L-K-M: One giant riding, many by-election voter moods

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James Gordon holds his three-month-old daughter, Juilette, in Lucan on Thursday April 11, 2024. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

By Brian Williams
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The London Free Press

Editor’s note: Anger, worry, frustration – and resignation. In a riding as large as Prince Edward Island, voters are of many minds ahead of a May 2 provincial by-election, reports Brian Williams, who travelled hundreds of kilometres through the district to get the lay of its landscape.

DRESDEN: FIRED UP OVER A DUMP

Joe Galos says he’s still not sure how he will vote in the May 2 by-election, but he’s clear about his burning, ballot-box issue.

It’s a landfill on the edge of town, a dormant site where a Mississauga company wants to truck in construction and demolition debris from across Ontario for recycling and disposal.

If York1 Environmental Waste Solutions gets its way, the operation – widely opposed by many in the area and beyond, including the municipality of Chatham-Kent that takes in Dresden – would run 24/7. Residents of the farming town of 2,400 say they can do without all the noise and wear and tear on roads that the proposal might bring. Many also worry about the project’s environmental fallout on the nearby Sydenham River.

Up to 6,000 tonnes a day of debris – from rubble and metal, to wood and contaminated soil – would be hauled to the site. Its processing area would balloon from just under one hectare (2.5 acres) now to 25 hectares (62 acres), the equivalent of dozens of football fields. York1 also wants to reopen the landfill, taking in up to 365,000 tonnes of waste a year.

“(Premier) Doug Ford made a promise, or said a statement back when he was being elected, ‘If the people don’t want it, they shouldn’t get it,'” said Galos, who sees his job as a voter to keep the landfill out.

Ontario’s environment minister has served notice the proposal will be subject to a full-blown environmental review, but time isn’t batting for Galos and others opposed to the landfill – not with the by-election May 2 and the proposal coursing through a long provincial approval process.

A retired General Motors worker, and former cash crop farmer, Galos said he didn’t vote for Ford’s Progressive Conservatives last time but would consider it if they kill the landfill.

“I’m kind of undecided right now,” the 66-year-old said. “I’ve made my pitch to the Progressive Conservative (candidate) for this area.”

WALLACEBURG: FRUSTRATED AND FUMING

Sharyn Di Ubaldo doesn’t pull any punches about what’s on her mind heading into a by-election, with concerns ranging from the fallout of climate change to the crisis in youth mental health services.

A physiotherapist and mother of two, the 39-year-old grew up in Wallaceburg, in Chatham-Kent, and moved back about three years ago. She said she’s frustrated with both levels of senior government.

“I have lost complete faith in our government,” she said.

Di Ubaldo said climate change is an issue that should be getting much more attention, adding she doesn’t think enough money is being spent on education and health care, either.

“I tend to vote for the Green Party because climate change is a big concern for me,” she said.

What others have termed a crisis in youth mental health services, underlined in Southwestern Ontario by recent reports of families unable to cope turning over their kids to child welfare agencies, is another issue for Di Ubaldo.

“There’s never been more kids in my time that have mental health issues, so that needs to be addressed and (Ford) doesn’t care about that,” she said.

Di Ubaldo said she’s also considering the New Blue Party because its candidate, Keith Benn, “is more about changing the education system.”

THAMESVILLE: VOTES SAVED BY LOCAL CANDIDATE

Longtime small-c conservative voters, Dennis Jack and his wife, Judy Jack, don’t mince words about Premier Doug Ford.

“I’m not impressed,” Dennis Jack said of the Progressive Conservative leader, now halfway through his second majority government.

“He isn’t a true conservative,” said Jack, 77. “He’s a whatever-it-takes-to-get-elected conservative.”

His 78-year-old wife, a retired nurse, said she’s always voted for the Progressive Conservatives but she’s “not supporting them financially” this time, even though the couple have donated in the past to the PCs. A One irksome thing to Judy Jack is that Ford backed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he invoked emergency powers to deal with a series of protests and border blockades against CVOID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions.

Still, the PCs can count on the Jacks in the by-election for a reason that often trumps when some voters go to the polls, especially in by-elections held without the hoopla of a wider provincial campaign. They like the local candidate, Steve Pinsonneault, a Chatham-Kent civic politician from their town.

“He’s proven he knows how to run a business,” Judy Jack said of Pinsonneault, who owns a sign shop in Thamesville.

Dennis Jack said he’s also “voting for the local guy.”

LUCAN BIDDULPH: NEW FATHER THINKS AHEAD

A little bit country, but close enough to London that wider big-city issues also matter, Lucan Biddulph is a township where rural and urban concerns blend.

A new father, 27-year-old James Gordon and his family reflect that hybrid. Gordon and his wife, both graduates of Western University, live in Lucan Biddulph, where he’s off work now helping to look after his three-month-old daughter, Juilette. His wife, a French teacher, is on maternity leave.

Gordon said his concerns are for his daughter and her needs, pocketbook issues including her future ability to own a home and to access schooling. The ability to get around is another issue he cites, saying the area needs transit to overcome the difficulty of travelling between Lucan and London for those without vehicles.

One thing that especially looms large for Gordon, thinking of his daughter’s future, is education. But he said he doesn’t sense that the Ford government shares that importance.

“I don’t like the fact that Ford doesn’t put a lot of emphasis behind education,” he said.

You don’t have to go far from Lucan Biddulph to tap into education issues from Ontario’s rapid growth in recent years. Many school boards in the province, including in the London region, have struggled to keep up with soaring enrolment and the need for new schools. And the province’s universities and colleges, their per-student provincial funding among the lowest in Canada, have had to deal with a tuition freeze imposed by Queen’s Park. Many have since turned, for more revenue, to more students from abroad, who pay much higher tuition, only to now face new federal limits on the number of international students allowed into the country.

Gordon said he voted Liberal in the last election and will likely do so again. He’s met the party’s candidate, Cathy Burghardt-Jesson, who is also the township mayor.

“I’ll probably end up voting with her because I like her. I’ve met her, I’ve talked to her,” he said.

ALVINSTON: PENSIONER SWEATS HIGHER COSTS

“How are we supposed to survive? Us seniors – and I’m a senior – our pensions are squat,” Roger Kinna declares.

A retired postal worker, the 71-year-old said higher costs of living – especially for older people – driven up by inflation is an issue that needs to be addressed.

The Ford government’s recent budget included few new so-called affordability measures, to help Ontarians cope with the inflationary crisis they’ve been living through. But Kinna said he’s always been a conservative voter and doesn’t have a problem with how the Ford government has operated.

Not that a provincial by-election will give him a chance to express it, but Kinna said he isn’t happy with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s performance, citing, for example, the federal carbon tax and the higher fuel prices it has brought.

“It’s Trudeau that’s got to go. I have no use for him, whatsoever. He’s part of the problem,” said Kinna, who plans to vote for the Progressive Conservatives on May 2.

“I can deal with conservatives for now,” he said.

STRATHROY: SHOPKEEPER SHOPS THE OPTIONS

Tattoo artist Tanya Griffin, who owns a parlour in Strathroy, said she’s more concerned about municipal issues than those in play in the provincial government.

Extended parking for her customers, for example, is an issue that concerns the Coven House shop owner. She said she doesn’t see herself or her business affected much by the provincial government.

“I know it affects high-income, low-income (people), (but), I’m kind of (mid-income) . . . I’m not noticing anything major,” the 41-year-old said.

Griffin said she hadn’t decided how she will vote May 2, but is researching the options and trying to avoid social media’s influence on her decision. For now, she’s leaning toward the Liberal party.

“I’m undecided and playing it back and forth,” Griffin said. “I don’t try and listen to social media, but there’s a lot of that.”

THE BIG PICTURE

The Lambton-Kent-Middlesex by-election, to replace former cabinet minister Monte McNaughton, who bowed out of politics last fall, is one of two in Ontario on May 2. Another will be held in Milton, to choose a replacement for departed former cabinet minister Parm Gill.

THE RIDING

A sprawling rural riding, Lambton-Kent-Middlesex is the same size as Canada’s smallest province and one of the largest ridings in the 10-riding London region. A riding without a single city, its major urban centres are the towns of Strathroy-Caradoc in the northeast and Wallaceburg in the southwest. The riding has been held by the Progressive Conservatives since 2011.

THE CANDIDATES

Keith Benn, New Blue Party

Cathy Burghardt-Jesson, Liberal

Stephen R. Campbell, None of the Above Direct Democracy Party

Steve Pinsonneault, PC

Kathryn Shailer, NDP

Andraena Tilgner, Green

Cynthia Workman, Ontario Party

THE STAKES

The by-election won’t change the balance of power at Queen’s Park, but it will be an important test for both the New Democrats under new leader Marit Stiles and the Liberals under another new leader, Bonnie Crombie. The PCs hold 78 of the legislature’s 124 seats, the opposition NDP 28. The Liberals, without enough seats to qualify for official party status, have nine seats and the Green Party two. Five seats are held by independents. In the 10-riding London region, the PCs hold six seats, the NDP three in London and the Liberals none.

NOTABLE

The riding’s size: Since by-elections are held without a provincial contest in the backdrop, it’s on the candidates to generate the buzz and excitement their campaigns need and to get the vote out, no small feat in a riding so large. “It is the one thing I have struggled the most with,” said Cathy Burghardt-Jesson, the Liberal candidate and mayor of Lucan Biddulph. “In my municipal campaigns, I knocked on every door. (In) this riding, it is impossible to do that.”

Key issues: In a far-flung riding, issues can vary widely depending on location, Burghardt-Jesson says. NDP candidate Kathryn Shailer said affordability and health care are those she hears about, along with “farmers who need more support.” For PC candidate Steve Pinsonneault, the cost of living dominates. “Every other door, I’m hearing this (federal) carbon tax is really upsetting people,” he said. Ford has been critical of the federal Liberals’ rising tax on carbon, a move to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on pollution.

Do by-elections matter? Often seen as referendums on governments (the Ford government is halfway through its second mandate), by-elections can be a chance for disgruntled voters to send the government a message without upsetting the entire apple cart. “Since the question of the government’s majority is not in question, people may feel they’re freer to express their real opinions,” said Peter Woolstencroft, a retired University of Waterloo political scientist and veteran Queen’s Park-watcher.

The area’s last by-election: The last by-election in the wider region was in 2013 in London West, when voters showed the-then ruling Liberals the door in the fallout of the government’s $1-billion gas plants scandal. New Democrat Peggy Sattler was elected, ending a 10-year Liberal grip on the riding.

KEY DATES FOR VOTERS

May 2: By-election day, polls open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. See your voter card for voting locations.

Until May 1: Voting allowed by special ballot at returning offices. For more information, go to Elections Ontario’s website.

April 26: Deadline for voters to apply to Elections Ontario to vote by mail.

April 21 to 26: Voting by advance polls. See your voter card for locations.

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