It’s not often that a leadership race for the third-place party in a provincial legislature has national, much less generational, implications. But with Nate Erskine-Smith’s candidacy in the contest to pick the next leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, there’s more than just political power at stake. There’s also a chance — maybe one of our last ones — to elevate a leader who can make people excited about politics again.
I readily confess my bias here. I’ve been a fan of Erskine-Smith’s for some time now, given his willingness to stand up for what he believes in and speak out against a government — his own, to be clear — that isn’t living up to its promises. His enduring enthusiasm for things like electoral reform and democratic renewal are particularly relevant at a time when public trust in elected officials is on the decline, and the importance of democracy is apparently an open question for some. He represents generational change (he’s yet to turn 40) at a time when Ontario desperately needs some fresh voices. And he was elected in the same part of Toronto where I got my start two decades ago.
But it’s his belief in the redemptive power of politics that scratches me where I itch. The idea that politics and government are powerful arenas for helping people and doing good is what drew me to politics in the first place, and it’s what’s keeping Erskine-Smith in the game right now. “Politics at its best is a very noble profession,” he tells me over the phone, “and the way we can make the biggest difference in the lives around us. I wish more people saw it that way.”
Erskine-Smith clearly wants to do politics differently — and yes, I can already feel some of your eyes rolling back in your head. This is a familiar promise, after all, and it’s one that rarely gets realized. Justin Trudeau promised to bring a different way of doing things to Ottawa, and while he delivered on things like gender equality in cabinet, he also replicated many of the patterns (the centralization of power in the leaders’ office and growing irrelevance of backbench MPs, for example) that were already in place.
As someone who saw the prime minister walk away from electoral reform, and who spoke out against it anyways, Erksine-Smith understands the importance of breaking from the status quo. “If people are going to trust in the possibility of politics,” he says, “we have to act with integrity.” He also understands that local voices, whether they’re coming from party volunteers or elected officials, need to be heard. “Serious people won’t join politics if they don’t retain their voice.”
These serious people are becoming an increasingly endangered species in our political universe. That’s a function of how over-centralized and message-driven our politics have become, never mind the toxic influence of social media or the anti-government conspiracies that took root after the pandemic. That, in turn, means more people are running for the wrong reasons, whether it’s serving their own egos or their need to wield power.
The Liberal Party, to be clear, is not beyond such impure impulses. In some respects, it has a bad habit of being driven by them. But too often, Erksine-Smith says, ideas are put in the service of elections right now rather than the other way around. He wants to invert that equation. “If I’m leader, we’re going to have the most ambitious housing and climate policies this province has ever seen.”
If Erksine-Smith sounds serious about this stuff, that’s because he is. When I ask him who he patterns his politics after, he identifies Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson. “Regardless of what they delivered,” he says, “there was a seriousness to them and a thoughtfulness and policy expertise that I value. But I also value engaging people where they're at and building relationships.”
That, I say, sounds a little bit like a certain former community organizer who became president. He laughs. “It’s a fool’s errand to compare yourself to people who have accomplished so much more.”
Nate Erskine-Smith made waves in Ottawa as a federal MP by doing something increasingly rare: speaking his mind. Now, he's trying to change the way politics are done in the Ontario Liberal Party — and if he's successful, maybe Canada as a whole.
It’s also a fool’s errand, he says, to suggest that he (or anyone) can replicate the third-to-first move the federal Liberals made between the 2011 and 2015 elections. “I don’t think anyone should fool themselves into thinking there’s a shortcut to this. None of us have the last name Trudeau, and Doug Ford isn’t as hated as Stephen Harper was.”
Instead, it’ll have to involve building relationships, listening intently to voters and showing them that they’re being heard. It will mean rebuilding riding associations, supporting grassroots organizing efforts and rebuilding the coalition of voters that put the Ontario Liberals in power for nearly two decades. It won’t be easy, in other words.
Erskine-Smith sounds undaunted by it all. “This race is about the direction of our party, and what kind of politics and party we want. It shouldn’t be easy for the leader. It should be a lot of work in a democracy to bring people together around common values and common issues.” It’s work he sounds more than willing to do. “The answer is participation," he tells me. "We build it together.”
Oh, and about electoral reform? Erskine-Smith isn’t going to make the usual mistakes there. “Do you think anyone would believe me if I said 2026 would be the last election under first-past-the-post?” Instead, he says, he’ll pledge to have a serious conversation about it and commit to a process — a citizens’ assembly, for example — rather than a specific outcome. That’s the path that New Zealand followed, and it’s one that’s allowed its electoral reforms to stick. “There are some tough lessons you learn in this business,” Erksine-Smith says.
Whether those lessons help him win this race, and overcome more conventional candidates like Bonnie Crombie and Yasir Naqvi, remains to be seen. But one thing seems certain: if Ontarians want real change in the next election, he’s the one best positioned to give it to them.