Montreal Gazette



- RYAN TUMILTY in Richmond Hill, Ont. National Post Twitter: ryantumilt­y

In stifling heat, Conservati­ve candidate Costas Menegakis walks a brisk pace as he rushes from door-to-door in suburban Richmond Hill trying to find a few more supporters, a few more votes.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that one extra shift of door knocking, another poll canvassed, one hard day's effort could be the difference in this riding, which was the second closest in the country in 2019.

Menegakis finished just 212 votes behind current Liberal MP Majid Jowhari and he is not willing to leave anything to chance this time.

“We're working just as hard and even harder than we did knocking on doors, even in the sweltering heat, every day for seven to eight hours of knocking doors.”

And the people answering those doors, throughout the region and to all parties, are saying the same thing: Why are we having this election?

“People are not happy to see an election, so they ask why are we in an election just coming out of the pandemic,” said Menegakis, who thinks the Liberals have badly misread the public sentiment.

“I think people have seen through the vote grab attempt by the Liberals to try to get their majority. They're seeing right through that.”

Menegakis won this seat in 2011 in Richmond Hill and then ran against MP Leona Alleslev in 2015 in Aurora— Oak Ridges—richmond Hill.

He lost to Alleslev, who initially ran as a Liberal but crossed the floor to the Conservati­ves, and then Menegakis ran in Richmond Hill again in 2019, losing to Jowhari.

The 2015 race swept out many Conservati­ve and NDP seats and turned the entire region into a Liberal fortress.

In 2019, Liberal MPS who previously squeezed out victories were sitting on 30 per cent margins.

There are just six Conservati­ve seats in the regions around Toronto. Even if the Liberals take them all, they won't be in a majority, but taking a few more could be part of the puzzle.

If the Conservati­ves can loosen the Liberals' grip on the area, they could move back into government themselves and, either in this election or some future one, the party will have to regain its presence in the country's largest city.

Along with the tight race in Richmond Hill, Alleslev won her seat by only two per cent in 2019 and other Conservati­ve wins in the region were relatively narrow.

Menegakis said he believes the party wasn't firing on all cylinders in previous elections, but feels confident this year's platform will resonate better with people in the community.

“Both in 2015 and 2019 we stumbled, communicat­ions with the voter wasn't, well, what it could have been,” he said.

The homes Menegakis is knocking on are relatively newer and larger builds and are selling in the region's hot market for $1.7 million or more.

Jowhari is going to homes just a few minutes away, in an older part of the community where small bungalows command the same prices, but often get a date with a bulldozer after the sale, as new buyers replace them with mega homes.

Jowhari said people are struggling to keep up with the rising costs, and at door after door, when it comes up, he is sure to mention the Liberals' latest proposal on housing.

“It's the whole notion of affordabil­ity, whether you're seniors and you're trying to deal with the cost of living and with health care, whether you're looking for jobs, whether you're a profession­al and you want an affordable house.”

Jowhari gets the same question Menegakis does about why an election is necessary now and says it's because so much has changed during the pandemic.

“This agenda is truly so progressiv­e that we need to go to the people and get the clear mandate to be able to go and continue delivering,” he said.

He said the pandemic exposed deep, systemic problems and the government has to address them.

“Things that we knew, things that we have accepted, now, their importance has been elevated, and we need to fine-tune and we need to reset for that.”

Jowhari said people in the riding come from many ethnic and economic background­s, and voters here are never going to vote in a bloc.

“This riding will always be close. No party I think or no philosophy will ever win by 60 per cent.”

Just south of Richmond Hill, Liberal Paul Chiang is fighting the same blistering heat in Markham—unionville as he runs up to the door, but at this point he is also fighting apathy and disinteres­t.

Even the voters who open the door for him aren't yet ready for a discussion about politics. Most people say they're undecided, not really paying attention yet or otherwise disinteres­ted.

Chiang, a former York Region police officer, is hoping to take the riding from Conservati­ve MP Bob Saroya. Saroya had a healthy 10 per cent margin in 2019, but he is surrounded by Liberal ridings on all sides.

Chiang spent the last 15 of his 28 years on the force working on issues around hate crimes and diversity. He speaks eight languages and uses several of them when he canvasses.

Saroya declined multiple requests for an interview. But in the past he has pointed to marijuana legalizati­on and crime as reasons for voters to support his party over the Liberals.

At most doors, Chiang ensures to mention his time as a police officer and that he, his three kids and six grandchild­ren all live in the riding.

He said it's an important contrast from Saroya.

“My competitor doesn't live here, doesn't know what happens locally. His concern is not local.”

Chiang opens the conversati­on at every door asking residents how they feel the government has done for them.

The Liberals' COVID management has had plenty of stumbles, but it has been undeniably massive.

Hundreds of billions were spent on the government's wage subsidy and Canada Emergency Response Benefit, at least $9 billion was spent on vaccine contracts and, despite a slow start, the country has one of the highest vaccinatio­n rates in the world.

Canada's death rate was much lower than our neighbours to the south. If Canada had America's death rate from the virus, more than 70,000 Canadians would have died from COVID-19 instead of the still-grim 26,000 victims.

Yet, at the doors, residents describe the Liberals' pandemic response with a shrug as “OK,” or “So so,” or “fairly well.”

Chiang said he's not surprised people are looking past the pandemic.

“People know what the government has done for them,” he said. “Canada is number one in vaccinatio­n. And we are ready to go back to work with opening the economy up and moving ahead,” he said.

At the door, Chiang is asked a few times why Canada needed this election.

He said the scale of change demands a review by Canadians, but also says something Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has so far avoided.

“We want to get the mandate as a majority government so we can move forward and move Canada forward by building us back better.”

Next door in Thornhill, Conservati­ve candidate Melissa Lantsman is working to ensure the party holds onto the riding, as incumbent Peter Kent steps into retirement.

She said the election is not going to be about what happened over the last 17 months.

“For the most part I think people want to move forward and they want to know what happens next,” she said.

“If you're having a referendum on the pandemic, whether it's Liberals or Conservati­ves or incumbents or not incumbents, it's just not where people are.”

Thornhill was the safest Conservati­ve riding in the GTA in 2019, 10 percentage points safer than even leader Erin O'toole's riding. The riding has a significan­t Jewish population and support for Israel comes up often on the doorsteps.

Lantsman said people in the riding did vote Liberal once, but found the party's stance on Israel weak.

“They found a value statement in Stephen Harper's government that they didn't see in the Liberal government.”

Every Canadian election that is called before it absolutely has to be leads to questions about why the campaign is happening, but that issue generally fades in a few days. Lantsman has been a party strategist in the past and said voters haven't let the idea go this time.

“There's still an unanswered question of why are we doing this.”


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