KINGSTON — A NDP lawn sign sits in front Gary Wilson’s house. It’s the only orange sign on a quiet residential street near Richardson Stadium, the home of Queen’s University Golden Gaels football. Fitting perhaps, because Wilson was the first and only NDP candidate to win an election in Kingston.
These days, Wilson would rather take care of his grandchildren or watch a tennis match on satellite TV than talk politics. Despite that, and what he calls a “terrible” memory, Wilson can easily reach back to reflect on the 1990 election, and the orange wave that resulted in a Bob Rae-led NDP government and made Wilson a MPP.
In 1985, 42 consecutive years of Progressive Conservative electoral dominance under the so-called “Big Blue Machine” had come to an end. Five years later, as the election approached, David Peterson’s Liberals were sliding in the polls.
Wilson remembers the frustration of Kingston voters 28 years ago. “At least you’re not one of the other two guys,” he recalls hearing on doorsteps.
The PCs had been in power for too long, the thinking went. And Kingstonians seemed willing, albeit reluctantly, to vote out the David Peterson Liberals, even if it meant unseating Ken Keyes, a former alderman and Kingston mayor who was generally well-liked.
Wilson, who had previously run in the 1987 election and came second with 25 per cent of the vote (to Keyes’s 50 per cent), won the riding of Kingston and the Islands in 1990 with 38 per cent of the vote in a fairly tight three-way race. For his part, Wilson doesn’t say he won the election.
“I didn’t win. No, no, no. Ken Keyes lost.”
Putting orange on the map
Since the 1990 election, not one riding in eastern Ontario has voted NDP provincially. And of the ridings that did shift that way 28 years ago — Ottawa Centre, Frontenac—Addington, Peterborough, Hastings—Peterborough, Kingston and the Islands, and Prince Edward—Lennox — only Peterborough and Ottawa Centre had ever elected an NDP MPP before. That election was a big, orange blip in an otherwise blue-and-red history of representation.
However, in this election campaign, NDP supporters are looking at the province-wide polls and hoping that they may have a chance in eastern Ontario once again.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath and her team recently undertook a whistle-stop tour of eastern Ontario, making appearances in Ottawa, Kingston, and Peterborough. At an event in Kingston, an excited crowd of about 100 gathered to see Horwath and hear her pitch to be Ontario’s next premier.
But winning in Kingston will be difficult for NDP newcomer Ian Arthur, who is best known in the community as executive chef of Kingston’s famous Chez Piggy restaurant. The Liberals have held the seat since 1995, most recently under Sophie Kiwala, who is running for re-election. And the PC candidate is Gary Bennett, a well-liked former mayor.
Even in Ottawa Centre, which the NDP has held for 21 of the last 50 years despite losing every election there since 1995, the Liberal former sitting member is Yasir Naqvi, who won in 2014 with more than 50 per cent of the vote (compared to NDP’s 20).
Asked in Kingston why eastern Ontarians should consider electing NDP candidates, Horwath said that once again, people are hungry for change.
“It's what I've been hearing from people in our province. They are not wanting Kathleen Wynne, and the Liberals, at the helm anymore. It seems that folks have made that decision. So now the decision is, who's the next premier of the province? Is it Doug Ford? Or is it me?” asked Horwath.
She was speaking to a partisan crowd — people whose minds were made up to vote NDP. But it might be difficult to convince others in the region.
“Cradle of Toryism”
The region’s “fairly ingrained historical political culture” has made eastern Ontario a tough region to gain traction for the New Democrats, says Queen’s University political studies PhD candidate Tim Abray.
“Eastern Ontario is the cradle of Toryism in Canada,” says Abray, who has also done communications work for all three major political parties. “There's a really defined political culture there that is heavily rooted in all of the oldest debates around what Ontario is.”
Abray says eastern Ontarians have historically found their political place under the big tents of the Liberal and PC parties, and most haven’t looked for other options, such as the NDP or Greens. Meanwhile, Abray says, the Liberals and PCs have sheltered a diversity of opinions. “If you’re sticking people like [former Kingston PC MP] Flora MacDonald in the same batch as [Leeds—Grenville PC MPP] Bob Runciman … Those are two very different politicians [and] that diversity exists within the parties themselves.”
What you end up with, Abrays says, is a region with relatively stable politics, and a “large amount of allegiance to the traditional parties.”
So what happened in 1990?
“I think in many ways, 1990 is the case that makes the point,” says Abray. “You have [more than] 40 years of PC rule in Ontario until the mid-’80s. A fairly tumultuous few years with a Peterson Liberal government. So there was a fair amount of disarray — not unlike ... this election, where you’ve got people not entirely sure where to park their vote.”
Carleton University political science chair Jonathan Malloy acknowledges that NDP does not win in eastern Ontario — but the one exception to that rule happened when the party formed a government in 1990.
“The fact that [Horwath is] showing up there shows just how optimistic the NDP is for this election,” Malloy says.
“If you look at where the NDP wins votes in Ontario, and for that matter, in Canada, it either wins in downtown urban areas, or very, very remote areas. And eastern Ontario doesn't quite score on either front, except for Ottawa Centre. It doesn't have big, big cities, and therefore, big downtowns. And although it can be fairly rural, it's not deeply remote, like northern Ontario, or northern B.C.,” he says.
And although the 1990 orange wave overtook some parts of the region, generally speaking, the political movement itself never really took hold.
“Political culture is fairly conservative in eastern Ontario,” says Malloy.
He sees similarities between 1990 and 2018. “In this election, for the first time since 1990, people are so disillusioned with the two major parties that they’re willing to consider the NDP — in eastern Ontario and elsewhere,” Malloy says. “We’re seeing similar conditions.”
The NDP certainly hopes so. Strategist Kathleen Monk says every seat is in play, including those in eastern Ontario.
“Because of the nature of this election, there is no incumbent Liberal seat we are not going after, and no Progressive Conservative seat that we are not chasing as well,” Monk says. “There is no seat in terms of strategy, province-wide, that we're leaving on the table. And that includes eastern Ontario. We see places like Ottawa Centre, and Kingston and the Islands, and Peterborough, as real growth potential.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
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