Uninterested, unhappy, but not quite ready for change: Why apathy in some Toronto suburbs might let Trudeau keep his job

On a warm late summer afternoon in Brampton, right on the south edge of the city, where it borders Mississauga, Kris Mahadeo stood painting the front porch of the bungalow he shares with his mother. There was a Conservative party lawn sign plunked into Mahadeo’s grass. But ideologically, he says, he’s probably closest to the NDP, and in the end, he’ll likely end up voting Liberal.

“We haven’t seen what they’re capable of doing,” he said. “(If we) change all of a sudden, then we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board again. So what’s the point?”

Mahadeo lives near the geographic centre of Peel Region, in the western suburbs of Toronto. He is, to say the least, unenthusiastic about this election. “Honestly it should not be (happening) in the first place,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic fourth wave.”

Housing is a huge issue for him. He’s 36. He makes $19 an hour. A small home on his street recently sold for more than $1 million. “I live in a basement,” he said. “I know that I can’t afford to buy a house. I can’t even afford to go rent.” But none of the parties have really impressed him with their housing proposals.

“Justin Trudeau, his idea of raising taxes on banks … I guess that would work,” he said. “But then again, I’m also trying to work the stock market.” So he’s worried about higher taxes, too. “It sucks,” he said.

Trudeau and the Liberal party have owned Peel Region since 2015. But this year, the Conservatives are hoping to flip several seats, especially in Mississauga, all part of a suburban strategy they still hope, with days left in the election, will make Erin O’Toole prime minister.

But the party’s most significant problem right now might just be voters like Mahadeo: uninterested in the election, unhappy with the status quo, but not yet motivated enough by the Conservatives, or the NDP, to vote for change.

“It’s all going to be about voting intensity,” said a Conservative who has been volunteering with several campaigns in Peel. “But I think looking at the numbers of people who are saying that they’re going to vote, it’s actually lower than 2019, which was lower than 2015 … There just doesn’t seem to be much intensity.”

The Conservatives still feel like they should win several races in Peel. They’re bullish on Mississauga-Lakeshore, currently held by Liberal Sven Spengemann, where lobbyist Michael Ras, whose wife is a popular local councillor, is carrying the party’s banner.

They should have an edge in Mississauga-Streetsville, where the Liberal incumbent, Gagan Sikand, stopped going to work in 2020, never fully explained why (he was on an otherwise undefined “medical” leave) then announced just before the campaign that he wouldn’t run for re-election. (They should also, barring disaster, hold on to Dufferin-Caledon, Peel’s northernmost, and least urban, seat.)

But there are few signs now, just days out, of the kind of wave that allowed Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives to sweep the region in 2018, or Stephen Harper to dominate en route to a majority in 2011.

“Erin could pull this off if he has the organizational heft,” said one Conservative not directly involved in O’Toole’s campaign. “But my sense right now, I guess, if I had to choose, is that (those swing seats) will break again for the Liberals. And Trudeau could end up forming a minority government with an even lower level of popular support than he had in 2019.”


On a Wednesday night in mid-September, Jagmeet Singh, once the brightest political star in all of Peel, stepped off his campaign bus and into a modest crowd in a Brampton parking lot. As he prepared to speak, the crowd surged toward him, collapsing physical distancing rules, and forming a tight half circle in front of the cameras.

“This is really awesome, because this is where it all began for me,” Singh said into the microphone. “This is the community that gave me so much love and support. This is where we launched a political movement.”

Peel often gets lumped in with York, Halton, Durham and even Hamilton, when pundits talk about the political importance of the 905. But the region, a manufacturing and distribution hub made up of Mississauga, Brampton and a large, less urban north, is as culturally and economically distinct from those areas as Laval is from Victoria, B.C.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh addressed hundreds of supporters during a rally in Brampton East on Sept. 15. Singh, who represented Brampton provincially before entering federal politics, remains a political celebrity in Peel.

Carved off on its own, Peel would be the third largest city in Canada, smaller only than Montreal and Toronto. It also has 12 ridings, more than Calgary, and almost all of them have swung between parties in the last 10 years, which is why the various leaders have spent so much time in Brampton banquet halls and Mississauga parks in the last four weeks.

“Ontario is holding the cards in this election. And by Ontario, everyone means the swing ridings in the GTA,” said one Conservative strategist. “Places like Brampton and Mississauga: whichever way those ridings break, that’s going to determine who forms government.”

Singh, who represented Brampton provincially before entering federal politics, remains a political celebrity in Peel. And while few believe his party will win even a single seat in the region this campaign — despite a late visit to his old political home in Brampton East — he could still play a decisive role.

To sweep Mississauga, and even pick up seats in Brampton, the Conservative party needs the NDP to win significantly more votes in Peel than it did in 2019. “If Jagmeet actually has a higher level of support this time around in Ontario, that could make a real difference,” said one Conservative who was deeply involved in 2011, the last time the party dominated Peel.

But according to one Conservative who has been active in the region this election, NDP support on the ground has been “non-existent.” “There’s just no NDP vote whatsoever,” he said. “So it comes down to Conservative (or) Liberal.”

That’s a problem for O’Toole because, unlike Ford in 2018, he is not up against a historically unpopular leader like Kathleen Wynne. He can’t rely on the electorate’s desire for change alone to usher him into power.

In fact, a recent Abacus Data poll found that the desire for change in Canada is actually lower now than it was in 2019 and hasn’t grown significantly during the campaign. “The thing that people don’t talk about is the utter apathy of voters,” said Ajay Sharma, an expert in Mississauga politics.

Challengers, like O’Toole, need passion, but according to Sharma, right now, in Peel, there isn’t much passion to go around. “You wouldn’t even think there’s an election going on here,” Sharma, who teaches politics and public policy at the University of Guelph, said. “That’s exactly what the Liberal party wants. Because when change is going to happen, highly motivated people will come out and they typically punish the incumbent.”

There’s another problem for the Conservatives, too. There is anger out there in Peel. Many voters actively dislike Trudeau. But, for the first time in decades, those angry voters aren’t necessarily flocking to the Conservative party. This campaign, they have another potential home.


Tom Fehr has cast a ballot for just about every party there is over the last 50 years. He voted Liberal in the 1960s and NDP in 2019 with plenty of conservative votes sprinkled in between. For a time this year, he thought about voting for Annamie Paul and the Greens.

But Fehr, who owned a trucking company in Mississauga until he retired after an accident several years ago, doesn’t think he could ever vote for Trudeau. “I don’t like the way he talks. I don’t like the look on his face,” he said. “I never liked his father. He brought in a lot of immigrants, a lot of immigrants. So they’re birds of a feather.”

Fehr, 72, doesn’t believe in vaccination. “I’ve always looked out for myself, not the government,” he said. He’s against mask mandates and vaccine passports. And until the middle of this campaign, he had planned on voting for Kathy-Ying Zhao, the Conservative candidate in Mississauga Centre.

But somewhere along the line, something changed for Fehr. His daughter, who “follows Rebel News and all that stuff,” told him about Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada, a far-right upstart that rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, as well as vaccines, lockdowns, masks and other COVID-19 measures. (Bernier has also accused Canada of having a “cult of multiculturalism,” called for lower levels of immigration, and positioned his party in ways critics charge are deliberately tailored to appeal to a racist and conspiratorial fringe.)

On Sept. 9, Fehr had Elie Diab, the local PPC candidate, come to his house. Together they pulled the Zhao sign from his lawn and planted a purple PPC sign there instead. “I’ve grown up here all my life. And it’s so, so not free anymore,” Fehr said. “Give me back my freedom, boy.”

Most Conservative strategists still aren’t sure what to make of the PPC surge. Polls have the party sitting somewhere between six and nine per cent nationally. And a recent Forum Research poll had the party at 10 per cent in the GTA. But whether those voters will actually turn up on election day is an open question.

Conservatives tend to believe the PPC vote is soft. They don’t think the party has the infrastructure to identify and get out its supporters. Nor do they think that all, or even most, PPC voters are necessarily disaffected Conservatives. “The numbers kind of show that these people are not the traditional voters,” said one Conservative currently campaigning in Peel. “So will they vote this time around? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

But that doesn’t mean the party isn’t worried. “Even if they got half the level of support that they’re pulling now, it could make the difference in close ridings,” said another Conservative strategist. And for O’Toole, a few close ridings in Peel could be the difference between leading a minority government and undergoing a leadership review.

“It is a dogfight out there,” said the Peel Conservative. And it could decide the next prime minister, which is a good reason why the current primer minister has spent so much time in Peel.


On a weekday morning in early September, in an airport hangar in Mississauga, Justin Trudeau walked back and around an empty jet, bumping elbows with local officials, as a crew of western GTA candidates trailed in his wake. There were no supporters in the hangar, no loud local crowd. So the only audible sound was the click of Trudeau’s dress shoe heels on the concrete floor.

After a few minutes of glad-handing (or glad-elbowing as it were) the clicking stopped. The Liberals vanished behind the plane. A few moments later, in a shot well choreographed for the cameras, they reappeared at the jet’s front door, making it look, for the local news, like they had just stepped off the plane. “That was good,” said one campaign official with a laugh.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau makes a campaign stop in an airplane hanger during the Canadian federal election campaign in Mississauga, Ont., on Sept. 3, 2021. Trudeau has spent a lot of time this election campaigning in Peel.

The team arrayed behind Trudeau that day was a who’s who of powerful players in the local party, including Omar Alghabra, the outgoing minister of transport, and Anita Anand, who, as minister of public services and procurement, played a major role in the federal COVID-19 response. But the first speaker was a relative newcomer.

Iqwinder Gaheer, a 28-year-old corporate lawyer, has already been tapped as a future Liberal star in Peel. As the party’s candidate in Mississauga-Malton, he will be expected to not only hold a relatively safe Liberal seat, but also maintain predecessor Navdeep Bains’ deep influence in the Liberal caucus.

Gaheer has a compelling, almost made for politics, story. He was born in a small village in the Punjab. He moved to Canada when he was six years old. He spent his summers growing up in Peel working on his father’s plumbing crew.

Sitting on a bench outside his old elementary school in Brampton recently, Gaheer gestured around to the houses, offering a tour of the ones he helped renovate. “I’ve built basements. I’ve built washrooms. I’ve done construction work,” he said. But at night, no matter what season, he worked on school.

(When I asked Gaheer what he did for fun as a teenager, he paused, then said: “I was studying.” His campaign aid, a friend, sighed and responded: “That’s a terrible answer.”)

Missassauga-Malton Liberal candidate Iqwinder Gaheer has already been tapped as a future Liberal star in Peel. He is expected to not only hold a relatively safe Liberal seat, but also maintain predecessor Navdeep Bains' deep influence in the Liberal caucus.

After graduating from the Peel public school system, Gaheer did a business degree at York University then went on to Harvard Law. In his first semester there he suffered serious impostor syndrome, he said.

“There’s like governors’ daughters, there’s sons of judges, legacies, dynasties, people with more money than I could imagine. And I’m essentially the son of a plumber,” he said. But he did well and after graduating took a job with a major corporate firm in New York.

When Bains, the de facto ruler of the Liberal caucus in Peel, announced he was stepping down in January, Gaheer saw an opening. He had been working from his parents’ house since the beginning of the pandemic, so it was easy enough to test the waters with the local party. And in April, he was acclaimed as the new candidate in Mississauga-Malton, a sure sign, Ajay Sharma, who has worked on several campaigns in the region, said, that Bains had anointed him as his heir.

For Gaheer, the top local issue is housing. But he admitted there are no easy answers on that file. He doesn’t think house prices should fall. “I don’t want to see people’s equity eroded,” he said. Instead, he’d like to see prices climb more slowly while making it easier for new buyers to get into the market. (Of course, that’s easier said than done. Most experts agree that making borrowing cheaper for first-time buyers will in fact make house prices go up even faster.)

The Liberals won every seat in Brampton in the last election by a significant margin. And Bains won more than 57 per cent of the vote in Mississauga-Malton. But the Conservatives haven’t given up on the area. “Peel votes for winners,” said one strategist who helped craft the party’s 2011 strategy. “They’re very much a bellwether that will make up their minds at the last minute.”

It’s also not true that Conservatives can’t win in Brampton. The mayor of the city, Patrick Brown, is a former Conservative MP (and former leader of the provincial party). Some of his supporters and organizers are now working with O’Toole’s campaign. “What I would say about Brampton is that they vote for the leader of the party,” said former Conservative MP Lisa Raitt. “And winning (there) means you have a leader that is connecting with the people who live in that area.”

It may be impossible to know until election day if O’Toole has forged that kind of connection. “Especially in Brampton, if it seems that … the polls are turning around for him and you see movement, then there’s a potential that those (seats) could start to move (Conservative),” said a Conservative active in the area.

But if Peel votes for winners, then the biggest problem for the Conservatives might be that, with days to go, there’s no clear evidence they’re going to win. By most standards, the election remains too close to call. But as the Star reported Friday, some Conservatives are feeling increasingly pessimistic about their odds. If there’s a bandwagon to jump on, in other words, it’s looking less and less likely it’ll be painted blue.


On that late summer day, just around the corner from Gaheer’s old school, Kris Mahadeo stood, looking slightly embarrassed at the Conservative sign on his lawn. “I accidentally said yes to the guy,” he said. He liked Jagdeep Singh, the Conservative candidate for Brampton Centre, when they met. He was polite and friendly. “He was like ‘can we put a sign up,’ and I was like ‘yeah, yeah.’” He feels too bad now to take it down.

This might be Mahadeo’s last election as a swing voter. He’s looking to move west, maybe to Windsor, in search of somewhere with cheaper homes. “I can’t afford to live in the city, unless I’m living with somebody,” he said. “I don’t want my quality of living to go down.”

With two weeks left in the election when he spoke with the Star, Mahadeo thought the Conservatives would probably win, but he hoped they wouldn’t. He said he’s concerned about climate change and guns and fiscal responsibility. “I usually vote NDP, but this go around, I’ll most likely vote Liberal,” he said. “Hopefully the Liberals will win so we can continue on.”

With files from Raisa Patel


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