‘Ottawa’ Will the 82-year-old Liberal Bastion of Ottawa-Vanier Topple? Monday’s byelection will Decide
When it comes to political strongholds, there are few as unassailable as Ottawa-Vanier.
As a federal riding, it has been Liberal since its creation in 1935. Its last MP, Mauril Bélanger, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) just weeks after winning in the last federal election in October 2015, and died last August. He won eight elections, starting with a 1995 byelection.
Widely regarded as a hard worker and a fierce defender of francophone rights, Bélanger’s legacy is a well-oiled riding political machine. The riding association is among the richest and best-engaged in the country. One example: About 6,500 people in Ottawa-Vanier took advantage of free membership to register with the party. In February, a nomination meeting voted Mona Fortier as Bélanger’s successor from a field of eight contenders. It was one of the best-attended nomination meetings in Eastern Ontario in the past 30 years, according to Liberal organizers.
Fortier, a University of Ottawa MBA graduate and lifelong resident of the riding who has worked in non-profit organizations and as a communications consultant, considers Bélanger to be a mentor. She was also endorsed by his widow, Catherine.
Fortier was a volunteer in all eight of Bélanger’s campaigns and worked in the fight to keep the Montfort Hospital open. She has Bélanger’s reservoir of goodwill in the riding and a community profile of her own as a member of the Provincial Advisory Committee on Francophone Affairs and the Montfort Hospital’s board of directors.
“I learned a lot about the values of equality and responsibility and giving back to the community — especially diversity and minority rights,” she says.
Fortier believes the Liberal bastion will hold in Ottawa-Vanier. “I prefer to think of it as ‘Keeping it red,’ ” she says. “Even if I’m not Mauril Bélanger, I’m very involved in the community.”
Ottawa-Vanier has just over 100,000 people. It encompasses some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and its most affluent. The riding covers Vanier and Rockcliffe, as well as Sandy Hill, Lowertown, New Edinburgh and Overbrook. It still retains a strong francophone presence — about a third of residents count French as their first language. However, about one in four people have neither French nor English as a mother tongue, and it has growing numbers of residents from Africa, southeast Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, as well as an expanding indigenous population.
Among the issues in the riding: job creation, health care, housing, secure retirement for low-income seniors, keeping truck traffic off King Edward Avenue, crime and homelessness.
Fortier believes developing the economy in Ottawa-Vanier means building on the institutions that already exist, including the University of Ottawa, La Cité, the Montfort and the NRC. “We have to look at the strengths in the community,” she says.
Her main competition in Monday’s byelection comes from Emilie Taman, a federal prosecutor who is the daughter of former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour. Taman was forced to give up her job when she decided to run as an NDP candidate against Bélanger in 2015. She is now an assistant law professor at the University of Ottawa.
Taman was considered a credible challenger in the 2015 election, attracting longtime Liberal supporters to the NDP, which had targeted Ottawa-Vanier as a riding it could win. In 2011, her predecessor NDP candidate Trevor Hache had won 15,391 votes to Bélanger’s 20,009, part of a nation-wide NDP surge.
But Bélanger swept to victory again in 2015 with the Liberal tide, winning 36,474 votes to 12,194 votes for Taman and 12,109 for Conservative candidate David Piccini.
Less than a year-and-a-half later, Taman believes that there is already a level of cynicism that the Liberals’ sunny ways have not translated into a feeling of security about jobs, housing and the future. Besides, a byelection is a different beast than an election.
“Last time, it was very much about a widespread desire for a change in government. People were voting strategically. That is off the table in a byelection,” she says. “There’s a level of disappointment over the Liberal government. Last time, I was running against a long-entrenched and beloved incumbent. And I could see why.”
But there’s a different dynamic now, she says. “I expected I would have to make my case more strongly. But there are many, many people who are already there. Even longtime Liberals are seeing the value in strengthening the progressive opposition.”
There are two other candidates in the mix. The Green party’s candidate is Nira Dookeran, a high school teacher who also ran in the 2015 election. The Conservative candidate is Adrian Papara, a political aide.
Papara, born in Romania, grew up in British Columbia and did an MBA at the University of Ottawa. He lived in Ottawa-Vanier for about three years, but moved downtown about a year ago to be closer to his work. While both Fortier and Taman are fluently bilingual, Papara is working on his French and said he has shied away from participating in debates in French because he was not comfortable with the language. Meanwhile, he has made an unorthodox campaign promise: if he wins he will give 10 per cent of his wages as an MP to projects that help the community, such as addictions programs.
Papara says many voters in the riding are disillusioned with the Liberal government. The Phoenix pay system mess has many civil servants in the riding angry. Others are frustrated about the lack of secure jobs. The riding needs to attract incubators and accelerators to support entrepreneurship, he argues.
“That’s what they have in Kanata. In Vanier, you go down Montreal Road and you have pot dispensaries and pay-day loan offices. These are not the businesses you want to attract,” he says.
“Byelections are tricky. They’re a great way for people to send a message to government. There is a lot of discontent.”
Fortier says that’s not what she’s been hearing.
“I’ve been hearing that the country has challenges. But we’re going to move forward together,” she says. “That’s what I’m hearing at the door.”