Peterborough And The 2018 Ontario Election: Will The Bellwether Hold?
By Randall White
Some observers beyond the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) still don’t understand how Premier Wynne’s Liberals managed to win a majority government in 2014. Others argue that a continuing rural-urban divide in Southern Ontario will cost her government the next election in 2018.
Even after the premier’s mid-term cabinet shuffle, Ontario Liberals themselves worry about recent opinion polls that show the Conservatives in potential majority government territory.
Before making up their minds about 2018 altogether, however, critics and supporters alike might want to take a closer look at the Peterborough area, on the north-eastern cusp of the GTA.
It is, just to start with, the home of Jeff Leal, Ms. Wynne’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Maryam Monsef, Justin Trudeau’s new federal Minister of Democratic Institutions.
Lately it has enjoyed one of the lowest regional unemployment rates in all of Canada. Statistics Canada’s three month moving average unemployment rate for the Peterborough Census Metropolitan Area in May 2016 was 4.3%.
In an earlier era the City of Peterborough was a traditional Ontario manufacturing centre. It was also the seat of the wider Peterborough County, largely devoted to farming in the south and tourism in a north end dominated by the Kawartha Lakes and the rocky Canadian Shield.
As the Canadian Encyclopedia explains, the area's most “unique quality is its demographic averageness ... making it a bellwether riding provincially and federally and a favourite site for consumer market testing.”
Peterborough’s demographic averageness today is not quite what it used to be.
As in other parts of Southern Ontario, the area’s traditional manufacturing base was battered by the storms that beset older manufacturing sectors in many places during the last quarter of the 20th century.
The city (and the county) is where it is today partly because the local community has kept working at its problems. And Peterborough’s response to the manufacturing decline was helped along by some strategic public spending on education infrastructure during the 1960s.
Trent University began in 1964. Fleming College of Applied Arts and Technology started in a renovated old textile mill in 1967. Their growth helped offset the decline in the local manufacturing sector in the later 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
Related traditions live on today. As the summer of 2016 looms, General Electric Peterborough has just made its first shipment under a new seven-year contract to build engines for Canadian Navy Arctic patrol ships. GE has recently modernized its Peterborough facility for this kind of work, with assistance from the government of Ontario.
Similarly, in some ways Peterborough today cultivates its Old Ontario heritage. In other ways it has embraced more diverse trends in the wider society.
The current federal MP and Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, is a Muslim.
The Peterborough Census Metropolitan Area also includes the larger Curve Lake First Nation and the smaller Hiawatha First Nation on Rice Lake. Peterborough Utilities, in partnership with the Curve Lake First Nation Economic Development Corporation, has recently won contracts to develop two hydroelectric power projects along the Trent Severn Waterway.
Some belittle the current low unemployment rate in the Peterborough CMA, because it is accompanied by a low labour force participation rate. But declining labour force participation also fits with the growing numbers of prosperous retirees from the Greater Toronto Area and many other places, who have lately been moving to both the city and the wider county.
Ties between the old urban Peterborough of the city and the old rural Peterborough out in the county have been growing as well. And it makes sense that Peterborough MPP Jeff Leal is the current Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
(Leal stayed in that job in the latest cabinet shuffle. He believes global food security is a growing issue, and Ontario has the most diverse agricultural sector in Canada. It is increasingly “going to be called upon to feed the world.”)
Jeff Leal first won Peterborough for the Liberals in 2003, when the McGuinty government came to office. He has held the seat ever since. And he won more than 46% of the local vote in 2014.
The riding does have a history of backing winners - hence its reputation as a bellwether. Gary Stewart held Peterborough for the Mike Harris Conservatives, Jenny Carter for Bob Rae’s governing New Democrats, and Peter Adams for the governing Peterson Liberals.
From 1943 to 1967 the governing Progressive Conservatives of Drew, Kennedy, Frost, and Robarts held Peterborough without interruption.
Spending time in the area at the edge of the summer of 2016, it is easy enough to imagine that the Wynne Liberals will finally win the seat again in 2018.
And maybe, like some fading rural–urban divide, the old tendency for Ontario voters to prefer different parties in office at Ottawa and Queen’s Park will finally prove just another relic of the past as well, in the changing provincial political culture of the early 21st century.