At first glance, Essex is classic rural Ontario: flat farmland dotted by small towns nestled on the shores of Lakes Erie and St. Clair.
Conservative Jeff Watson has represented Essex for the last 11 years, ever since he wrested control from Liberal MP Susan Whelan.
But today, NDP support is climbing fast in this once-prosperous manufacturing hub that has bled out jobs and left many unemployed, causing youth to move away for work. Farmers and auto workers are now voicing fears over how the recently-signed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal will impact their livelihoods.
An exclusive new poll from Environics Research for National Observer shows that NDP and the Conservatives are now in a dead heat, with NDP candidate Tracey Ramsey just one point behind incumbent Jeff Watson among decided voters.
Environics did a telephone survey of 655 eligible voters in Essex between October 2 and 4, 2015, asking voters who they would vote for if the election was today and, if they're undecided, who they are leaning towards. The research was conducted using Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology and the findings were weighted by age and gender to reflect the demographic makeup of the electorate. A survey of this size can be considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
“People are frustrated and cynical about politics. There’s been a level of disengagement just like everywhere else,” said Ken Lewenza Jr., who served as a city councillor in Windsor for seven years and now is actively involved in the Making Waves Windsor Essex group. Voter turnout in this riding is was 58.2 per cent in 2011, lower than the 61.4 per cent national average.
Low voter turnout that has proved a drag on local progressives, who nonetheless say they have a strong local candidate in the NDP's Tracey Ramsey, as well as the Liberals’ Audrey Festeryga.
Watson, meanwhile, has managed to keep office not only by exploiting the Liberal collapse and progressive vote-splitting, but also through local wedge issues, such as gun rights and abortion that are important to many Essex voters.
“They’ve been able to identify divisive issues where the progressives in this community need to have a better response,” said Lewenza.
TPP: the real wedge issue
But the real wedge issue for many Essex residents remains trade deals like the TPP, which will open up Canadian dairy markets to foreign imports, an impact albeit mitigated by a promised multibillion dollar compensation package to dairy farmers that Ottawa will roll out over the next 15 years.
Nonetheless, Lewenza said people were troubled by the secrecy and lack of transparency around TPP negotiations, an echo of past free trade deals that destroyed a once-thriving manufacturing sector and left Essex with one of Canada’s highest unemployment rates.
According to Lewenza, the Essex region used to enjoy one of Canada’s highest per capita incomes during its economic heyday, when skilled labour jobs in the factories surrounding Windsor once offered people a reliable route to middle class prosperity.
“Their own gut instinct tells them — just with the history of those agreements — there’s been a hollowing out of our community,” said Lewenza.
Essex councillor Sherry Bondy is fed up with Ottawa's broken promises.
With millionaire homes on the shores of Lake Erie just a few kilometres away, she notes how people in her community struggle on as little as $10,000 per year.
As inequality runs rampant, environmental disasters are also on mind: algae blooms have been spotted on Lake Erie, making the waters unsafe for swimming, a problem that also threatens to undermine the local tourist trade.
"Our local MP has done really nothing," lamented Bondy, who wanted a new federal government to invest in healthcare and public transit.
Instead, budget cuts have left Essex facing a doctor shortage as Ottawa held back on health spending.
Previously, the cost of building new infrastructure was split equally between the municipality, province, and federal government, but as Ottawa tightens its purse strings, locally communities are footing higher bills. Bondy said that when federal governments used to provide provinces more generous infrastructure funding, the cash would trickle down to local municipalities.
In Bondy's view, Watson has shown little interest in his constituents' concerns, adding that just getting him to attend council meetings was a challenge.
"With this government there is no two-way communication," said Bondy. National Observer tried reaching out to Watson via both email and phone, but received no reply prior to publication deadline.
Getting out the vote
While Lewenza said low voter turnout was hampering local progressives, Ramsey herself took a more optimistic view, saying that many people she has met are more motivated than ever to get out and vote on Oct. 19.
"I think that most of the people in this riding, whether over the environment, whether over jobs, whether over healthcare, are fed up with this government," said Ramsey.
Ramsey also slammed the Harper government's closure of a Veterans Affairs office in Essex, saying that many former soldiers are now struggling.
Ramsey said that while local veterans battle the government for needed benefits and care, Watson did nothing to stop the VA office from being closed.
"They feel left behind by what the Conservative government's done here in southwestern Ontario," said Ramsey."What we have is a Conservative representative who is committed to pushing the Conservative message onto people. And the people of Essex are, quite frankly, tired of that."
While Ramsey remains a newcomer to politics, the longer election campaign is giving her more time to meet with voters and give them a chance to get to know a little more, meaning that PM Harper's decision to drop the write more than two months before Oct. 19 may yet backfire on him in Essex.
But local organizers like Lewenza must keep working to get the vote out if they want to see Ramsey elected, which he is trying to do by having 500 people sign a pledge stating that they will not only vote but will also convince five others to vote with them.
He is also trying to unite the progressive vote around Ramsey, by appealing to people’s concerns around jobs and healthcare. With Ramsey nearly tied with the Conservative incumbent, he thinks it would be best for progressives to throw their support behind the NDP candidate.
Perhaps more importantly, both Lewenza and his fellow organizers are blitzing Essex with 25,000 leaflets urging people to vote, together with another 25,000 slated for the neighbouring riding of Windsor-Tecumseh.
Local progressives recently received a boost from David Suzuki, who urged Windsor-area residents to vote “Anyone but Conservative,” but Lewenza was keen to see a national organization like Leadnow promote strategic voting by progressives for the NDP in a bid to kick out Watson. The group's website states that in Essex, “a non-Conservative candidate can win" if people vote strategically.
Theirs is a view shared by Bondy, who felt that the NDP had a decent chance of snatching Essex from the Conservative Party.
Mulcair makes NDP power play during campaign stop
Meanwhile the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair is wasting no time in getting out the vote – for Ramsey at least – during an Oct. 4 campaign stop in Essex as part of a tour of southern Ontario just 15 days before the federal election.
Mulcair laid into both Conservatives and Liberals alike for their lack of support for the auto industry, citing a statement by a senior Trudeau advisor that advocated letting the big three automakers go bankrupt.
“Stephen Harper hasn’t stood up for auto jobs, and Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party simply won’t,” said Mulcair. “An NDP government will fight for auto jobs with a national auto strategy, support manufacturing, and invest in innovation.”
The NDP chief further criticized Harper for his failure to invest in health care, the environment and for overseeing the loss of 400,000 manufacturing jobs in Ontario, including more than 43,000 in Canada’s auto sector.
“If Ontarians want to defeat Stephen Harper and have better healthcare, cleaner air and water, and real opportunities for jobs and growth, it’s the NDP that will deliver,” said Mulcair. “We can build the Canada of our dreams, and it starts right here in Southwestern Ontario.”
Mulcair repeated his pro-manufacturing message in a whistle-stop tour of Brantford, Stratford, London, and Sarnia on that same day.
Ramsey herself was pleased to note that Mulcair had visited her riding three times in the past six months, lending her some much-needed 'star power'.
Unemployment a major issue
Liberal candidate Audrey Festeryga, who seemed unfazed despite her party’s low support local polls at around 20 per cent, said she's focusing on the impact that unemployment and the lack of investment in Essex has had on families.
“They are very concerned about the unemployment rate - everyone knows someone who has lost his or her job and the devastation that brings – economically, emotionally, and for the future," said Festeryga in an email dated Oct. 5. "The high unemployment rate devalues our homes and assets; results in [multiple] generations living together in the same household in order to support one another; and reduces the amount individuals can save for retirement.”
She also castigated Harper for targeting vulnerable groups in society such as veterans and seniors, by cutting their benefits and services.
A lack of jobs, infrastructure, and services has led many young people to leave Essex for greener pastures elsewhere, she said.
“Essex residents have been hard hit by the fact that many of our youth are leaving the region seeking work opportunities elsewhere. As a parent of two graduating children, this is a grave concern of mine too,” said Festeryga.
On the TPP, Festeryga is taking a more nuanced approach, pledging support for free trade while also advocating on behalf of local dairy farmers and their concerns over Canada’s supply management being opened up, including arranging a press conference to give them a platform to voice concerns over the future of their livelihoods and families.
“The Liberal party supports free trade, as Canada is a trading nation, because free trade contributes to economic growth and long term prosperity across the country. A Liberal government will defend supply management in international trade negotiations like the TPP because we know that this program provides economic security for agricultural communities. Our Essex dairy farmers are very concerned that family farms will no longer be viable for the future generations,” said Festeryga.
Local farmers have also voiced their fears to Bondy, telling her that deals like the TPP will not protect their livelihoods, despite Ottawa's promises of compensation.