up being re-elected, I think it will end up being Quebec and B.C. that decide it for them; if it’s the Conservatives who end up winning this, I think it will end up being Ontario that decides it for them. So it does matter.” But perspective matters, too, he says. “For the Conservatives, Ontario is the most important province; for the Liberals, it was supposed to be the one they could count on — and I think the fact that it’s becoming a question mark now is a big problem for them.” 

Whether Ontario is a problem the Liberals can solve or an opportunity the Conservatives can seize remains to be seen. But, either way, we’ll be hearing plenty more about this province in the days and weeks ahead. 

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