How Canadian leaders campaign for a pandemic

After nearly two weeks of campaigning, it would be an exaggeration to say that election fever is sweeping Canada. Lawn posters are rela...


After nearly two weeks of campaigning, it would be an exaggeration to say that election fever is sweeping Canada. Lawn posters are relatively rare in eastern Ontario, where I live, and others tell me similar stories in other parts of the country.

Political scientists and pollsters expect or hope the nation will focus on the post-Labor Day campaign that unofficially ends the too-short reign of the summer.

Meanwhile, inside the campaigns, candidates and their teams are busy researching new ways to get their messages across and interact with voters during the pandemic, without risking meeting in person.

This week I looked at a modified campaign event hosted by the Conservative Party in Ottawa, my first event in this campaign. The party transformed part of a ballroom in a downtown Ottawa hotel into a television studio that Erin O’Toole, its leader, uses for what the party calls virtual town halls, which ‘it targets in certain regions of the country. Tuesday, when I passed, the the audience was in British Columbia.

For about an hour, the Conservatives dialed the number of voters in the province and asked them if they would listen and try to ask questions of Mr. O’Toole.

Mr. O’Toole had an answer to every question, of course. But callers were not allowed to follow up, making it impossible to determine if his answers were actually satisfactory to them. That said, it’s safe to assume that the man who asked whether Mr. O’Toole would follow the advice of a recent UN report to immediately start moving away from fossil fuels was not satisfied. After acknowledging that the Conservatives did not have a valid climate plan in 2019, Mr. O’Toole welcomed the party’s new proposal, a system that would aim to emissions reductions well below the government’s current target.

Mr. O’Toole has chaired 10 Ottawa virtual town halls to date. Sessions are streamed live on YouTube and via Facebook, where questions can be submitted in writing. But the questioners, and listeners, are mostly found through automated phone calls made by the campaign, and none of them appear on the video. The party declined to describe the selection process it uses before putting anyone in contact with Mr. O’Toole. But there are clearly people controlling the callers.

Whether by chance or on purpose, many of the questions in the session I attended, and others I watched, were about topics that polls find resonate most with Conservative voters. , such as the budget deficit and the removal of recently tightened gun controls. But at least two people have called for action on climate change far beyond what the Conservatives are proposing.

The session felt like the video stream of a radio show. Its moderator was Michael Barrett, a Conservative MP from Eastern Ontario, who never took issue with Mr. O’Toole’s claims and promises, as an independent host would.

The expansive studio-transformed ballroom, dominated by a flag-lined stage vaguely reminiscent of the interior of Parliament buildings, was completely devoid of a country atmosphere during the session.

The only people physically present at the town hall were professionals. In addition to me, the very socially distanced audience itself consisted of a TV producer, a TV network cameraman, a handful of Conservative Party techies who ran the show, bodyguards for Mr. O’Toole and, briefly, a photographer.

Despite the lack of a crowd, not to mention the energy of the crowd, Mr. O’Toole remained enthusiastic and energetic throughout the hour.

It is far too early to say whether virtual town halls, like other pandemic gadgets, will succeed the traditional campaign road show with its jets and buses. Mr. O’Toole, like other leaders, continues to hit the road. I will also be there soon to see how the campaigns of Mr. Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh of the NDP have adapted to the pandemic.

This week: Letter box, where you try to create words using letters surrounding a square. All the Times games and tips for playing them, can be found here.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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