Something Old or Something New? Territorial Development and Influence within the Canadian Federation

9781553392071

 

 

 

 

 

Authors: George Braden, Christopher Alcantara, and Michael Morden.

Published in Canada: The State of the Federation, 2011, edited by Nadia Verrelli.

Publisher: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Description: Copy of chapter available here.

Learning to School: An Interview with Author Jennifer Wallner

9781442615892

Dr. Jennifer Wallner is assistant professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. She has published articles in many of the discipline’s leading journals, such as Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Comparative Political Studies, the Peabody Journal of Education, and Canadian Journal of Political Science. Her new book, Learning to School: Federalism and Public Schooling in Canada, was recently published by University of Toronto Press and explains how and why the Canadian provinces have achieved a remarkably coherent system of elementary and secondary education, without the intervention of the federal government.

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Wallner about her new book via email in 2014.
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Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?

Wallner: Well, as you know, one big practical motivator for writing a book is the fact that we need to publish to get tenure! But, more substantively, this book evolved from my PhD dissertation. A student of federalism and public policy, I wanted to understand the ways in which the constituent members of a federation manage to craft coherent yet differentiated policy systems despite institutional fragmentation and societal diversity. I picked the education sector because it is critical to the success of any state and one of the most important services it delivers. What is more, in federations, the responsibility for schooling falls to the substate governments – or provinces in the Canadian context. This institutional design creates, on the one hand, unique opportunities for policy experimentation but, on the other hand, also ushers in the potential for incoherent and unequal schooling systems to emerge as the provinces pursue different practices. As I PhD student, I wanted to understand the evolution and management of the provincial elementary and secondary schooling systems.

Alcantara: So how different or similar are educational policy systems across provinces and territories?

Wallner: Before answering that question, I have to clarify something. Because of major differences in the respective institutional and economic capacities of the provinces and territories – let alone their historical independence and autonomy from the federal government – I decided to focus on explaining and understanding the evolution of the provincial systems alone. So – if we look at the provinces, in the main, the core components of their respective education systems demonstrate far more similarity than difference. I show this in three ways. I track the relative investments that are made, the achievements realized, and the substantive content of the policies themselves. To unpack the content, I break the schooling sector into five dimensions (administration, finance, curriculum, assessment, and the teaching profession) and detail what each province is doing. This is not to suggest that the are exact replicas or copies of one another – obvious differences include separate Catholic school boards in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario and the unique transition years between secondary and post-secondary schooling in Quebec, known as CEGEP. But – taking a broad view, the schooling systems are remarkably similar across the federation.

Alcantara: That is really surprising! As you know, the old school federalism literature talks about how federal systems are advantageous because they permit policy experimentation and so it’s somewhat surprising to hear how similar the provincial education systems are. So is this a case where the systems have always been similar right from the beginning? Or did the systems evolve and converge through policy experimentation and learning?

 Wallner: I was definitely surprised by the results! Once it was clear that there was convergence, I wanted to see if provincial similarity was a more recent phenomenon driven by such things as globalization or US influence. So, I decided to take a long view and adopt an historical approach and went all the way back to the 1840s when then-colonial governments of British North America began to enact policies for public schooling. It turns out that at first some interesting differences appeared among the colonies – and what would later become the provinces – as officials in the different areas pursued different options. However, following Confederation, provincial officials were keenly aware of the fact that they needed to meet and exchange information on their different education arrangements and so formed the Dominion Education Association. Teachers and school board officials also got into the mix by the 1920s and created their own associations that brought together representatives from coast to coast. This activity set down a tradition of dedicated information exchanges that helped facilitate what public policy people like to call ‘policy oriented learning’. And so – by 1945, many of the differences that had originally marked the provinces were already disappearing thanks to experts and officials learning from one another and adapting practices to fit within their respective jurisdictions.

Alcantara: How did these policy learning processes and networking exchanges become so permanent and robust and resistant to differentiation and the forces of change (e.g. economic shocks, international and local/regional labour trends, and the like)? Were they institutionalized in some manner?

 Wallner: I should clarify something – it is not as if in 1945 all policy experimentation stopped and all the provinces looked alike with the education systems as we know them today. In some ways I wish it had been that simple. Instead, some provinces always continued to experiment often in response to many of those factors you mentioned above like economic shocks and labour trends. When new practices popped up in one province, the others could watch to see if they worked – like university-led teacher education programs, that started in Alberta and then spread across the rest of the country. So, what contributed to the permanence and robustness of the learning network? One of the major things that contributed to this was the creation of the Council for Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) in 1967. This is an organization for education ministers and their senior deputies alone. They have regularly scheduled meetings and a permanent secretariat based in Toronto that helps keep things going – even as governments change hands across the provinces after elections. I am not saying that everything is channeled through CMEC – but the Council helped to institutionalize the learning network and offers a focal point for information exchanges thus facilitating the necessary communication from coast to coast.

Alcantara: So what are the implications of your research findings in terms of a) what we should expect to see from provincial education policy in the future; and b) what policymakers might learn from your work?

 Wallner: Great questions! For many people, one issue that is already getting considerable coverage is the declining math scores in all provinces, except Quebec. I hope that officials are going to capitalize on Canada’s comparative advantage and draw lessons from Quebec to help improve things in the rest of the jurisdictions. Moving beyond what I covered in my book – another issue that receives considerably less attention but is one that needs to be addressed is the quality of schooling for Aboriginal children, and the new autonomy that the territories have over schooling in their respective regions and what that will mean for provincial and territorial cooperation in education.

On the lessons learned – I hope that three things come out from the book. First, and this is something we did not have a chance to get into here but schooling systems are in fact a collection of policies and practices that are often developed in isolation from one another. For example, some area of the bureaucracy will specialize in curriculum while another focuses on administration. Decisions in administration, however, can influence things in curriculum and so it is important to recognize the interconnections among the different dimensions of education policy. Second, interprovincial communication is critical and must happen regularly. It is only through actively exchanging ideas that we learn from one other and make overall improvements to our schooling systems. Third and most importantly is that provincial policy makers can build remarkably effective policy systems – like education – without the direct intervention of the federal government and without expecting each province to do exactly the same thing.

Alcantara: Now that this book is done, what are you hoping to write about next?

Wallner: I am turning my attention to other Anglo-American federations – Australia and the US – to unpack the different trajectories of the schooling systems in those two other countries. Both cases are fascinating in and of themselves and in comparison with Canada. Did you know, for example, that more than 30 percent of Australians attend private schools that are supported by public funds? Or that many US governors have little authority over schooling policy in their states? Both countries are also in the throws of considering some major changes to the way that schooling is managed, specifically with respect to the role that should be played by the Commonwealth and Washington respectively. Bottom line: this makes great fodder for political science and public policy research!

Scotland Independence and Implications for Quebec’s Sovereignty Movement

Some notable Quebec sovereignists are making their way to Scotland to observe the Sept. 18 vote with the hope that a victory for the independence movement there will provide pointers on a repeat performance in a future Quebec referendum. While sovereignists may derive some inspiration from their Scottish counterparts, the real lessons might begin Sept. 19.

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If Scotland votes to secede, apart from the jubilation in the streets of Edinburgh, the real show will be about how Scotland manages its independence transition. The implications of this process are potentially profound. In some ways, the Quebec referendum of 1995 was fought by arguing the risks of the Oui side winning. There was talk about whether an independent Quebec could continue to use the Canadian dollar, whether Quebec “citizens” would still be able to hold on to their Canadian passports, whether Quebec pensioners would still be eligible to draw from the Canada Pension Plan, and so forth. Before the actual vote, all that political leaders do is debate these matters. So a “pre-independent” Quebec or Scotland functions inside a context of great uncertainty.

Should Scotland vote to secede, what happens next will be vitally important to Quebec’s sovereignist and federalist leaders. The fate of any future Quebec referendum partially hinges on whether the transition moves along relatively smoothly or whether Scottish (and British) society descends into major political (and economic) chaos. If there are long disputes about what it would take for an independent Scotland to continue using the British pound (and there is some indication this is a already main point of contention), or disagreements about access to oil reserves, or other inter-governmental entanglements, then Quebec sovereignists would look at this mess with discouragement. This transition, therefore, provides Quebecers with a simulation, of sorts. A positive and peaceful transition will add substance to any drive to regenerate Quebec’s sovereignty movement.

If you’re a betting person, here are some safe bets

Published Sept. 8, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There are precious few safe bets in politics these days, but here are a few.

Safe bet number one: Stephen Harper will not win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, for which he is being nominated by his admirers in B’Nai Brith Canada, the group that earlier gave the prime minister its Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism. It didn’t take long, just a few hours, for an online petition to spring up demanding that the Norwegian Nobel Committee reject Harper’s nomination; overnight it attracted 13,000 signatures. Elsewhere, the reaction ranged from outrage (among Palestinian Canadians) to laughter (among most non-Conservatives).

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Safe bet number two: Andrea Horwath will not be the NDP leader when the next Ontario election rolls around in four years’ time. She faces a crucial NDP provincial council meeting this coming weekend – followed, if she survives that meeting, by a formal leadership review in November.

The council will want to know why she forfeited the influence the NDP had enjoyed with the then minority Liberal government by opposing its budget, which was loaded with goodies for the NDP. By rejecting the budget, Horwath precipitated a June election she could not win. She ran a poorly prepared and executed campaign. She alienated the party’s traditional labour base and many of the NDP rank and file with policies that moved the party to the right of the Liberals. The new head of the Canadian Labour Congress described her as a “coward.”

When the dust settled, Kathleen Wynne had a majority government and the NDP was still in third place – now cloutless and bitter. “Andrea is fighting for her life,” a longtime party worker told the Toronto Star. “Among a very large section of the activist base there is little more than comptempt for her.” Ouch!

Safe bet number three: Rob Ford will not be mayor of Toronto for 14 more years, as he says he intends to be. That would take him up to his 60th birthday.

Of course, nothing is “safe” when dealing with the unpredictable Ford. A few months ago, before entering rehab, most people – me included – would have bet against his reelection for a second four-year term. Now the race has changed. He is in second place, the underdog to front-runner John Tory, and underdog is where the populist mayor likes to be. I still don’t think Ford can win again in October, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

But 14 years? Nah, it couldn’t happen. Could it? Make it a small bet against.

But back to Stephen Harper and the Nobel Peace Prize. His supporters are certainly gung-ho, his detractors not so much. “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” says Hanna Kawas, the head of the Canadian Palestine Association in Vancouver. “It’s outrageous.”

But Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’Nai Brith, harbours no doubts. He praises Harper’s international leadership and the “moral clarity” he brings to issues of good and evil. “More than any other individual, he has consistently spoken out with resolve regarding the safety of people under threat – such as opposing Russian aggression and annexation of Ukrainian territory – and has worked to ensure that other world leaders truly understand the threat of Islamic terrorism facing us today.”

That’s a much larger and more influential role than most other leaders would concede to Harper. His support of Israel is unconditional and, I think, genuine. It is also good politics at home. But by being so one-sided, it doesn’t allow for Canada to play any useful role in the delicate diplomacy of the Middle East.

When it comes to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Harper roars from the sidelines and shakes his fist at Vladimir Putin. He will do anything for Ukraine, so long as the cost of any Canadian contribution does not jeopordize his pursuit of a balanced budget in time for the federal election in October next year. Unfortunately, deficit elimination is not one of the criteria for a Nobel Prize. Sorry, sir.

Canadian First Ministers’ Conferences and Heresthetic Strategies: Explaining Alberta’s Position on Multiculturalism at the 1971 Victoria Conference

Authors: Christopher Alcantara, Renan Levine, James C. Walz

Published Spring 2014 in Journal of Canadian Studies.

Abstract: The Province of Alberta seems an unlikely early advocate of multiculturalism; yet, several months before the federal government unveiled its official policy on this issue, it was an Alberta premier, Harry Strom, who demanded that multiculturalism be a condition for constitutional reform during the 1971 Victoria Constitutional Conference. What explains this puzzle? Using William Riker’s concept of heresthetics and the literature on Alberta politics, Western alienation, and Canadian federalism, the authors argue that Strom introduced multiculturalism at the conference as a strategic manoeuvre to bolster and defend Alberta’s compact perspective on federalism and to block any constitutional change that would prevent Alberta from recognizing itself as an equal and autonomous partner in the Canadian federation. The authors’ findings suggest that Riker’s concept of heresthetics may be useful for analyzing other instances of intergovernmental relations in Canada.

Responding to the “New Public”: The Arrival of Strategic Communications and Managed Participation in Alberta

Author: Simon Kiss

Published March 2014 in Canadian Public Administration.

Abstract: This article examines the rise of more strategic, professional and politically sensitive communications in the Government of Alberta and argues that citizen demands for transparency and participation are also reasons for the increased importance of strategic government communications. Accommodating these demands in the context of traditional representative democracy requires politically sensitive staff who can manage processes without jeopardizing the government’s re-election or policy agenda. This article draws on analyses of government documents, interviews and the archives of premiers Getty and Klein.

How to Win and Lose an Election: Campaign Dynamics of the 2011 Ontario Election

Authors: Simon J. Kiss, Andrea M.L. Perrella and Barry J. Kay

Published August 2014 in Canadian Political Science Review.

Abstract: Ontario’s general election on Oct. 6, 2011, produced a hung parliament and left much unresolved. The Progressive Conservative party under Tim Hudak entered the election year with promising prospects, and the PCs won 37 seats, 10 more than in 2007, yet failed to beat out the Liberals. The New Democratic Party under Andrea Horwath also enjoyed a much improved seat count of 17 elected members to Queen’s Park. Combined, the incumbent Liberals were re- elected, but reduced to a minority of 53 seats, one seat shy of a majority, and the first minority government in Ontario politics since 1985. Premier Dalton McGuinty’s attempt to secure a majority of seats in the form of 2012 by-elections failed, and shortly thereafter he resigned, leaving his Liberals and Ontario politics on stand-by for a possible non-confidence vote and, consequently, a new election. This review examines how the 2011 result unfolded. We place attention on campaign dynamics and issue salience.

My Thoughts on the Aboriginal Title SCC Decision: Part 2

The National Post today (Wednesday July 2) printed my op ed on the impact of the recent SCC decision on Aboriginal title.  They haven’t posted a copy on the website yet and I’m not sure they will (the Canada Day holiday has played some havoc with the publishing schedule!).

So, just in case they don’t publish it online at some point, below is the raw, un-copyedited version of the op ed.  I hope my much more legally-informed and inclined colleagues (I’m looking at you guys, Macfarlane and Baker!) will tell me whether I’m right or wrong?
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Headline: A recipe for Indigenous Paralysis?

Of all of the dispute resolution mechanisms available to Indigenous peoples and the Crown in Canada, the judicial system is probably the worst of the lot.  Rarely do judicial decisions create harmony and compromise between two parties.  Instead, they frequently produce winners and losers and all of the negative feelings that come with being labeled as such.

Canadian judges have long been aware of this fact, which partly explains why it took them so long to clarify the exact nature of Aboriginal title in this country.  Previous to this decision, Canadian courts had urged Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders to negotiate their disputes rather than litigate them.  This recent decision, however, dramatically changes this long-standing message from the bench, with potentially dire and unintended consequences.

One of the key mechanisms for addressing the Aboriginal land question in Canada has been the treaty process.  Although far from perfect, Aboriginal groups have been working with the Crown to negotiate comprehensive land claims agreements to facilitate economic development and empower their communities to exercise their autonomy within the broad legal framework of Canada.  Remember that the Supreme Court had previously refused to clearly spell out the nature of Aboriginal title, and so it made sense for Aboriginal groups to negotiate with the Crown.

This new decision, however, radically changes the incentives facing Indigenous people.  Now, we are likely to see Indigenous groups across Canada abandon negotiations in favour of simply asserting their title and sovereignty to all their lands.  Why bother negotiating a modern treaty, which involves giving up Aboriginal title in exchange for a mixed bag of ownership rights to a much smaller portion of Aboriginal lands, when you can exercise something akin to fee simple ownership over all of your traditional lands right away and without the time and expense of negotiating a treaty?

If Aboriginal groups choose this path, then the Crown will have to decide how to react.  Will it radically reform the treaty process to bring Aboriginal groups back to the table? Or will it seek confrontation by pushing the “compelling and substantial public purpose” angle to push development forward despite Aboriginal opposition?  Given the track record of this federal government, I think the latter strategy is more likely and Canadians should brace themselves for years of protests and confrontations.

A second unintended consequence of this decision, and one that I think is just as important as the others, is that it potentially empowers individual Indigenous citizens to hold not only the government of Canada accountable for its actions, but their Aboriginal leaders as well.  Aboriginal title now means something akin to fee simple rights, and which is collectively held by the Aboriginal community.  This also means, among other things, that Aboriginal groups may also face potentially powerful restrictions on how they can use their lands now and in the future.  According to the Supreme Court, lands held under Aboriginal title cannot be used in such a way as to threaten their future use by future generations.

What this means in practice is that even if an Aboriginal government grants its consent to a major economic development project, an individual band member could successfully sue to prevent that development from occurring on the basis that the project threatened the future use of the community’s lands.

It is also possible that band members might use this new definition of Aboriginal title to thwart other land use projects besides resource extraction, such as building casinos and even housing subdivisions. A band member might successfully argue that building a multimillion dollar casino will prevent future band members from using that particular plot of land for traditional cultural practices, like hunting and fishing.

There’s no question that this decision is a “game changer.” What’s unclear is exactly how the game has been changed and for whom.

Christopher Alcantara is an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His latest book, Negotiating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada, was published last year by University of Toronto Press and was a finalist for this year’s Donald Smiley Prize.

 

What does history teach us about politics?

Published June 23, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The deep thinkers who serve the various political parties in Ottawa have been scratching their heads over the same question: what does the election of Kathleen Wynne’s majority Liberal government in Ontario imply for the federal election, scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015?

The short, easy answer is, “probably not much.” The election is 16 months away. One week can be an eternity in politics; to travel 16 months into the political future requires a time machine rather than a calendar. Anything can happen in 16 months, and almost certainly will.

Who would have predicted 16 months before the June 1968 election that Lester Pearson would resign as Liberal leader and prime minister, that he would be succeeded by a new recruit, Pierre Trudeau, and that a strange phenomenon, dubbed Trudeaumania, would propel the Liberals to a majority government? Who would have predicted 16 months before the stunning October 1993 election that Canada would gain its first female PM and lose her almost immediately as the majority Progressive Conservative government disintegrated, retaining only two seats in the whole country as a separatist party became the official opposition, just a pair of seats ahead of a new protest party, Reform, which replaced the Tories as the voice of the West?
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Who would have predicted 16 months before the May 2011 election that an “orange wave” would sweep Jack Layton’s NDP into the position of official opposition, reduce the Liberals to third place and, in the process, hand Stephen Harper and his Conservatives a majority government? And, finally, who would have predicted 16 months ago, when Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberals, that he would lead them to the top of the opinion polls and keep them there for 14 unbroken months, right up to the present?

If history teaches us nothing else about politics, it is that the only safe response when contemplating events many months in the future is: “I don’t know.” But political thinkers and practitioners, such as pollsters and pundits, hate those three little words. Have you ever heard Stephen Harper admit, “I don’t know?” I thought not. Doubt has no place when it comes to political forecasting.

That said, we all look for threads or clues to reveal the future. Some analysts probing the Ontario election results have noted the tendency of voters in the province to play a balancing game. When the Liberals are in power in Ottawa, they like to balance the scale with Conservatives at Queen’s Park. And vice versa. This balance-of-power theory suggests Wynne’s victory bodes well for Harper’s Tories, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, while it bodes ill for Trudeau’s Liberals.

Other analysts see in the Ontario vote a rejection of Tim Hudak’s right-wing agenda and an embrace of Wynne’s centre-left approach. If that sentiment carries over to the federal election, it would to play to Trudeau’s advantage and to Harper’s disadvantage in the province where national elections tend to be won and lost.

Having already admitted I don’t know, permit me to offer a couple of observations. First, there is growing arrogance in Harper’s Ottawa — a my-way-or-the-highway attitude — that I don’t think sits well with the sort of Ontarians who voted for Kathleen Wynne. Second, Wynne didn’t win just because she positioned her Liberals as the only choice on the progressive side of the ledger. I think she won because she projected an air of authenticity that neither of her opponents could rival. Hudak seemed driven by narrow political expediency, while Andrea Horwath, the NDP leader, tried to transition from social democracy to conservative populism. Neither worked.

By comparison, Wynne came across as the real goods. When she talked about equity, she did so with conviction and passion. She was believable. Voters are pretty good when it come to spotting the unbelievable. At least, they are in Ontario.

Will this have any bearing on the 2015 federal election? Perhaps not. Sixteen months is more than an eternity in political time.

Cristopher Cochrane in the Globe and Mail: Ontario takes pride that gay premier’s win taken in stride

Published June 13, 2014, in the Globe and Mail.

Associate Christopher Cochrane was quoted in an article on the Globe and Mail which discusses the Ontario’s first elected openly gay premier, Kathleen Wynne. Full article available here.

Anna Esselment in the Record: 1,650 local voters declined ballots on June 12

Published June 20, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Associate Anna Esselment was interviewed in an article that discusses the extremely high number of voters who declined their ballots during the 2014 Ontario election. Full article is available here.

Anna Esselment in the Record: Voter turnout goes up in Ontario election

Published June 13, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Associate Anna Esselment is interviewed in an article that discusses the rise in voter turnout in Ontario for the 2014 general election. She suggests that this rise is nothing to cheer about. Full article can be found here.

Ontario election highlights challenges now facing pollsters

Published June 19, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Given the praise ringing out about the supposedly wonderful campaign run by the Liberals that resulted in last week’s Ontario election results, it might surprise some to note that the improvement in the popular vote for the victorious Liberals was no greater than for the also-ran New Democrats.

Both gained a bare one per cent compared to their 2011 performance. On the other hand, Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives declined by four per cent. These seemingly modest changes in support levels account for the seat shifts that cost the Conservatives nine members, and transformed the legislature into a majority for Kathleen Wynne.

It is natural for winning parties to make various self-serving claims in interpreting their triumph about how it was a mandate for this or that. However, there shouldn’t be any misunderstanding that this election was more Hudak’s loss than a victory for Wynne.

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Barry Kay on Global News: Breaking down the election results

Published June 13, 2014, in the Global News

Dr. Barry Kay meets with Global News on the Morning Show to discuss the results from the 2014 Ontario Election. The Liberal majority came as a surprise to most but Dr. Kay was prepared for a surprise as the polls were so scattered. The full video can be found here.

Good candidates do make a difference

Published June 16, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

How much difference do local candidates make in the outcome of an election?

If you ask the High Strategists who direct federal and provincial campaigns from Ottawa or Queen’s Park, the answer would be: not all that much difference. They tend to rank the most important factors as the party brand, the leader, the platform, the strength of their organization on the ground, and the amount of money they have to spend. Local candidates — good, bad or indifferent — tend to place near the bottom of the list.

They used to say that a little yellow dog could be elected in Saskatchewan if it were a Conservative or in Quebec if a Liberal. An exaggeration? Of course. But to the minds of many High Strategists, the candidate is worth only about 5 per cent of the vote or, perhaps, 10 per cent in exceptional situations.
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Well, I wonder. I have long felt that good candidates make a huge difference, especially in byelections, but in general elections as well. To prove my case, let’s look at three area races in last week’s Ontario election.

Kitchener-Waterloo. Catherine Fife became the MPP for K-W in a September 2012 byelection. A New Democrat in alien territory (the riding had been held by Conservative Elizabeth Witmer for the previous 22 years and the Liberals were assumed to be the only viable alternative to the Tories), Fife realized from the moment she won that she would face an uphill battle to hold the seat. Not knowing when the general election might happen, she just kept running.

Fife is one of those politicians who actually listens to people. She used her personal political skills and 21 months of hard work to put a lock on the riding. Although it was not a happy election for the NDP, Fife bucked the Liberal trend to win by 4,000 votes. She will be hard to dislodge.

Cambridge. This was a stunner. The Liberals hadn’t elected a provincial member in Cambridge (or Waterloo South, as it was then) since 1943, the year when Conservative George Drew became premier of Ontario (for trivia buffs, it was also the year that Oklahoma! opened on Broadway and Lassie Come Home took the movie box office by storm). Seventy-one years! It was that long ago.

Yet Liberal Kathryn McGarry, a nurse who had run and lost on two previous occasions, proved conclusively that hard work and perseverance pay off. She won on her third try, defeating first-term Tory MPP Rob Leone, a political-science professor. McGarry and her people outhustled Leone’s. Like Fife, she listened to voters’ concerns, including their uneasiness about Leone’s leader, Tim Hudak. She won handily, by 3,000 votes.

Kitchener Centre was the third area riding to which I paid particular attendance. It was widely advertised as a provincial bellwether because of its reliable tendency to elect a candidate from the party that won the election. It did so again in 2011, returning John Milloy, a member of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal cabinet, although by a mere 323 votes as the party was reduced to a minority government.

This time, Kitchener Centre was an open seat, Milloy having announced his retirement from politics. With its party running ahead in the polls, the Progressive Conservatives were confident they could take the riding along with the province. But the voters of Kitchener proved to be a more accurate barometer than the pollsters.

The Liberals nominated a local television personality, Daiene Vernile, from CTV in Kitchener. Media celebrities often flop as political candidates (voters don’t take them as seriously as they take themselves), but in Vernile’s case, profile, personal popularity and strenuous campaigning enabled the Liberals to widen their margin from 323 measly votes to nearly 7,000.

The point of all this is that good candidates are essential. They can win in difficult elections, even when the polls are sour — and even when seven decades of electoral frustration tells them not to bother.