Federal Election 2015: Lessons For All Three Parties In How Southwestern Ontario Voted In Provincial Campaigns
By Randall White
“The Peninsula,” John A. Macdonald warned a friend late in January 1856 — referring to what we now call South-western Ontario — “must not get command of the ship. It is occupied by Yankees and Covenanters ... the most yeasty and unsafe of populations.”
Some things have changed in the intervening 159 years.
But interested observers of the upcoming federal election might want to remember that Southwestern Ontario still has one of the most "yeasty and unsafe" populations in Canada.
This is important because Ontario generally will be a crucial battleground in this year’s federal election, and he history of provincial politics in this region has a number of relevant lessons for the federal contest.
Depending on just how you define the region (does it go as far east as the Gretzky hometown in Brantford, for example?), three or four of Ontario’s first five premiers — all of them Liberal — came from provincial ridings in the southwest.
Most prominently, Grit godfather Oliver Mowat, premier from 1872 to 1896. He may have lived on Simcoe Street in Toronto, but in all six winning elections of his Ontario political career he ran in the Southwestern riding of Oxford North.
Mr. Mowat was premier during the last era when the family farm, pioneered in the late 18th and earlier 19th centuries, was still the centre of Ontario society. The Liberal party he bequeathed was drenched in the values of the old agrarian democracy of North America.
There have been three or possibly four Ontario premiers from the Southwest since the First World War: Mitch Hepburn (“Canada’s Huey Long,” after the Louisiana politician whose slogan was “Every Man a King”); possibly Harry Nixon (again, is Brantford in the region?); John Robarts; and David Peterson. All but Robarts have been Liberals.
The “most yeasty and unsafe of populations” has had something of a roving political eye as well.
From 1943 to 1985, many a member of the Progressive Conservative dynasty came from the southwest: not only Premier Robarts, but Darcy McKeough, Lorne Henderson and Andy Brandt, the former mayor or Sarnia.
As the 20th century wore on, the basis of Southwestern Ontario's economy changed. Along with what is some of the best farmland in the province, the region also became a homeland for automobile manufacturing.
That industrial economic base undoubtedly aided in swinging regional voters to Bob Rae's New Democrats in1990, helping to engineer their surprise victory and take command of the ship at Queen’s Park.
Again it swung in 1995 to lean towards the Mike Harris Conservatives.
In 2003 and 2007 it returned to the Liberal fold, helping Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals win majority governments.
The bloom began to fall off this last rose in the 2011 election, which left the McGuinty Liberals one seat short of a bare majority; and in the 2014 election this past June, Kathleen Wynne's Liberals did not do well in Southwestern Ontario — especially west of Cambridge and Brant.
Deputy Premier Deb Matthews held on to London North Centre. But elsewhere, beyond the ambivalent eastern borderlands, Tim Hudak's Conservatives - generally unpopular across the province - still took the more rural areas, while the NDP won in urban London and Windsor.
In fact, Southwestern Ontario was the saving good news for provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath in last June’s election.
Recently, Marit Stiles of Ontario News Watch's Salon reported that in 2015, the federal NDP "sees the potential for major gains in Southwestern Ontario, where they are pushing specific policies to boost manufacturing.”
All of Ontario — including the Southwest — is important for any second Harper Conservative majority government. His party took 73 out of 106 seats in the 2011 federal election. Under the new riding redistribution for the 2015 election, Ontario will have 121 ridings.
The same is true for Justin Trudeau's Liberals to be able to carve out even a minority government.
But some argue that the 20th century farmer-autoworker culture in Southwestern Ontario may be somewhat immune to what some see as Justin Trudeau's charisma.
The Trudeau magic that seems strong in the Greater Toronto Area and/or the Golden Horseshoe, as well as in points east and possibly even northern Ontario, may not be as strong in the Southwest, even allowing for the old French Canadian communities in Windsor and Essex County.
So it was no accident that the federal Liberals recently held what they called their winter caucus meeting in the Southwestern city of London.
They do seem to have identified a challenge here correctly. And there are almost certainly Liberal and old Grit ghosts in the region that wish them well.
Southwestern Ontario will certainly be one of the most important regions to keep an eye on come election night.
Meanwhile, watch what all federal parties do to boost their chances among John A. Macdonald’s "most yeasty and unsafe of populations" between now and then.