Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre appears to be focusing on capturing seats in northern Ontario — a politically important region with a small number of ridings — as polling suggests the party’s support continues to grow.
In recent weeks, Poilievre has attacked Liberal and NDP MPs in northern Ontario in the House of Commons while his party has run ads aimed at flipping seats in the region.
“Liberal MPs in Sudbury, Thunder Bay, North Bay, Sault Ste Marie, they have starving constituents who are worried about the heat going out,” Poilievre said last week in Ottawa while calling for a carbon tax exemption for all home heating.
Poilievre also spent a week in the summer touring northern Ontario and staging rallies across the vast, underpopulated region.
“For the Conservatives to be targeting northern Ontario for seat gains is no coincidence. It’s no accident,” said Eric Grenier, a political analyst with TheWrit.ca.
“They do see that there are a lot of ridings there where they came pretty close last time and have good reason to believe that the message that they’re bringing is going to appeal to those voters.”
There are 10 federal ridings in northern Ontario. Six are held by Liberals, two are held by Conservatives and two are represented by New Democrats. But the boundaries of several of the ridings have been redrawn — and the region will drop from 10 ridings to nine when the next election takes place.
The latest data from poll aggregator 338Canada suggests that if an election were held today with the current seat makeup, the Conservatives likely would win an additional five seats in the region.
Liberals might be ‘lucky’ to keep a seat in the region: expert
While the polling isn’t specific to northern Ontario, it does offer insights into how voters in the region are leaning.
Even two ridings held by high-profile MPs — Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu’s seat in Thunder Bay-Superior North and NDP MP Charlie Angus’ long-held seat in Timmins-James Bay — are a polling a toss-up with the Conservatives.
“Based on where the polls are, based on how the map is changing, the Liberals would be lucky to get out of northern Ontario with a single seat,” Grenier said.
Which explains, Grenier said, why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent last Friday in Sault Ste. Marie, a riding currently held by Liberal MP Terry Sheehan that has been won in the past by Conservatives and New Democrats.
“We stepped up as a government to be the partners that this community needed,” Trudeau said to an audience during a tour of a utility company there.
Grenier said the Liberals have been dropping in support throughout the country and the Conservatives may see northern Ontario as a key target.
“Northern Ontario — that is a prime example of where they think that they can defeat Liberals, but also New Democrats, and just pad their majority in areas that are probably easier for them to win than in other parts of the country,” he said.
Northern Ontario tracking ‘more conservative’
Northern Ontario may have just 10 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons right now, but riding contests there are often some of the tightest in the country and sometimes turn into three-way races.
Coming changes to the riding boundaries might help the Conservatives, as several Liberal-held seats will end up including more conservative-leaning voters, said David Tabachnick, a professor of political science at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont.
“That change has turned Sault Ste. Marie-Algoma, the new riding there, into one that’s going to be much, much more difficult for the Liberals to hold,” Tabachnick said.
He said the same holds for Nipissing-Temiskaming, a riding held by Liberal Anthony Rota, who has announced he will not run again.
“If you look at the new communities in that riding, they do skew conservative. So that could swing things in and of itself,” Tabachnick said.
The demographics of northern Ontario track older and poorer than the rest of the province, and the region tends to experience higher unemployment than southern Ontario.
Much of the region has tended to vote Liberal or NDP in the past — particularly districts with industries that require government investment, like forestry and mining, Tabachnick said.
That may be changing, he added.
“I have seen northern Ontario start to sort of track a little more Conservative,” he said, pointing to the Conservatives winning the northwestern Ontario riding of Kenora in 2019.
“The Conservatives really see some weakness in a few Liberal ridings.”
If the Conservatives take three difficult-to-win ridings in the region — Sault Ste. Marie-Algoma, Nipissing-Temiskaming, and Nickelbelt (which surrounds Sudbury) — that would be a sign of a very significant political shift change in northern Ontario, Tabachnick said.
“It might suggest that this is part of a blue wave,” he said. “That would be a domination of northern Ontario.”