One of southwestern Ontario’s most diverse ridings is up for grabs

Former deputy premier Deb Matthews has decided not to run again in London North Centre — here’s how the race there is shaping up
By Mary Baxter - Published on June 6, 2018
buildings in downtown London, Ontario
London North Centre is a nearly 60-square-kilometre patchwork but the people who live there might as well be worlds apart in terms of their demographics, needs, and interests. (iStock.com)

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LONDON — On a Sunday afternoon less than two weeks before the election, Carol Dyck was experiencing her best canvassing ever.

For once, people weren’t slamming their doors or telling the Green Party candidate who is running in London North Centre that it was no use dropping off her flyer because they’d already chosen their candidate — and it wasn’t her. Instead, despite the sweltering weather, doors swung open and people chatted. “Thank you so much for doing this,” effused one woman, a university librarian.

“She was so nice, so very favourable,” Dyck said on May 27 as she knocked on doors in her own neighbourhood — Medway, a prosperous older suburban subdivision near Western University.

London North Centre is wide open in the election of 2018. Deb Matthews — who was deputy premier until a January cabinet shuffle — has represented it since 2003, holding on to the only remaining Liberal seat in southern Ontario west of Kitchener and the now defunct riding of Brant.

When Matthews announced last year that she would not seek re-election, she opened up a race for the riding.

Now Dyck and her rival candidates — among them Kate Graham for the Liberal Party, Terence Kernaghan for the New Democrats, and Progressive Conservative Susan Truppe — are vying for a riding that has served as a springboard for high-profile political careers in the past, including that of Dianne Cunningham, a cabinet minister in Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government, and, at the federal level, former Liberal labour minister Joe Fontana. And former PC premier John Robarts was the MPP for the former ridings of London and London North between 1951 and 1971.

Two weekends before the June 7 provincial election, the candidates were working hard going door-to-door, outlining their parties’ platforms, shoring up support. TVO shadowed three of the candidates — Kernaghan, Graham, and Dyck — as they canvassed, to get a sense of how voters were responding to each. (Truppe’s campaign initially responded to a TVO request to join her while canvassing, but did not reply to follow-up requests to arrange the details.)

As for local issues, candidates in the riding said there are three that dominate doorstep conversations with voters: a proposal to develop bus rapid transit in the city’s core, care for seniors, and the location of safe-injection sites to deal with London’s burgeoning opioid crisis.                                                           

“I would say the number one thing I’ve been emailed about is the BRT — above and beyond,” Dyck said. She estimated that for every one email she receives about establishing safe-injection sites, she receives 10 on the bus transit plan. “It’s big.”

The 40-year-old Green candidate has been canvassing regularly since April — she got a late start after the party’s first candidate stepped down for personal reasons. The environmentalist and mother of two ran in the same riding in the 2015 federal election and came in a distant fourth. (Peter Fragiskatos won the riding for the Liberals.)

Support for the Green Party is stronger this time around than in the 2015 federal election, she said. But she senses apathy about the election overall. “A lot of people are just saying they’re not that interested,” Dyck said. Those who have been taking an interest have told her they’re planning to vote strategically. She heard about strategic voting a lot in the 2015 federal election too.

The Liberals’ Graham and the NDP’s Kernaghan both began campaigning in January. Neither is a stranger to the world of government or politics, but they’re both running as candidates for the first time.

Many analysts and projections predict the NDP will win the riding — for the first time since it was established in 1999 — and enthusiasm for the New Democrats was evident on Saturday May 26 in Carling, a blue collar-east end neighbourhood. As the lanky Kernaghan strode up driveways with the conviction of the Christian minister that he once aspired to become, people asked for signs and confirmed their votes. The 40-year-old Kernaghan, a public school teacher, was closely involved in NDP MPP Peggy Sattler’s successful bid for the neighbouring riding of London West during a 2013 byelection.

When one car rolled past, all of its occupants waved at him. As he walked along a stretch of Victoria Street, another driver slowed and honked. “Hi!” the middle-aged woman driver yelled. “Hello!” Kernaghan responded with surprised ebullience, as if greeting someone he hadn’t seen in a long time. It was the same tone he uses when he climbs up porch steps to introduce himself and shake hands — which he does with everyone he meets. “You have my vote,” the driver said.

A few blocks away and several handshakes later, he greeted a middle-aged man on a front veranda who introduced himself as John. John explained that his parents aren’t Canadian citizens but that he’s voting — and voting NDP.

“I’m just reading about [PC leader Doug] Ford here and [Liberal leader] Kathleen Wynne; I don’t want either of them in,” John said. Kernaghan criticized the PC’s plans for health care and the minimum wage, then asked if the family wanted a sign.

“It’s up to you, John,” said his mother, who had been listening as she crocheted on a bench by the front door.

“Oh sure, stick it on there!” John said. A volunteer hovering beside Kernaghan stepped in to arrange delivery of the sign with John.

“Thank you very much!” said Kernaghan with the same cheer that informs his hello. He admired John’s mother’s handwork.

After more handshakes (and more people agreeing to take signs) Kernaghan met Linda, a woman in her fifties who had been waiting on the grass near the driveway of her son’s home to talk to the candidate. “I’m voting for [the NDP] but I don’t live here,” she said. She was trying to convince her son, Bobby, to vote NDP too. She dragged her son over to Kernaghan.

“I like the Hydro One plan” Bobby said, grinning awkwardly as he referred to the NDP pledge to buy back the just more than 50 per cent of Hydro One shares that in private hands — a promise that has had policy analysts scratching their heads. “That’s a big thing for me.”

The high cost of hydro is a big issue across the riding, Kernaghan explained on the way to the next house. “Everyone has seen their hydro bills skyrocket,” he said — conflating the issue of electricity prices and the Liberal government’s partial privatization of the power utility, which are not directly related — “and it’s made it very difficult for a lot of people. It has been quite eye-opening when you meet people at their door and you learn about their lives.”

A diverse riding

London North Centre is a compact and diverse urban riding. The district is bounded by city limits to the north, a combination of river and railroad to the south, Wonderland Road to the west, and Highbury Avenue to the east.

Residents across this nearly 60-square-kilometre patchwork might as well be worlds apart in terms of their demographics, needs, and interests. Near Western University in the north and west sections of the riding, neighbourhoods are solidly middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs. To the east, mostly blue-collar neighbourhoods occupy a north-south corridor sandwiched between Adelaide Street and Highbury. And occupying the riding’s centre is a hodgepodge of high-end homes, neighbourhoods in the process of revitalization, student digs, seniors’ homes, retail and business districts, government services, railroad tracks, and some of the poorest parts of London.

In this riding, half the residents rent their homes, and one in four struggles with low income. Ethnic and racial diversity is pronounced: one in nearly four people is a new Canadian; one in five is a visible minority.

Graham, the Liberal candidate, has witnessed that diversity firsthand, having lived in eight of the riding’s neighbourhoods over the years. The 34-year-old former London civil servant is completing a political science PhD on local governance.

Door-knocking brings different responses from location to location, Graham said. On Friday mornings in the west-end neighbourhood of Cherryhill, she and a group of volunteers have made a habit of regularly canvassing the different apartment buildings that are home to a large community of retirees. “Those are amazing,” she said. Volunteers swarm one floor at a time knocking on doors, and as residents opened the doors they would come out and talk to each other “and it becomes this little floor meeting.”

Her canvassing in the outer edges of the city’s tony Old North neighbourhood on Friday May 25 (a little more than a week before Wynne conceded the Liberals had lost the election) started out with some promise, when she stopped to talk to one man unloading a golf bag from the back of his car.

“There’s some good messaging recently I saw from the provincial party,” the man said encouragingly, referring to the Liberal Party’s efforts to list its economic achievements.

A block away, a woman with a three-month-old son told Graham she liked the childcare element of party’s platform, and shared her worries about daycare arrangements. “Even just getting the space” is a headache, she said, shooing away the family dog, who was trying to climb up the leg of one of Graham’s volunteers. “We’ve been on a wait list since I was four months pregnant and we still haven’t heard anything back. So it’s like, ‘Oh my God … how long do I wait? Do I start calling to harass people?’ ”

Afterwards, Graham made notes using a smartphone app that her campaign has been using to keep track of who they’ve contacted, who might be voting Liberal, what the main issues are.

Most of the doors in Old North, however, remained firmly shut, and it was becoming apparent that people were avoiding an explicit commitment to the Liberal Party.

At the door of a heritage home, an older couple, a man and a woman, both with long, greying hair, complained about the impact of the minimum wage on not-for-profits.

The conversation was lengthy, and near the end, the woman softened her gaze. She gently told Graham she was one of two candidates they were considering. Her husband nodded. “You’re doing well,” he says. “I think as a candidate you’re doing very, very well.”

 This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

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