Highway 401 runs east, from the Toronto area toward the outer suburb of Ajax. Along the roadside the trees have turned with the season, to red, orange and gold.
Greater Toronto covers across an area almost the size of Delaware. It contains almost a sixth of Canada’s population, and a fifth of its immigrants. Its sprawling suburbs were the site of some of the Conservative party’s biggest victories – and the Liberals’ biggest defeats – in Canada’s last general election, when current prime minister Stephen Harper won outright majority for the Conservatives.
Four years later, these quiet, leafy Toronto neighbourhoods are a key battleground in the Conservatives’ fight for political survival.
Canada’s 11-week campaign season may pale in comparison with the 18-month epic taking place south of the border, but it has been the longest in modern history: a tight three-way race in which the Conservatives, the New Democrats, and the Liberals, has at times held poll position. Ahead of Monday’s federal election, fewer than twelve percentage points separate the parties, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s polling aggregate.
If current polling is to be believed – and recent election upsets in the UK and Israel have taught pundits to take polls with more than a pinch of salt – then Harper will not hold on to government. After languishing in third place for much of the campaign, the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau - son of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau - seem set to return to power.
The victory will be particularly sweet here in Ajax, where four-term Liberal MP Mark Holland was routed in 2011 by Chris Alexander, formerly Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan and now a immigration minister in the Conservative government.
The centre-left Liberal party had held federal power in Canada for an extraordinary 69 out of 100 years before losing it to a Conservative minority government in 2006. Then, they were wiped out in 2011, losing more ground to the Conservatives in the suburbs and to the left-leaning New Democratic Party in the city centre – part of the so-called ‘orange surge’ which also handed the NDP the province of Quebec.
Ajax is a new electoral district - known in Canada as a riding; the old one, split apart because of changing population, had included the satellite town of Pickering, which has now been amalgamated into a neighbouring riding. One of prime minister Stephen Harper’s earliest campaign events was here, right at the beginning of August.
Alexander had found support amid the 34% of the riding’s population who are immigrants to Canada – including a sizeable Afghan diaspora, who appreciated that Alexander spoke some Arabic and Pashto.
But following what many here see as the Conservative government’s mishandling of the Syrian refugee crisis, Alexander has seen his support slip – especially after it was alleged that his department had denied asylum to the family of Aylan Kurdi, the three year old Kurdish boy whose death off the Turkish coast made front pages around the world.
Alexander suspended his campaign to deal with the accusations, and although Canadian authorities eventually denied that they had ever received an asylum request from the Kurdi family, the perceptual damage was done.
Meanwhile, the Harper administration’s record on refugees came under ever-increasing scrutiny: the Conservative government has pledged to take in 11,300 refugees from Syria, but has so far resettled fewer than 3,000.
Holland is now comfortably ahead in the polls. “We have a very diverse and dynamic riding where a lot of the messages [Alexander] has been pushing really turned people off, Holland told the Guardian.
Speaking in his Ajax campaign office, Holland accused the Conservative party of divisive tactics in a campaign which marked a political low-point in the country’s political history. “This is a government that is desperate to hold on to power, and is willing to throw anything on the table to create a distraction,” he said.
Walking door-to-door in a middle-class suburban street Hollandwas received with enthusiasm at nearly every house, in an area that Alexander had carried in 2011. Many households were cooking lunch; the area has a large Tamil population, and from many doors wafted the smell of spices. Several who answered the door said that while they had voted Conservative last time, this time Holland could count on their support.
Ayesha Vahidy moved to Canada with her parents from Pakistan when she was six, and now lives in Ajax with her son. She described how the campaign has provoked fierce controversy within the Muslim community, with arguments spilling into mosques.
Some older Muslims, she said, were natural conservative voters; instinctively resistant to Liberal policies such as those promoting sex education in schools. Conservative ads have played to this, suggesting the Liberals would make pot accessible to children and open supervised drug injection sites in communities - a hyperbolic re-imagining of Liberal support for legalized marijuana and drug harm-reduction strategies.
But in June, the Conservatives passed bill C-24; a statute giving the government to strip citizenship from anyone born outside Canada for terrorism-related charges. During the campaign, Harper also chose to focus on the marginal issue of the niqab – specifically whether a Muslim woman can wear the full face covering during her citizenship ceremony – which became a defining issue in the campaign.
He doubled down on that wedge issue by promising to implement a police tip line for “barbaric cultural practices” - child or forced marriages, gender-based family violence - if elected. Immigrant communities felt attacked.
Vahidy said that this “fearmongering” united devout and lay Muslims against the Conservatives. “That was it for me and a lot of other people in the same boat as me, who’ve been here since we were little,” she said. “It was like: this is my country. My son was born here. How dare you.”
Harper turned to anti-immigrant campaigning because his usual message of sound economic stewardship would no longer fly. Canada returned to recession in 2015’s first quarter, the only G7 economy to do so. Karen McCrimmon, a retired air force lieutenant-colonel and former Liberal leadership candidate who is running for the Kanata-Carleton riding outside Ottawa, told the Guardian that the economic narrative became “weak” for her Conservative opponent.
“I drive down the main street here where my campaign office is; maybe it’s a kilometre,” McCrimmon told the Guardian. “On that one strip, there’s 25 vacant commercial properties. People don’t have to look very far to see the evidence that their economic plan isn’t working.” The Conservatives won by nearly 28 percentage points here in 2011, but the latest polls give McCrimmon a lead of 50-39 – indicating a truly stupendous vote swing in the order of 41 points, though this may in part be linked to the fact that the Conservative incumbent is not standing again.
A draconian counter-terrorism bill, C-51, also inspired opposition to Harper. But Trudeau’s Liberals, who also voted for the bill - though with amendments - were also caught in the controversy. Vahidy, a life-long Liberal supporter and energetic party activist, actually switched and became a card-carrying member of the left-wing New Democrat Party. “I was so angry,” she said.
That tide of anger helped carry the NDP and their leader Tom Mulcair to an early lead in the polls when the campaign began in earnest at the beginning of August.
But it was not to last. After languishing in third place for much of the summer, the Liberal party climbed steadily, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s polling aggregate. This projects the Liberals winning with 130 seats – a win, but still not the majority of 170 required to form a majority government.
The NDP, whose national support has slipped from a high of almost 40% in August to around 24% now, lost the support of people like Vahidy. She realised, she said, that Trudeau had supported C51 in order to add amendments to it, which struck her on second glance as shrewd. They have also promised to change the bill once in power.
Canada is a country with an overwhelming progressive majority that has been kept from government because the left is split into two parties, while the right is united. In 2008, the NDP and the Liberals reached a coalition accord with the help of the seperatist Bloc Quebecois; but it was controversial and unpopular, and fell apart.
This may not be the case in 2015. “In the platform, we have a commitment to working with other federalist, non-Conservative parties, to end the Conservative government,” a senior NDP campaign source told the Guardian. “That clearly means that [Mulcair] wants to reach out and work with other parties.”
Meanwhile, the Conservatives turned to ever-more desperate measures. At a campaign stop Thursday in Trois Rivieres, Quebec – a town about 85 miles northeast of Montreal – Harper brought out what the Liberals are deriding as a “game show gimmick”. It was a show-and-tell tactic the Conservative leader had started to deploy at rallies earlier in the week, around the same time national polls began definitively indicating that Trudeau, had gained a lead, especially in seat-rich Ontario.
Harper would call up supporters – in this case it was Paul and Miriam Greth – and had them toss cash on the table as he ran through the benefits and tax breaks he warned the Greth family would lose under a Liberal government.
“That’s another 600 bucks down the drain,” he said, his words accompanied by the loud ‘Ka-ching’ sound of a cash register. “That is what Liberal change means, more money for the government, less money for you.”
In the dying days of the campaign, Harper has focused his attention on Trudeau directly. “Friends,” he told party faithful, “I understand the temptation for change is strong, but do you want to bet the future of your family on change?”
It was not the first time Harper has conceded that his government is looking a little tired after nearly a decade in power. An ad released mid-campaign admitted: “Stephen Harper isn’t perfect.”
Jason Lietaer, president of Enterprise Canada and a Conservative strategist not working on the current campaign, predicts the Conservatives will continue to push the ballot question of stability (them) versus risk (the surging Liberals) until October 19. “They will continue to be focused on one thing and one thing only – the personal consequences to the family budget of a Justin Trudeau victory.”
Harper has never been a widely beloved politician – last election he won a majority with just over 39% of the popular vote – and Lietaer admitted it might be an uphill battle to convince even core Conservative voters to support a fourth Harper mandate.
“You’ve been around for 10 years, there’s a fresh new face who’s run a decent campaign and the question is, do you have one more go at it?” he said.