What you should (and shouldn't) watch for in Ontario byelections

The two provincial byelections happening Thursday ought to be ho-hum affairs, since neither seat has changed hands in a generation or more. But the candidates nominated by the Progressive Conservatives sure are making things interesting.

PC candidates add spark to both of Thursday's contests, in Niagara West-Glanbrook and Ottawa-Vanier

Sam Oosterhoff, 19, is the Progressive Conservative candidate in Thursday's byelection in Niagara West-Glanbrook, a riding represented since 1995 by former PC leader Tim Hudak, until he retired from politics this summer. (Radio-Canada)

The two provincial byelections happening Thursday ought to be ho-hum affairs, since neither seat has changed hands in a generation or more. But the candidates running for the Progressive Conservatives sure are making things interesting. 

In Niagara West-Glanbrook, a longtime PC stronghold, the party is fielding a 19-year-old pro-life university student named Sam Oosterhoff, who would become Ontario's youngest-ever MPP if he wins.

In Ottawa-Vanier, a seat the Liberals consider one of their safest in the province, the PC candidate is André Marin, the high-profile, outspoken former provincial ombudsman.

The results in both ridings will be worth watching, because they could gauge the depth of voter frustration with Premier Kathleen Wynne's government, and with their rising hydro bills. 

At all-candidates' debates and in door-to-door canvassing, voters are complaining about the high price of electricity. Wynne knows it makes her party vulnerable: her own polling shows 94 per cent of Ontarians rank reining in hydro prices as important. 

"The way that plays in a particular byelection or not, is up to the people in those ridings," Wynne told a news conference Tuesday in Toronto. "We realize that the cost of electricity has burdened people across the province and we're working to help with that."

The results on Thursday could provide evidence of whether that "help" — her $1-billion-a-year move to rebate the eight per cent provincial portion of the HST on hydro bills, starting January 1 — is enough to satisfy voters.  

Ottawa-Vanier 'a Liberal fortress'  

Ottawa-Vanier has gone Liberal for 13 straight elections. Most recently, in 2014, Madeleine Meilleur won with a margin of 13,000 votes, one of the most comfortable Liberal victories in the province. If the party can't hold on to this seat, there will be some serious angst in Wynneland. 

Taking such a Liberal stronghold would be an absolute triumph for Patrick Brown. It would even outstrip the significance of former Toronto city councillor Raymond Cho winning the September byelection in Scarborough-Rouge River, another long-held Liberal seat.  

"If there is a Liberal fortress, this is it," Brown said Tuesday.

Four of the candidates in the Ottawa-Vanier byelection are (from left) Progressive Conservative André Marin, New Democrat Claude Bisson, Liberal Nathalie Des Rosiers and Green Raphael Morin. (Angie Bonefant/Radio-Canada)

"This should not be in play. This should not be competitive," the PC leader told me in an interview at Queen's Park. "I can tell you the[response from voters at the]doors are encouraging. I think this may be a long night, it may be competitive."

For now, Brown is positioning himself to claim a moral victory should the PCs even come close in Ottawa-Vanier. He argues that a Liberal win of less than 10 percentage points — about 4,000 votes — would raise questions about Ontarians' confidence in Wynne.

The Liberal candidate in the riding is law school dean Nathalie Des Rosiers, while the NDP's is former RCMP executive Claude Bisson. There are eight other names on the ballot.  

Niagara West-Glanbrook's 19-year-old PC candidate

Tim Hudak first won election in Niagara West-Glanbrook for the PCs in 1995. Sam Oosterhoff, the PC candidate aiming to succeed him, wasn't even born then.

The 19-year-old has never voted in a provincial election, and now he's running in one. He lives with his parents. Should he win, he'll represent the biggest wine-growing area in Ontario, and he's barely old enough to drink. 

"Long story short, I've just seen the damage the Liberals are doing to families and job creators here in the riding and I decided to get involved," Oosterhoff said in an interview last week.

The NDP's Mike Thomas, left, and Vicky Ringuette of the Liberals are also running in Niagara WEst-Glanbrook byelection. (Radio-Canada)

Oosterhoff is strongly anti-abortion but says that "doesn't come up much" when he meets voters. However, he says he is hearing "a lot of concerns from parents" about the province's sex-ed curriculum.

"We need to make sure that we have a curriculum that recognizes the importance of parents in that discussion and we need to make sure we have a curriculum that is crafted in consultation with parents," Oosterhoff said. 

He counters that sex-ed is not the dominant issue in the vote. 

"This byelection is about making sure that we're focusing on getting the cost of living under control for people here in the riding," said Oosterhoff, "focusing on jobs here in the riding, focusing on health care here in the riding, getting hydro rates under control."

This part of the province has not sent a Liberal to Queen's Park in nearly 30 years. The realists in Wynne's party are hoping for a respectable showing against the youngster, and not to end up third. 

The Liberal candidate is family lawyer Vicky RInguette, the NDP's is former Hamilton police officer Mike Thomas. There are six others on the ballot.