Waiting for the Ontario election .. old Canadian heartland not what it used to be?

Aug 6th, 2007 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

[UPDATED AUGUST 23]. The first fixed-date election in the history of Canada’s most populous province, on October 10, 2007, is now just over two months away. But by the traditional midsummer civic holiday it was still a bit too early for any great excitement among the people of Ontario. The big holiday event in the provincial capital city was the 40th annual Caribana parade – a local pageant that would almost certainly astound the old Upper Canada of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Yet signs that the campaign of 2007 is now properly under way are clear enough. Victory for Dalton McGuinty’s current Liberal government still seems no sure thing. Neither the Greens nor the New Democrats have any serious hope. But John Tory’s Conservatives could do the trick, maybe, with some favourable winds. (Or maybe it will at least be a Liberal minority government – and then there will also be a referendum on “electoral reform,” which “70 per cent of Ontarians” still do not realize is going to happen, yet.)

[ALSO SEE POSTSCRIPT/UPDATE AUGUST 23 BELOW … Are the polls predicting a Liberal minority government already?]

1. “Too much perfection in government”?

Premier McGuinty, some will remember, came to office when he defeated the rather mean and nasty Mike Harris-Ernie Eves neo-con Tory regime at Queen’s Park back in 2003. Just how much success he has had since then, in managing the sixth-most-populous state-provincial jurisdiction in North America (north of the Rio Grande), is the main thing that the people of Ontario will be judging this coming October 10.

Whatever success Premier McGuinty has had, meanwhile, clearly enough owes something to his respect for the practical, down-to-earth side of the regional political mind. He is no fan of wild ideological crusades. (Even if his Minister of Health did get married to his longtime gay partner this past summer holiday weekend too.) And you can see this in some recent election-news headlines: “Improved process means Ontario election more friendly to students“; “Ontario to provide teenage girls with HPV vaccine” ; and “Ontario government promises to compensate organ donors up to $5,500 for expenses.”

Many opponents of the McGuinty Liberals still like to picture them as politicians who have just not kept a lot of the many promises they somewhat rashly made last time around in 2003. (Shutting down coal-powered electrical generators, e.g., no new taxes, etc, etc.) They are, in the immortal spin doctoring of the traditionally rabid-Tory-right-wing conservative Toronto Sun,”the Fiberals.” So why should any serious voter believe that they will do even half of what they are somewhat less rashly promising now?

On the other hand, in today’s 24-7 universe 2003 was a long time ago. The advice to “Remember past unfulfilled election promises this fall” does not seem to be raising any vast popular anger in 2007. Those friendly to the longstanding old agrarian democratic traditions of the ancient Upper Canadian Clear Grits, whose descendant Premier McGuinty sometimes almost seems to be, are already pointing out that “Ontario governments have all broken promises.” It is a kind of tradition in itself. In the words of the still much admired former Progressive Conservative Premier Bill “Bland Works” Davis, from Brampton: “The people of Ontario have never been spoiled by too much perfection in government.”

2. Is there a workable scandal in the wings?

Another grand old tradition, here as in other regional versions of the “free and democratic society” [see the Canadian Constitution Act 1982], may finally prove more dangerous for Premier Dalton (who almost never seems to appear wearing a tie on TV these days). If no really big issue is in the air, one good way of defeating a government is to make some scandal stick to its ribs.

Ever since this past spring, the opposition parties have been working hard on this project. Four months ago both Tory and New Democrat members of the Legislative Assembly were salivating over “Lotterygate” – the provincial lottery scandal in which “retailers ripped off legitimate winners for tens of millions of dollars.”

Lotterygate did not grow any big legs in the end. But lately things became potentially more serious, when “Mike Colle stepped down as minister of citizenship and immigration … after an investigation by Auditor General Jim McCarter revealed $32 million was, without due process, handed out to ethnic groups.”

Simcoe North Conservative MPP Garfield Dunlop has said that “Mike Colle was the fall guy for (Premier) Dalton McGuinty and (Finance Minister) Greg Sorbara … I suspect, over the next few weeks, there will be pressure put on Minister Sorbara [to accept responsibility] … It’s AdScam all over.” (Where “AdScam” is of course the somewhat overwrought scandal that finally helped Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives defeat Paul Martin’s Liberals in Ottawa.)

Even the always Liberal-friendly Toronto Star has recently editorialized that “Ontario Auditor-General Jim McCarter’s report on $32 million in dubious year-end grants doled out by the Liberal government to multicultural groups may not be as damning as the opposition parties had hoped. But less than three months before the Oct. 10 provincial election, McCarter’s findings into the so-called slush fund scandal’ are still a significant blow to Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose Liberals are facing a tight race to stay in office.”

Yet the ultimate operative words here probably are “not … as damning as the opposition parties had hoped.” Most of the regional electorate is still not paying much attention yet. And what is really wrong with a duly elected minister of citizenship and immigration handing out grants to “multicultural groups,” to help lubricate some of the quite remarkable transformations in especially the more southerly urban society of the province today?

It also seems reasonable to ask: What kind of formal bureaucratic “due process” would actually make any of this at all more high-minded or moral or ethical – and more in the broader public interest? The minister is accountable to the sovereign people at election time. If they do not approve of his grant-giving criteria, they can vote him out of office. (Which is more than might be said for faceless bureaucrats and public accountants, who devise complex mazes of red tape for groups wanting grants – based on who knows just what public criteria.)

In the end the slush-fund scandal, one might guess at the moment at any rate, will likely enough not develop very strong legs either. Who can seriously believe that the gentlemanly Mike Colle is an authentic corrupt politician? He has now resigned from the cabinet in any case, for the sake of appearances if nothing else. And it is not entirely easy to say just what he has done that was so dreadfully wrong – unless you think that no grants of public money at all should be made available to multicultural groups or any other civil society organization, trying to help build a better Canada. (And who elected the Auditor General to make these judgments anyway?)

3. The MMP referendum

The one sleeper issue of the 2007 campaign in Ontario may still be the accompanying October 10 referendum on “mixed member proportional representation (MMP)” in the Ontario Legislative Assembly – which seven out of every 10 Ontario voters apparently still do not know is going to happen (if opinion polls can be believed).

As an illustration of just how complicated all this could be, the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal has recently reported that “NDP Leader Howard Hampton said regardless of the results of the October referendum on changing the provinces electoral system, the number of ridings in Northern Ontario will be reduced to nine from 10.

“After the Oct. 10 election, Northern Ontario will follow the federal (electoral) map,’ Hampton warned Thursday. Not a lot of people know that’ … Those who study Northern Ontario politics say proportional representation could further disenfranchise the North because of that systems need to squeeze out ridings to make room for a substanstial increase in the number of seats in the legislature.”

An editorial from somewhat further south in the Pembroke Daily Observer has nonetheless advised that: “Granted, for many of our older, more traditional voters, this sort of [MMP] system represents a drastic change … But that is exactly the point. The old system does not work well … it ignores the concept of the popular vote, in effect putting parties with a low percentage of the popular vote into a position much stronger than they actually deserve.

“This new system will reward parties for the votes they get, and will finally give those who deserve a place at the table – like the Green Party – … a better shot at representing the large number of people who vote for them … Take the time to read about this system and get to know it. On October 10, you’ll be asked to approve it and change the way we vote forever … Maybe it’s about time.”

The Ontario story of MMP is presumably meant to show the McGuinty government’s commitment to the present-day movement for democratic reform in Canadian politics. (Though the government itself is remaining scrupulously neutral about the reform referendum in which the people will vote, whether they are ware of it yet or not.) Like so much else in the mind of Premier Dalton, it often seems, the plot here is not very original. It has just been borrowed from British Columbia, where a similar referendum failed to gain the required 60% of the popular vote.

The same 60% threshold will apply to Ontario. But the exact proportional representation reform to be voted on is more moderate than it was in BC (in keeping with Ontario’s particular regional political traditions). Even if the majority of the electorate is still quite dim on the subject, MMP has already garnered some impressive support from influential political observers. And who knows? The Pembroke Daily Observer could be right: “Maybe it’s about time.

4. It’s the environment stupid (and not health care)?

According to Murray Campbell in the Globe and Mail: “There’s plenty of green turf in Ontario election … Environmentalists are hoping that their issues will become the deciding issues of the coming election campaign. No one can say for certain, however, whether this will happen, despite growing concern about pollution, global warming and water quality … It might but it might not,’ said Derek Leebosh, senior associate at Environics Research Group, whose poll … showed the environment is the most important issue in deciding vote choice in Ontario.”

It is refreshing to see that something has at long last apparently replaced health care, at the top of the lists of what samples of voters tell pollsters are their key concerns of the moment. But some are still worried about health care:

“The Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) is likening privatization in health care to the Trojan horse, calling it a false gift’ that will destroy the public health system. To illustrate their point, representatives are touring Ontario with a giant Trojan horse,’ constructed by a props manufacturer in Toronto, in tow.

“There is an election coming up on October 10, and we want to make the issue of health care a priority,’ said Louis Rodrigues, who is touring the province with the horse. Privatization is a big part of [Conservative leader] John Tory’s agenda. He would like publicly funded health care provided by private operators. That means the taxpayers pay and private companies reap the profits.'” Whatever happens in the election, no doubt, health care will remain the single largest expenditure item in the current Ontario budget, by far.

5. Religious school funding … the real big old/new debate?

One both old-fashioned and new-fashioned Ontario public policy issue that seems to have already acquired some legs in an otherwise still not at all lively campaign is public funding of religious schools.

The particular regional ancient history here goes back to the middle of the 19th century, when present-day Ontario and Quebec were united in a single province – and when some degree of public funding for Catholic separate schools served as a rough and ready proxy for then much more controversial French language rights. (Even if most Ontario Catholics of the day were Irish and not French at all.)

All this somewhat haphazardly began Ontario’s present system of public funding for both non-denominational public schools and Catholic separate schools. At first public funding for Catholic separate schools covered only the lower grades. But the principle was enshrined in the Constitution Act 1867. And during Ontario’s subsequent life as a separate province gradually extending the principle practically to higher grades of the separate schools became a kind of progressive impulse, whenever Ontario for some reason wanted to show goodwill towards its sister province of Quebec.

This process reached a culmination in the late 20th century, when the still much admired former Premier Bill Davis, under pressure from Pierre Trudeau to declare Ontario an officially bilingual province, finally began the last steps towards full funding of the Catholic separate system to the end of high school.

Ontario, some might argue, has so little sense of its own regional past that it slept-walked into this not entirely sensible or no longer relevant policy, without quite being aware of what it was really doing. By Mr. Davis’s era (19711985) Catholic separate schools no longer were much of a proxy for French language rights (which had, in some ways at least, become much less controversial and able to stand on their own feet). Since then the situation has become even more archaic, and moved onto another controversial plane of political reality altogether.

Why should Catholic schools be publicly funded, many present-day multicultural people of Ontario reasonably ask, when other religiously oriented schools are not (Jewish, Muslim, and on and on). But then, others equally wonder, if you publicly fund all religious schools won’t that seriously fragment the non-denominational mainstream public system – and thwart its ability to serve as a progressive agent of social integration, in an increasingly culturally diverse regional society that certainly needs some public integration agents of this sort?

Logically, there are two reform options open in Ontario today. Either you get rid of the Catholic system, and make all publicly funded schools in the province non-denominational, or you add other religions with substantial numbers of adherents to the separate school system. In the 2007 election campaign John Tory’s Conservatives have proposed at least the beginnings of movement in the latter direction. The McGuinty Liberals seem to be saying that, in principle, they think the first direction makes the most strictly logical sense. But they also don’t think that getting rid of the Catholic system is practically possible at the moment (or for some time to come?)

Whether Mr. Tory’s religious school funding strategy will gain his Ontario Tories some significant electoral ground on October 10 may be one of the most interesting questions of the current still rather subdued campaign. Whatever happens, the issue is acquiring thorny new life in the longer term future of Ontario politics. And the vote on October 10 probably will mark some new signpost for public funding of religious schools.

6. Provincial-municipal finance and recent population trends

Right now the biggest question about the October 10 Ontario election remains: What will voters be talking about most in September, once they have fully awakened to what is on the horizon, and after various local Labour Day parades are over and all children in all parts of the present public and private systems have returned to school. It may be one of the above. Or it could be something else again.

Another practically quite important issue, e.g., involves arcane but nonetheless crucial questions about current provincial-municipal financial arrangements. Even most Ontario civil servants have trouble understanding these questions, and most voters (and Internet bloggers as here at present) are inevitably in still more of a quandary.

The provincial capital city of Toronto’s recent budget difficulties, however, do seem to dramatize the underlying issue. The very bottom line is just that local governments in Ontario today, for a variety of reasons, do not have enough money to effectively discharge all the responsibilities they have been assigned. In Canada local governments or municipalities are “creatures” of the provinces, constitutionally, and this is ultimately a provincial public policy issue.

Some recent remarks on allied subjects, by Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail, may finally get to the very bottom of what is at stake: “Herein lies the paradox of the modern middle class: Its existence is reliant on a thriving and open market economy, but its size and sustainability are equally dependent on the tax-and-spend mechanisms of the modern welfare state … The countries that are doing best are those that spend serious money on cultivating and maintaining a middle class. Many poor countries, despite having developed booming economies during the past 15 years, fail to join the middle-class club because they can’t afford to erect government-supported stepladders to success. And countries such as Canada, which can and do spend that money, have done the best at surviving the social turmoil of our age.”

The earlier Mike Harris-Ernie Eves Ontario neo-con Tory regime of 19952003, some will no doubt further argue, did not embrace propositions of this sort at all. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals won in 2003 by urging that they did. (The New Democrats went overboard in another direction, and who knows just where the new Green Party stands on such things.)

But the McGuinty Liberals with all their echoes of the old tight-fisted Ontario Grits still have at least some problems finding enough money to cultivate and maintain the province’s traditionally very broad middle-class majority. Have John Tory’s reputed new kinder and gentler old Bill Davis-style Progressive Conservatives suddenly discovered or even rediscovered better answers? Or are they just neo-con wolves in sheep’s clothing? If you do believe in Mr. Saunders’s middle-class majority theories, is the trick right now just to return Premier Dalton to office, and let him keep pushing in the right (or moderately left) direction?

These may or may not ultimately prove the biggest questions for many voters on October 10, 2007. Meanwhile, it is at least clear that whatever happens the social and economic base of Ontario politics today is in the midst of some considerable flux – externally and internally, so to speak. And recent population growth statistics are particularly interesting.

In fact the trends currently in motion have been gathering momentum for several decades now. But they have lately approached a kind of watershed. During the first quarter of 2007, all four provinces of Western Canada grew at faster percentage rates than Canada’s most populous province of Ontario. And inside Ontario itself the only part of the province that has been growing in any dramatic way over the 20012006 census period is the central region, broadly adjacent to (but not inside) the City of Toronto. For the most part the population in all of eastern, southwestern, and northern Ontario – which make up the vast bulk of the provincial geography – is now growing at less than both the provincial and Canadian national averages.

For better or worse in the wider confederation, Ontario still has far more people than any other Canadian province, and this will no doubt continue for some considerable time yet, or perhaps even forever. But Canada’s most populous province is no longer a place that can define itself strictly by its potential for growth – or by its celebrity as the most economically dynamic part of the true north strong and free.

Premier McGuinty (from the Ottawa region) has arguably shown some strong instincts for the new province that has been slowly arising on the back of these trends for a generation now. Mr. Tory (from the Toronto region) may still be trying to live in an earlier regional universe, that no longer quite exists. Premier McGuinty has stood up clearly for the old provincial rights of the new Ontario, in a somewhat less hospitable Canada than the province has faced since the end of the Second World War. That may finally prove his strongest asset on October 10, 2007.



Pop Jan 1, 2007

Pop April 1, 2007

(Absolute) % Change




(19,511) 0.57

British Columbia



(17,692) 0.34












(27,573) 0.22





Prince Edward Island




New Brunswick




Nova Scotia




Newfoundland and Labrador









Northwest Territories













SOURCE: Statistics Canada 


Census Division

2006 Pop

2001 Pop

% Change






























Kawartha Lakes

























SOURCE: Statistics Canada 

POSTSCRIPT/UPDATE AUGUST 23 … a Liberal minority government?

As October 10 draws at least a little closer one particular piece of additional Ontario election news on polling numbers has cropped up. And (for those who like such political arithmetic at any rate) it deserves some special attention.

In his regular Queen’s Park column for August 20 Murray Campbell at the Globe and Mail wrote: “Ontario’s governing Liberals will take a measure of relief from the poll published … today that shows they have a five-point lead over the Progressive Conservatives … But if this latest survey, conducted by The Strategic Counsel, is taken in conjunction with 11 other published polls of Ontario voters since last January, the unavoidable conclusion is that Premier Dalton McGuinty will form a minority government.”

This conclusion draws on the inspired number crunching of the excellent Graham Murray, editor of the indispensable Ontario political newsletter Inside Queen’s Park. And the crux of the argument here is that when you compare the average performance of the McGuinty Liberals in the past dozen opinion polls of this year with the same statistic for the polls preceding their decisive majority government victory in 2003, they are clearly in some trouble – at least as far as winning a majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly goes.

Thus “14 surveys between January and mid-July” of 2003 “gave the Liberals an average of 48 per cent support, compared with 34 for the Conservatives and 15 for the NDP.” As it happened, these “average numbers for the 2003 polls were nearly identical to the results” of the 2003 election. And these popular vote numbers translated into “72 of the legislature’s 103 seats” for the McGunity Liberals, 24 seats for the Conservatives, and a mere seven seats for the NDP.

This time around, in 2007, the Liberals’ “average support in the dozen polls since January is a shade under 39 per cent” (even though, as Murray Campbell explains, “Mr. Tory should be having sleepless nights as well because his average 35 per cent standing is only a nudge above what Ernie Eves accomplished for the Conservatives four years ago”). And, usually at any rate, the “threshold for winning a majority in Ontario is about 42 per cent.”

Murray Campbell goes on to further explain: “The killer for the Liberals – the reason for their eight-point drop since 2003 – is the resurgence of the NDP and the apparent arrival of the Greens as a political force.” (The latest Strategic Counsel August 20, 2007 poll “gives the Liberals the support of 40 per cent of respondents, compared with 35 per cent for the Conservatives under John Tory and 18 per cent for Howard Hampton’s NDP. The Green Party, which has never held a seat in the Ontario Legislature, is preferred by 8 per cent.”)

* * * * * *

Calculations of this sort, of course, can never be at all certain. They are provocative and potentially intriguing at best.

Just because the “average numbers for the 2003 polls were nearly identical to the results” of the 2003 election does not necessarily mean that the average numbers for the 2007 polls will be nearly identical to the 2007 election results. What happens in the campaign over the next month or so, e.g., could change the numbers dramatically enough. In democratic politics – perhaps even more than in other walks of life – human behaviour is never as simple or as predictable as tidy rows of numbers can make it seem to be.

Among the historic complexities of Ontario politics, as well, it has not always been the case that the “threshold for winning a majority in Ontario is about 42 per cent.” Consider, e.g., the 1990 Ontario election, in which Bob Rae’s New Democrats won a comfortable enough governing majority of some nine seats in the Legislative Assembly, with somewhat less than 38% of the province-wide popular vote.

In 1990 too more than 6% of the province-wide vote went to so-called fringe parties, the most prominent of which were the Family Coalition Party of Ontario and the Ontario Provincial Confederation of Regions Party. In 2007 the surging fringe of the Green Party could take votes away from the New Democrats as well as the Liberals – and conceivably even help the McGuinty Liberals win at least a bare governing majority of seats, even if their popular vote does prove to be a “shade under 39 per cent.”

All this having been said, the excellent Graham Murray’s calculations have put together a plausible enough argument for the likelihood of some kind of Liberal minority government on October 10, 2007. Who knows of course exactly what this would mean? (And remember that the old Bill Davis Progressive Conservatives actually had minority governments in the mid to late 1970s, without anyone almost noticing.)

One further interesting question here, however, is what sort of impact a minority government might have on the MMP referendum that will accompany the election. Suppose, e.g., that on October 10 the people of Ontario in their infinite wisdom finally decree both a minority government and (by the required 60% majority) a new system of proportional representation that will probably mean many more minority governments in the future? That no doubt really would add up to an interesting election, no matter how quiet things still seem, as late as August 23!

Randall White is the author of Ontario 16101985: A Political and Economic History, and Ontario Since 1985.

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