Battleground Brampton: Why the provincial election could be decided in a suburb just west of Toronto

If the battle for the provincial legislature will be won in Brampton, all three major party leaders seem to know it with each having made campaign stops in the fast-growing city only a week after the writ was dropped.

Only a week in, the leaders of all 3 major parties have already made campaign stops in the city

Only a week in, the leaders of all 3 major parties have already made campaign stops in Brampton, believed to be a foreteller of what will happen at the ballot box provincially. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters, Bruce Reeve/CBC and Chris Young/CP)

If the battle for the provincial legislature will be won in Brampton, all three major party leaders seem to know it with each having made campaign stops in the fast-growing city only a week after the writ was dropped.

On Monday, it was Andrea Horwath's turn, with the Ontario New Democratic Party leader promising to build a third hospital in the city that's home to one of the busiest emergency rooms in the country.

The promise comes after months of stories about patients waiting overnight in the hallways of hospitals because of a bed shortage that made headlines across the province.

A day before, the Ontario Liberals made their first campaign stop in the city, choosing Powerade Centre for their stop. And earlier this month, Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford held a rally there too.

"Were kind of the Ohio Valley of Ontario politics," observed Gurpreet Malhotra. "Wherever Mississauga and Brampton go is where the rest of the province seems to end up going."

'A 3-way donnybrook'

Indeed, argues Myer Siemiatycki, professor of politics at Ryerson University, the bulk of seats in the Greater Toronto Area are within the neighbouring 905 areas, making Brampton and neighbouring Mississauga two of the most important cities in this election. Perhaps nowhere is the population growth more explosive, he says, than in Brampton.

Until recently, the city of just over 590,000 was divided into three ridings, one shared with Mississauga. This year, it has five.
Gurpreet Malhotra is the CEO of Indus Community Services, a non-profit organization focused on newcomer support, language resources, counselling and seniors support. (CBC)

In the last election, the Liberals won the support of two of the three ridings and the NDP took the other. The Conservatives were a distant third in all three, Siemiatycki points out, meaning Brampton isn't their strongest base of support. 

"Among other things, the comment that Doug Ford has made about immigration suggesting that, well, maybe immigrants are second or last choice for who we want prompting and fuelling the population growth of this province. That could hurt him in a place like Brampton."

Siemiatycki was referring to the Ford's suggestion last at the northern debate last Friday that Ontario should "take care of our own" before pushing for immigrants to move to northern Ontario over the weekend — comments that party flak says were mischaracterized by the opposition.

Still, argues the politics professor, "there will be  battle royale between the Liberals and the NDP over the hearts and minds of those who are not inclined to vote for the Conservatives."

But with the Liberals waning in the polls, it's possible this year might be different.

"It's a three-way donnybrook in Brampton," Siemiatycki said. 

Focus on day-to-day needs

But while Brampton's rapid growth makes it potentially an indicator of the provincial vote as a whole, Malhotra says, the city is at the same time hampered by its booming population.

Provincial funding formulas that don't account for the rapid influx of people or don't keep pace with its changing needs, he argues, "end up punishing areas like Brampton," so that the city ends up finding itself with less per capita funding than other large cities.

"The more and more you have these systems that don't quite capture the whole population here, the more people fall through those gaps," he said.
Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Ryerson University, says Brampton is likely to be a bellwether for Ontario's provincial election. (CBC)

But as for what election issues Brampton residents care about most, Malhotra argues, there isn't anything necessarily unique about their concerns.

"People are really focused on their day-to-day needs: family, community, connecting with each other… Are we able to travel easily using transit or otherwise? Can we afford a home as a young family or a newly arrived family?"

Nikita Brown, editor of The Bramptonist,  echoes that sentiment, saying there are too many outlying parts of the city that aren't well-serviced by transit. That, coupled with hospital overcrowding — "the worst-kept secret in Brampton," she calls it — make up some of the biggest issues she finds are important to Brampton residents.

And of course insurance rates, she says, which are higher in Brampton than anywhere else in the Greater Toronto Area, according to the online price comparison site Kanetix.ca. 

City catching on to its significance

But while the issues that many Bramptonians will be watching for aren't necessarily unique, the city's demographics are.

With over 260,000 of its residents of South Asian origin, Brampton has one of the highest concentrations of South Asian people in the Greater Toronto Area, something reflected politically too. Each major party, observes Siemiatycki, is fielding at least one South Asian candidate. 

And adding to the mix, the brother of Jagmeet Singh, Gurratan,  is battling for a seat once held by the now federal NDP leader. To what extent that name recognition will factor into the voting decisions of a heavily South Asian area is yet to be seen. 

Of course, what happens in Brampton isn't guaranteed to foretell the fate of the parties across the province.

"If in some fashion or other identity politics becomes significant, whether it's around immigration, whether its around an aspect of foreign policy and orientation to the South Asian region, then that could certainly throw the Brampton ridings into very unique trajectory and dynamic of their own," argued Siemiatycki. 

But that's unlikely to happen, he says. 

"This is very much about the kind of lives people are leading," Siemiatycki argued, adding health, education, workplace issues will be among the themes that dominate. "There are not Brampton or South Asian issues in this election."

Nevertheless, Bramptonians are catching on that the battle for the city they live in could decide the election as a whole.

"All three leaders have been here," Malhotra observes, "and I think they'll be back."