At first glance, the riding of Perth-Wellington is classic Conservative country. It's an almost prairie-like landscape west of Waterloo, an expanse of flat farmland cut through by ramrod-straight roads and dotted with small hamlets with names like Gads Hill and Brunner.
The riding’s largest town is Stratford. The main street is lined with stone and brick buildings— some of which date from the time of Great Britain’s redcoats— just two hours’ drive and a world away from the traffic and urban sprawl of Toronto.
But even this Tory fortress may face invasion by the NDP come Oct. 19. Its local lieutenant, Ethan Rabidoux, is an ex-Conservative disillusioned by Harper's rule.
“I seethe with anger at Conservative corruption, arrogance and entitlement in Ottawa," said Rabidoux. "I want real change."
Born and raised in Stratford, Rabidoux's parents were committed Progressive Conservatives. Young Rabidoux remembered identifying as conservative at an early age, and made lifelong friends in his riding through the PC party — some of whom have now followed him into the ranks of Mulcair’s orange army.
Rabidoux sees his conservatism as essentially different from the policies of Harper and his ex-Reform Party comrades. He blasted Harper for betting Canada’s economic fortunes on oil sands development, only to see oil prices plummet and workers lose their jobs as a result.
The Conservatives promised sound fiscal management, but Rabidoux is angered by economic policies that have aided the ongoing decimation of Canada’s manufacturing sector and 300,000 more unemployed Canadians today compared to pre-2008 levels—along with skyrocketing debt and rising numbers of working poor.
It's a situation he denounces as a “sin.”
“I was never a member of the Reform or Canadian Alliance parties. I never trusted them and never affiliated with their philosophies or tactics," Rabidoux said. "I gave the Conservative Party under Harper a chance, but it didn’t practice what it preached."
Seeing his old PC party swallowed up by Harper and Stockwell Day into the new Conservative Party of Canada convinced Rabidoux that it was time to walk away.
Now batting for Mulcair’s team, Rabidoux is battling against the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in his riding.
Farmers enraged by TPP
The TPP threatens to undermine the system of supply management that keeps Canadian farmers afloat by controlling prices for dairy and poultry products. It's an issue that voters in Rabidoux's riding care deeply about.
"We have more dairy farmers in my riding than any other riding in the country. We host the Canadian Dairy Expo and the Ontario Pork Congress every year. Farmers are nervous... We [in the NDP] will hold them accountable if they sell out our farmers,” said Rabidoux, some two months before the TPP deal was signed by Canada on Oct. 5.
In 2011, Perth-Wellington was won for the fourth time in a row by Conservative Gary Schellenberger, who scored a thumping 25,281 votes or about 54.5 per cent, far above the NDP’s total of 9,879, and roughly three times higher than the Liberal tally of 8,341 votes.
Suburban swing riding it is not, but such victories for the Tories may be a thing of the past now that Stephen Harper has agreed to open up dairy and poultry quotas to foreign imports, albeit with some protections in place.
Under the TPP's terms, Canadian farmers can expect $4.3 billion in funds over the next 15 years to help keep them afloat and Harper assured the public that Canada would only allow an extra 3.25 per cent of foreign imports into the country, but such a deal could potentially put scores of previously-safe rural seats into play for the Tories' opponents.
Prior to the signing it was widely expected that Canada will open the border to more American milk, without getting reciprocal access for Canadian dairy farmers in the United States, a move likely to infuriate Canadian producers.
Politically born again
Ten years ago, Jason Thompson was a devout Pentecostal who opposed abortion, marriage equality, and assisted dying. His beliefs led him to volunteer for Edmonton Tory Mike Lake’s first campaign, helping him get elected in 2006.
But Thompson always knew in his heart that he was gay, and by 2007 he couldn’t hide it any longer, either from himself or others. After coming out, he walked away from a church viewed by many as homophobic, and moved to Toronto.
“If Harper had his way, I wouldn’t be allowed to get married,” said Thompson. “The Conservative Party doesn’t really support that. They’ll say they have gay members in their ranks, but they’ll be the first to take their rights away.”
While Thompson understood that Harper and other born-again Christians were entitled to their beliefs, he felt they had no business pushing their personal morality on other Canadians.
“When you start mixing government and church that’s when you start having a problem. Government and church must stay separate,” Thompson asserted.
According to author Marci McDonald in her book The Armageddon Factor, the Harper government has maintained close ties to the Religious right, as conservative Christian groups have received economic stimulus funding, while abortion services overseas were de-funded.
That’s why Thompson is now a staunch Grit and is hitting the campaign trail once more— this time as a Liberal volunteer for Markham-Stouffville candidate Jane Philpott, who is running for the first time.
“It’s fantastic. Jane’s an awesome candidate,” Thompson enthused. “She’s engaged not only with the community but also with the people on her campaign. She’s got the ‘servant leader’ attitude.”
While some Conservatives disillusioned with Harper have urged Tories to stay at home this election, Thompson has found a candidate he's wanting not just to vote for, but work in the trenches to help win.
Steve Landers, age 70, was a Progressive Conservative all his life. A former Certified Accountant, he's a firm believer in fiscal responsibility coupled with a social conscience. He admired Conservative prime ministers including John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark, and Brian Mulroney.
“I also had a lot of like-minded friends. One of my former partners, J. Waldo Monteith, was the Minister of National Health and Welfare in the Diefenbaker government,” said Landers.
Yet today, Landers is a foot soldier in Thomas Mulcair’s orange army that aims to unseat Stephen Harper in the 2015 federal election, despite the NDP's flagging poll numbers. He's now working eagerly on Rabidoux's campaign. The two men go back a long way, as Landers was a friend of Rabidoux’s parents, and the two worked together on a number of previous campaigns in the riding.
Landers says his move away from the Conservatives was more a gradual, incremental shift instead of what he termed a “Damascus road experience.”
In Landers' view, Harper's Conservative machine was nothing like the old PCs of Diefenbaker and Stanfield whom he had once admired, as traditional fiscal conservatism has morphed into a new force bent on increasing the power of Canada's rich and centralizing political control under Stephen Harper.
Such control, for both Landers and other disaffected voters, was best exemplified by the recent passage of Bill C-51 into law.
“Bill C-51 really turns me off. It is unnecessary, except as a way of increasing Mr. Harper's power and control,” Landers lamented.
“They are now Republican [Party] North. Getting rid of Mr. Harper but keeping the present right-wing bunch achieves nothing. That whole Harper horde has to go."
Embarrassed by Harper government scandals
Toronto-based Moyukh Chakrabarti was a Conservative voter since his youth, when scandals surrounding the former Liberal government attracted him to Harper's team, which preached the values of fiscal prudence, personal freedom, small government, and boasted a seemingly honest leadership 10 years ago.
That was long before the ongoing Senate Expenses Scandal involving Mike Duffy and others—or the Robocalls scandal of 2011 that directed voters across Canada to false locations on Election Day to suppress the anti-Tory vote.
“The number of scandals has become unacceptable. It is embarrassing, especially as a conservative,” said Chakrabarti.
Further put off by the party’s inability to compromise, and the passing of omnibus legislation that he felt marginalized the views of many Canadians, he felt that it was time to phone his local MP.
“I called my MP, Mr. Bernard Trottier, to communicate my dissatisfaction and had to leave a message with an aide who promised Mr. Trottier would get back to me." said Chakrabarti. "He never did.”
“An MP who cannot be bothered to respond to a constituent’s concerns demonstrates complacency. I feel as though I have no representation in Ottawa — as a conservative with a Conservative MP, no less!”
Like his counterparts west of Waterloo, Ontario, Chakrabarti found his new home in the NDP, where he is currently fundraising and canvassing for Etobicoke-Lakeshore candidate Phil Trotter.
But Chakrabarti said it would take years for the Conservatives to fix the damage wrought by Harper's team.
“An acknowledgement and apology for the various transgressions would be a good start. It is the Canadian way, after all," he said.
"It would also demonstrate maturity and statesmanship if there was more cooperation between parties. It would show leadership if initiated by the sitting Prime Minister. There needs to be a complete restructuring of the party. My confidence in the [Tories] to enact true conservative values has been shaken, and it will take quite some time to restore my trust.”
Chakrabarti is now campaigning for the NDP, which is promising to shift federal funding from oil sands to renewable energy. He takes aim at Stephen Harper’s environmental policies that he said ran completely against the true spirit of conservatism.
“Environmental conservation should be a top priority for any government of Canada but especially the Conservative party. Conserve is in the name of the party!”
He said that Canada was blessed with abundant natural resources such as oil, fisheries, and minerals, as well as leading the world in two even more basic resources: water and land.
But last year, Harper signed the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPPA) with China, which locks Canada into a 31-year deal that allows Chinese companies to seek redress against any Canadian law that interferes with their profit margins, with disputes being settled by professional arbitrators outside the regular court system.
International deals such as the China-Canada FIPPA, he said, will leave a poor legacy for Canada.
“Future generations will examine history disdainfully whilst suffering from what our current policies have wrought,” Chakrabarti warned.
Straight outta Brampton
Brampton native Tony Brar is another veteran volunteer, having previously helped Conservative MP Parm Gill win office in the 2011 election that saw the Liberals unceremoniously chased out of Brampton-Springdale.
But this year, Brar is plumping for Trudeau’s Liberals, driven by a feeling that Stephen Harper is widening the gap between the rich and poor in Canada.
“The [Universal Child Care Benefit] was a little bit of an issue for me — because I didn’t need that money,” Brar said.
His was a criticism shared by Liberals and NDPers alike, who felt that the Harper handouts just months before a federal election helped those parents who did not truly need financial support. In addition, most of those people who did receive UCCB cheques resided in suburban areas represented by Tory MPs, with only two of the top 20 destinations held by the NDP and just one area in Grit hands.
In Brar’s opinion, the UCCB was “just buying people’s votes.”
On the hot-button issue of terrorism, Brar said that he wanted a balance struck with legislation such as C-51, echoing the arguments of Trudeau and other Liberal MPs who have promised to modify the anti-terror law and provide greater oversight of national security agencies if elected.
“I’m not for abolishing it or getting rid of [Bill C-51] entirely, but I think some things do need to change,” said Brar.
Taking aim at C-51
For some Conservatives, Bill C-51 was a watershed moment that pushed them away from supporting Harper.
Stratford resident Joe Jesso is a gun rights advocate who works to educate people on how to use firearms safely, and on hunting and Canadian outdoor traditions. He is a classic example of the Conservative voter —and perhaps the last person one would expect to vote NDP.
“This will be the first time in my life that I will have [supported the NDP]," Jesso said. "But with Bill C-51 and their continued arrogance, the Conservatives have lost my allegiance. Though I value hunting and firearm ownership, my rights are far more important.”
According to Jesso, C-51 was the latest of several attempts by the Harper government to expand surveillance powers, starting with an attempt to monitor online activity in 2012.
Then-public safety minister Vic Toews said at the time that people could “either stand with us or with the child pornographers," but that first attempt at increased surveillance powers descended into farce as a result.
The Tories' second attempt to increase snooping powers came after the suicide of B.C. teen Amanda Todd, who fell victim to a prolonged campaign of cyber-bullying and stalking by an online predator. But her own mother Carole spoke out vehemently against the government’s proposed legislation.
“To me, she is a true Canadian hero,” said Jesso, of Carole Todd, for defending Canadians against government spying.
Only when two soldiers were gunned down by jihadist terrorists last fall were the Tories able to step up surveillance in the form of C-51, under the pretext of combating terrorism.
“Some people will say that they are willing to give up some of their rights to achieve security. There [are] two problems with that mentality. First, the security is only perceived, not guaranteed. And secondly, warrantless spying is incredibly prone to being abused.
“The Conservatives make the argument that the security forces need more ‘tools in their tool box.’ To that, I say ‘Try using the tools you already have.’ If you suspect a person or group of wrongdoing, get a warrant. If there’s one thing that disturbs me more than a government that is determined to take away the rights of its own citizens, it’s citizens who are willing to give up those rights.”
Despite his stated intention to vote NDP, Jesso still holds fast to some Conservative values, including a belief in small government and their stance on firearms possession.
He also expressed some misgivings about his new party’s firearms stance— such as Mulcair’s saying that he wanted to see every firearm in Canada tracked, despite promising not to restore the Long Gun Registry. He also disagrees with NDP candidate Olivia Chow’s support for a complete ban on handguns in the city of Toronto.
Jesso said that such policies would “target people’s fears but do nothing for public safety.”
But for the Oct. 19 election, Jesso said he would be willing to put aside his misgivings and vote orange to push Harper out of power.
“A mark of a true leader is one who can admit those mistakes and make amends," he said. "But sadly, we have not seen this type of leadership in this country in a very, very long time.”