Everybody knew that the recent federal election would be a close race in Sault Ste. Marie, provided the advance public polling was actually accurate.
In the end, only 250 votes or so separated a victorious Terry Sheehan from his closest rival. It was one of the closest races in the country and the closest local race in decades.
The election campaign itself was a bit of a blur, but I’d like to rewind for a moment to highlight some significant events and how they are emblematic of political changes at the national level that we ought to watch.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the election didn’t need to happen.
There probably isn’t a single person outside of a small group of Liberal Party strategists that thought calling a snap election during a pandemic was a good idea.
The electoral result essentially replicated the status quo with some minor tweaks. Well over half a billion dollars was wasted if the estimates are correct, all in a self-interested bid to hand the Liberals a majority government that just didn’t materialize. The rules are the rules, however, and history shows us that early elections usually work in the favour of incumbents and minority governments.
We’re already familiar with the major electoral players at the local and national stages: the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, and the New Democratic Party (NDP).
Interestingly, none of these parties were particularly decisive in the local race.
Sheehan waltzed back into office with a narrow edge over Conservative candidate, Sonny Spina, but it was actually smaller, lesser-known parties that sealed the deal for Sheehan with his narrow lead.
Due to our broken electoral system in Canada (i.e. first-past-the-post) that results in a two-party occasional flip flop at the federal level, strategic voting (or lack thereof) is the unfortunate status quo.
Therefore, the big takeaway from the local race is that small parties can make a huge difference depending upon the political conditions.
Let me explain…
On opposite ends of the political spectrum – the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) on the right and the Green Party on the left – interesting things happened both locally and nationally. These two parties moved in completely opposite directions during the campaign: one with impressive gains and the other with a seeming implosion.
So, I think that there are two questions that we ought to ask in the wake of the local race.
First, how can we explain the impressive showing of an ostensibly fringe candidate, leader, and party?
The local PPC candidate, Kasper Makowski, garnered a not-insignificant 1,943 votes, just shy of five percent of the total votes cast locally. In the previous federal election (in 2019), the local PPC candidate, Amy Zuccato, garnered only 741 votes, much less than two percent of the total votes cast. That’s an impressive more than doubling of support, even if the total number of votes is still relatively modest.
Second, how can we explain the abysmal showing of the Greens nationally and their inability to field a candidate in Sault Ste. Marie, a place where there is no shortage of party supporters?
The Greens have reliably attracted between two and five percent of the total votes cast in Sault Ste. Marie in previous federal elections. At a time when consciousness of the disastrous impacts of climate change is at an all time high, the party with arguably the firmest commitment to the issue (and often-boldest proposals in response) was completely sidelined. In fact, the Greens failed to even come close to fielding a candidate in all 338 ridings across Canada.
Let’s start with the right of the political spectrum with the PPC.
When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016, many political observers wondered if the populist tendencies appearing all over the world would eventually manifest themselves in Canada. Some argued that Canadian politics has always featured parties and movements with populist contours, like the Reform Party, Social Credit, and Union Nationale. Others argued that Canada was relatively more ‘populist proof’ due to its higher social solidarity and official policy of multiculturalism.
Recent events have shown that populist organizing gradually trickles into the mainstream electoral system over time. Aside from the obvious authoritarian and xenophobic tone of much populist rhetoric, one of the major drivers of populism is a real or imagined gap in representation. If the political system is unresponsive to the opinions and interests of its citizens, that discontent will eventually find an outlet. Usually, existing parties will try to adapt their messaging to speak to these disaffected citizens.
It’s a difficult balance, to say the least.
Straying too far into the fringes of public discourse (where populism often germinates) can create perceptions of extremism that scare away centrist and/or undecided voters.
So, if you’re interested in how populism manifests itself directly in electoral politics – and evolves from social and protest movements – you want to keep your eye on how well existing parties actually respond to the unruly fringes of society. If they don’t respond strategically – essentially absorbing the votes but sparing the extremism – they run the risk of new parties outflanking them and potentially eroding their voter base.
The rise of the PPC illustrates this political dynamic perfectly.
Starting a new political party is no simple task in Canada, but the PPC was lucky in the sense that its leader, Maxime Bernier, is already a high profile defector from the federal Conservatives, following his narrow loss in the party’s leadership race of 2017.
Bernier’s (earlier) political career is a bit like Icarus.
As a rising star in the Conservatives during the Stephen Harper era, there was some serious talk about him potentially leading the party some day.
Hubris (and a bit of stupidity) eventually caught up.
In 2008, Bernier was the subject of scandal when he left sensitive documents as a Foreign Affairs Minister at his then girlfriend’s place. I’ll spare you the sordid details, but Bernier’s ill-fated relationship with Julie Couillard included alleged ties to biker gangs and violations of lobbying rules, for a start.
Bernier was then a liability for the Conservatives and summarily sent to the backbenches for a while. He kept a reasonably high profile during this time and, in 2011, he was back in the Conservative cabinet (as a junior Minister this time).
Along the way, there were signs that ‘Mad Max’s’ fierce independence could predict his future. Obviously bitter that party discipline prevented him from fully expressing his libertarian views under the Conservative tent, it wouldn’t shock many to see Bernier become a Canadian version of the rogue political anti-hero (at least in his own mind).
During the 2019 federal election, it seemed as though the mainstream media were mostly ignoring Bernier and his nascent party, reflecting a mixture of his relative irrelevance and their reticence to provide his extreme views with an unearned platform.
Quite a bit has changed since then.
When Bernier founded the PPC, I thought that he stood a chance of attracting a decent number of traditionally Conservative voters who were more extreme than the party but nonetheless stuck in a marriage of convenience due to the realities of strategic voting. Therefore, a smart PPC strategy would be chipping away at the edges of the Conservative base without drifting too far into extremity.
The Conservatives were obviously worried about Bernier because they secretly commissioned a ‘seek and destroy’ mission against him from the consulting firm of well-known political operative, Warren Kinsella. Bernier ended up unsuccessfully suing Kinsella, with the presiding judge suggesting that Bernier’s own conduct could easily lead one to believe that the latter was bigoted. I’m sure this wasn’t the result for which Bernier was hoping, especially considering he was so confident about his legal position.
Bernier’s actions since the launch of the PPC rarely exhibited an aversion to the fringes of public discourse, if at all.
In fact, Bernier seemed to do precisely the opposite: courting the fringes at every opportunity. Sometimes he did this by using the popular dogwhistles of the racist far-right – like his critiques of ‘radical multiculturalism’ and ‘world government’ – and sometimes he did this by explicitly seeking support from far-right constituencies. Bernier’s entire gambit is to replicate the populist playbook on tap elsewhere, which is why he’s been so easily likened to a Canadian edition of Trump.
And so, when the pandemic turned everything upside down, including our political system, it surprised nobody that Bernier’s PPC would ride the waves of conspiratorial grievance.
Although I lived in Alberta for six years, a place where ‘Fuck Trudeau’ stickers proudly adorn countless pickup trucks, I never thought the Prime Minister would get pelted with gravel during a campaign stop. When Trudeau explicitly rebuked anti-vaccination protestors during another campaign stop, saying “those people are putting us all at risk,” Bernier responded by calling him a “fascist psychopath” on Twitter, a label that’s been repeated. More recently, Bernier has encouraged the harassment of journalists who ask him and his party critical questions.
At the same time that Bernier’s been working overtime to mobilize the fringes, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s campaign was essentially a race to the center.
O’Toole didn’t really campaign on high profile sociocultural issues that motivate many within the Conservative base. He staked out a pro-choice position on abortion. He explicitly recognized the perils of climate change. He ditched Derek Sloan from the Conservative caucus (ostensibly) for his extremity (although he originally defended Sloan just a year earlier). Arguably, the attempt to move the Conservatives closer to the middle made the PPC even more attractive to their potential voters, since the latter’s entire approach was grounded in the alleged moral bankruptcy of the former.
Considering that PPC candidates (and even Bernier himself) have been explicitly shut out of election debates across the country – because of their lack of competitiveness and/or their extremism – it was odd to me that there was barely a discussion about the inclusion of the PPC during the local debates.
Despite the PPC firmly wedding themselves to the anti-vaccination movement (and assorted opposition to public health mandates), the average viewer of the local debates would have been comfortably ignorant of the party’s apparent extremism and how the local PPC candidate, Kasper Makowski, aligned with the party’s views.
As an ardent supporter of free expression, I think we ought to include everyone who will actually be on the ballot in public debates, provided they conduct their campaigning within the bounds of applicable law and policy. But media organizations (and other candidates) carry an obligation to accurately depict the positions of all eligible candidates.
Put another way, if one of them is deeply embedded in the conspiratorial fringes of society, the public should probably know that.
Makowski has both spoken at and promoted the various ‘freedom’ rallies at Bellevue Park in the months before the election. The rallies violated gathering limits and attracted police who handed out thousands of dollars of fines. A brief perusal of some of the Sault Ste. Marie Freedom Alliance literature quickly reveals not merely a difference of opinion, but a difference of reality. And that’s putting it very mildly.
Although Makowski’s inclusion in the debates was the best (and free) advertising he could have hoped for, he wasn’t very impressed by the gigs or the other “bigshots” at them. According to him, “what they had to say wasn’t very impressive.”
Nonetheless, almost five percent of the voters who cast a ballot in Sault Ste. Marie thought Makowski was impressive. If the attendance at the ‘freedom’ rallies was modest, the message delivered at the ballot box was potent.
The PPC failed to gain a single seat in parliament, but the party clearly gained the most momentum throughout the campaign (more than triple its share in the total votes cast). The key question, however, is the degree to which state responses to the pandemic are mostly driving that increased momentum.
It seems obvious at this point that the PPC was a conduit for a variety of pandemic grievances, in the same way that all populist parties craft messaging to connect with voters who experience a gap between their own views and their representatives. In general, Makowski was a great spokesperson for the PPC. His demeanor was calm, measured, and soft-spoken, a far cry from the explicitly xenophobic shooting from the hip that often characterizes contemporary populism.
I don’t think ‘Mad Makowski’ would work, even if it does have a nice ring to it.
What was missing, however, is some of the unsavoury ways the PPC is weaponizing racial resentment for partisan gain. In the press release announcing the acclamation of Makowski as a candidate, the local association refers to him as an “authentic Canadian.”
What does that even mean?
If we smugly think that the unending chaos, ignorance, and intolerance unfolding south of the border is safely consigned there, we’re dreaming. We need a robust public debate about everything consequential in society – including public health mandates – but we also need people paying sufficient attention to combat conspiracy theory, misinformation, and thinly veiled racism.
Now let’s get to the left of the political spectrum with the Greens.
Considering that the Greens have historically fielded candidates in Sault Ste. Marie without much trouble, it shocked many when they didn’t even have someone on the ballot.
If you were following the election campaign, you probably noticed that the federal Green party apparatus was experiencing a fractious internal quarrel. It included, non-exhaustively: debate over the Israel-Palestine conflict and official party policy, a rogue senior adviser to Paul, a floor crossing from the Greens to the Liberals, an allegedly poisoned work environment, accusations of racism and sexism, the attempted ouster of their leader, a nightmare election result, a seemingly final legal settlement, and now a lawsuit.
It would always be a rough gig to replace Elizabeth May as the leader of the Greens, but the new leader, Annamie Paul, seemed like a good fit for a moment or two, breaking barriers as the first woman of colour and Jewish woman to lead a federal party in Canada. Any enthusiasm one could reasonably have evaporated quickly as the Greens spiraled into disarray in the ugliest (and most public) way possible.
There’s been quite a bit of public finger pointing related to all of this and I must admit that there’s quite a bit that I don’t know, even I’ve been eagerly following along through the headlines.
What I could know about was what happened locally, where the Greens likewise faced some difficulties leading up to the election.
I recently connected with Kathie Brosemer and Kara Flannigan, two pillars of the local Greens that have been candidates as well as long-time organizers and volunteers.
The new details can reasonably be described as a series of unfortunate events that were exacerbated by the complete disarray of the national arm of the party.
Brosemer ran for the federal party in 2000, a period in which provincial and federal party associations were solidified with the support of many volunteers and generous financial donations. For two decades, Brosemer and another Green volunteer kept those associations afloat, providing the necessary infrastructure to run candidates in elections.
Brosemer and the other volunteer “did an enormous amount of work over the last 20 years,” according to Flannigan, a former Green candidate at both the federal and provincial level. Over time, however, “they got tired.” The problem wasn’t necessarily a lack of Green supporters; it was finding people who could shoulder the burden of additional responsibilities behind the scenes.
For those who don’t pay much attention to electoral politics, these associations are where the magic happens, so to speak. They help with record keeping, financing, volunteers, and coordination with provincial and national counterparts.
For a while, Brosemer and the other volunteer had been trying to solicit Green supporters to step in (as the Chair and Treasurer, roles that had been swapped occasionally by the two of them). Other life commitments – like having kids and pursuing graduate studies – were making their longstanding Green commitments draining. Eventually, Brosemer asked the party if they could assist with a transition.
She didn’t even receive a reply.
Fed up without help forthcoming locally or in the federal party, she folded up shop, sending the account balance to Ottawa and informing Elections Canada.
The election was called shortly thereafter.
Without a local association to create the required infrastructure, organizing for an election would be tough. Organizers thought they had found a strong and young potential candidate, but then the federal counterpart presented what’s known as a ‘parachute’ or ‘paper’ candidate, someone from the outside who would make a dramatic entrance if they overcame the odds and were actually elected.
The local Greens were then in the awkward position of collecting the required nomination signatures for a candidate that was barely known by anyone, if at all. What happened from there is still somewhat unclear, even to those most closely involved.
Flannigan says she garnered well over the 100 signatures required for good measure, which is standard practice in election campaigns (sometimes names are dropped due to hiccups and technicalities). The signatures were submitted but a confirmation receipt wasn’t forthcoming.
At least part of the problem was that there wasn’t a local party association to streamline communication. To this day, she still has no idea whether or not the signatures were officially accepted: “I was disappointed because I had hustled to get the signatures required and never heard back or had been even acknowledged.”
According to Brosemer, she’s likewise had no communication with the national Greens, and hadn’t had any contact for a long time before that. She didn’t even hear from them at all when she closed the local association.
It was “crickets,” in her words, without even a confirmation that they had received the cheque she sent their way. Flannigan was also surprised that she never received a request to help ‘call out the vote,’ when organizers and volunteers canvass their supporters to make sure they actually vote on election day.
This was a marked departure from communication within the party in the past. In Brosemer’s account, she saw things specifically degenerate over the past two years. They normally expected routine communication about all things related to the local association: how to train, strategize, fundraise, etc. But around the time the pandemic altered all of our lives, those “crickets” quickly replaced regular communication.
Precisely at the moment where the national party apparatus should step in with some resources and support for exhausted local volunteers, the former essentially tapped out under its own stress. To further compound the problems at the national level previously described, the Greens were already at a disadvantage because their party is less resourced for snap elections.
Part of that is because they’re relatively new by comparison, but part of that is also because there’s a systemic bias in favour of larger parties in a first-past-the-post system. Arguably, fixed election dates are more democratic, because they provide smaller and less resourced parties sufficient time to mobilize and prepare. As Flannigan described it, the Greens are still largely a “grassroots volunteer organization” compared to the well-oiled machines of the major parties.
Despite the difficulties among the Greens, both Brosemer and Flannigan say that the Green party isn’t disappearing anytime soon, either locally or nationally.
Brosemer described the recent experience as a “hiccup” explained by the exhaustion of those currently involved in the party. She said she might even consider running again once her graduate studies are behind her.
Flannigan wants to emphasize the desperate need for electoral reform in Canada, too. For her, it’s important that voters know “that there are other choices” and spoke of the commitment of volunteers associated with the party across the country and the importance of substantively addressing climate change.
Brosemer notes how the evidence of climate change – and public discourse about it – has shifted so remarkably. For her, climate change should be past tense (it’s already changed based on global average temperatures over several decades) and “the Green Party is the only party that is addressing it.”
Say what you want about the Greens, they were ahead of their time.
That is, until they were suddenly behind the times.
In Flannigan’s words: “The fact that the Green Party imploded just when climate actually made it onto the radar of every party during this election is extremely sad.”
Agreed. It’s also extremely ironic.
I agree that the Greens will rebound from this disaster eventually. Our political memory tends to be short and the Greens obviously have policy relevance given the enormous climate change challenges we face, which is why it’s now impossible for other parties – even for Conservatives – to ignore the issue any longer.
So, how exactly did these two smaller, lesser-known parties (the PPC and the Greens) decide the election results in Sault Ste. Marie?
Vote splitting happens when more than one party competes for the same potential voters. Although left vs. right might not quite capture the complexity of political identification, it still provides us with convenient shorthand. Essentially, the less parties that there are on either side of the political spectrum, the greater the advantage for that side.
For example, if voters that tend towards the left are dispersed among three different parties for which they can vote, a single party on the right benefits because they are likely to attract a majority of the voters that tend towards the right. In the case of Sault Ste. Marie, we saw relatively less vote splitting on the left with the conspicuous absence of a Green candidate.
The right saw relatively more vote splitting with the recent addition of the PPC. In fact, there were several tight races in which vote splitting on the right likely had tangible electoral consequences, unlike the previous federal election when the PPC first launched.
The Greens garnered 1,809 votes in the 2019 election and 934 votes in the 2015 election. If the Greens had actually run a candidate in 2021 and a mere 250 voters had opted for the Greens rather than the Liberals, Sheehan would have lost the race.
It’s hard to crunch these numbers based on voters’ intentions, but it’s safe to say that at least a quarter of potential Green voters (an approximate threshold to prevent Sheehan from winning based on the lower 2015 results) would opt for the Liberals rather than the NDP, especially considering that they are likely to vote strategically in a tight race.
The other side of the spectrum is a bit more difficult to assess but strategic voting (or lack thereof) likewise played an important role.
Again, we don’t have great data on voting intentions in Sault Ste. Marie (i.e. ranked preferences), but it’s probably reasonable to conclude that most potential PPC voters lean right. There are, however, plenty of potential PPC voters that are both highly motivated and first time (or occasional) voters.
Nonetheless, in order to jeopardize Sheehan’s win, approximately one-eighth of those who voted for Makowski would have needed to vote for Spina instead, which is again miniscule. It’s reasonable to assume that at least one-eighth of the PPC voters were traditionally Conservative voters, if not many more.
So, to summarize, Sheehan’s narrow win was conditioned by smaller, lesser-known parties, and to a significant degree. If the Greens had actually fielded a candidate and/or the PPC didn’t significantly amplify their visibility and voter base, Spina would have easily won.
Of course, there’s also another major party and local candidate: the NDP and Marie Morin-Strom. One could make the case that strategic voting on the left between the Liberals and NDP was also decisive.
However, because the polling between Sheehan and Spina was so narrow in both the run up to the election and the actual election result, it’s fair to assume that the former was already going to be the beneficiary of ample strategic voting (i.e. traditional NDP voters opting for the Liberals to prevent a Conservative win). If we take this voting strategy between the three major parties more or less as a given, it was the election events related to the Greens and PPC that really shook things up locally, since none of it was expected.
Moving forward, it will be really interesting to see how the Green Party rebuilds and the PPC regroups. Again, it’s rare for smaller parties to so dramatically affect election results in a first-past-the-post system, but it appears as though we’re about to see some major political shifts on the horizon if the Greens continue to flounder and the PPC expands.
It’s hard to say what will actually happen, not just because this is 2021 (almost 2022), but also because politics is an unpredictable game, especially for the Liberal Party strategists who sensed the wind at their back and ended up being dead wrong.
P.S. So much has happened in the last few weeks! The inaugural installment of the newsletter (about Sault MPP Ross Romano) has snowballed quite a bit. Romano has teamed up with a local news outlet to respond to the widespread perception that he’s been absent from the community and another news outlet has picked up the story. In a future newsletter, I’ll write a forensic follow-up that contrasts Romano’s various public statements with the actual documentary record, exposing several factual distortions. The next installment, however, will launch a much overdue series on the legacy of industrial pollution in Sault Ste. Marie. Stay tuned.