PETERBOROUGH — For anyone looking for clues as to who will win the Ontario election on June 7, Peterborough might be the best place to turn — at least based on past experience.
In each of the last 11 provincial elections, dating back to 1977, Peterborough has elected an MPP from the party that formed government. Federally, Peterborough has also voted for the party that won the most seats in the House of Commons going back to 1984, and has a good track record in that respect going back to the mid-1960s.
David Goyette, a columnist for The Peterborough Examiner and a longtime political advisor (most recently as campaign manager and executive assistant to sitting mayor Daryl Bennett), calls Peterborough’s predictive prowess a “spectacular accomplishment.”
“When I first came here, and I discovered this, I was asking people, ‘How could this be?’ And to be honest with you, nobody really knows,” Goyette says. “One could argue, I think incorrectly, that the people of Peterborough are just somehow prescient. That they’re smarter than everybody else, and they can see the future.”
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But Goyette has a theory that doesn’t rely on the supernatural, and it goes like this: it’s true that Peterborough is somewhat geographically isolated by the standards of southern Ontario. And Peterborough does discuss regional issues through its robust local media — he points out that there are seven radio stations, two print newspapers, a TV station, and a handful of independent media outlets in Peterborough. Yet despite these factors that could have encouraged the city to become closely focused on itself, Goyette says voters in Peterborough look at the big picture when it comes to provincial politics. He calls it a “leader-led community,” where voters tend to cast their ballots for the party leader rather than the local candidate. In his view, this keeps the city from having a purely inward-looking election conversation.
If he’s right, this tendency could be helping to cement Peterborough’s status as a weather vane that turns wherever Ontario’s political winds may blow.
A history of averageness
Elwood Jones, professor emeritus of history at Trent University and the pre-eminent expert on Peterborough’s history, has his own theories as to why Peterborough became a bellwether city, and they go back hundreds of years.
“Why Peterborough has historically been considered bellwether, and justifiably so, is because of two big factors. One is the religious makeup of the area, and the other is related to the labour workforce makeup of the area,” Jones says.
Going back to the 19th century — an era when religious affiliations significantly influenced how people voted — Peterborough represented the era’s major religions (all of the large branches of Christianity in Canada). Other Ontario cities were typically dominated by one or two groups. “Almost entirely across the 19th century, the population here was about 23 per cent Catholic, about 22 per cent Methodist, 20 per cent Anglican, 18 per cent Presbyterian. And the other 10 per cent was mostly Baptist,” Jones says. “Now if you take that across the province, that hits fairly close to the provincial averages for the religions, and nobody else does.”
Jones says the city’s workforce is the second factor that has made Peterborough a bellwether. Some cities have lots of government jobs (think Ottawa and Kingston) and other cities are dominated by industry (think Windsor and Oshawa). But in Peterborough, Jones argues, there hasn’t been a single prevailing employer in the public or private sector. “So what we have here is a broad mix” — a city whose occupational makeup has reflected something like the provincial average since the 1950s.
The labour market in Peterborough has shifted over the years, however. Like other cities in Ontario, it has seen its manufacturing workforce decline. Last year, the General Electric plant in Peterborough — which has been operating for 126 years — announced it would cease manufacturing here; more than 350 people are expected to lose their jobs in September.
“This community has changed immensely from where we were back in the ’60s,” Peterborough mayor Daryl Bennett told The New York Times in January, for an article about the city’s manufacturing decline.
With the waning of industrial work, government and services jobs are becoming more important in Peterborough — a shift that’s happening elsewhere in the province, too. As of 2017, eight of the 10 largest employers in the city are in the public sector; the Peterborough Regional Health Centre and Trent University are numbers one and two on that list.
Another sign that Peterborough is a useful indicator of larger trends in the province is its history as a test market for products. Quaker Oats (which was acquired by PepsiCo in 2001) has frequently used Peterborough to test new products and flavours (Gatorade, granola bars, and oatmeal products are all made at the Quaker plant, which has employed locals since 1902). The city was even a test market for a system of measurement: Peterborough — along with Kamloops, B.C., and Sherbrooke, Quebec — was a pilot area for Canada’s conversion to the metric system in the 1970s.
“So it's not just the politicians that are putting their feelers out, or watching the trends, to see how things go,” says Lois Tuffin, editor-in-chief of Peterborough This Week. “We are the perfect crossroads of old, young, traditional, non-traditional [and] well-educated.”
So if Peterborough is indeed a bellwether — a microcosm for the province as a whole — what can we learn from it in this campaign? Local observers see a two-way race between the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives for Peterborough, while few voters seem completely happy with their options.
Tuffin, who has covered elections locally for two decades, thinks Peterborough, like the rest of the province, has “tested” the Liberal government long enough. In a recent column, she wondered “if the Liberals have become complacent after being in power for 15 years.”
Despite that, Tuffin admits the local Liberal MPP still enjoys a strong base of support. Jeff Leal has represented Peterborough since 2003 (the riding is known as “Peterborough—Kawartha” as of this year’s election, following a seat redistribution).
“People like Jeff,” Tuffin says. “They feel that he represents this riding well. But more and more people are disenchanted with the Liberals overall … People are saying they can’t support him because he’s standing beside Kathleen Wynne, because she’s making decisions they can’t agree with.”
But if not the Liberals, then who?
Progressive Conservative candidate and political newcomer Dave Smith is probably best known in the city as a prominent member of the hockey community.
“[Smith] seemed like a reasonable choice until the majority of his party opted to put Doug Ford into the position of leader,” Tuffin wrote last week. “Ford's flippant approach to so many issues … remind me too much of the so-called Common Sense Revolution from 1995-2003, based on populism and not much else.”
Despite Tuffin’s own reservations, the Tories have a solid constituency in Peterborough: in 2014, PC candidate Scott Stewart finished in respectable second place with nearly 30 per cent of the vote (to Leal’s 46).
As for the New Democrats and Greens, both parties seem to be having trouble making inroads with Peterborough voters. The NDP, which received about 18 per cent of the vote in the last provincial election, have nominated Sean Conway as their candidate. A bartender and singer-songwriter from Curve Lake First Nation, he’s probably better known in the community for his music than his politics.
Peter Hewitt, a Peterborough resident who considers himself a lifelong socialist, says Conway’s inexperience has him thinking twice about voting NDP, especially considering that a split vote on the left could potentially help facilitate a PC majority.
“I just don’t want to see Doug Ford as Ontario’s premier. I remember the Mike Harris years all too well. At this point, I’m thinking I’m probably going to bite my tongue, plug my nose, and vote for [Liberal candidate] Leal,” says Hewitt.
If enough local voters think along the same lines and return a Liberal to Queen’s Park — and the Liberals perform as poorly as some projections are now saying — Peterborough—Kawartha would be bucking the Ontario-wide trend. And if it does stick with Leal, Peterborough could elect an MPP to the opposition for the first time in decades.
So, will the city break its bellwether streak? Three weeks remain until June 7. Plenty can happen.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.