How a grocery store visit highlights voters' fears that Kevin Vuong could be a lame duck MP
Elected amid controversy in Toronto's Spadina–Fort York, Vuong has been facing calls to resign
For Kevin Vuong, the embattled Toronto MP facing a military investigation and calls to resign, even everyday constituency work is proving contentious.
It was a lesson a Toronto grocery store owner learned the hard way this week, after she reached out to Vuong's office to deal with a long-standing business matter involving the Canada Revenue Agency.
"I was wary of making the call," said Michelle Genttner. "But who do you call? It's a federal issue for our MP."
What happened next highlights a concern held by many constituents in Vuong's downtown riding of Spadina–Fort York.
As a newly elected political outcast ditched by the Liberals shortly before the federal vote, they fear Vuong will be unable to get anything done in Parliament and constituents will not want to approach him for essential matters.
In the final days of the election campaign, the Toronto Star reported Vuong had been charged in 2019 with sexual assault — a single count that prosecutors later withdrew.
The Liberals asked Vuong to pause his campaign after it was made public he didn't disclose the charge during the Liberal vetting process. The party then cut ties with him two days before the election.
Vuong has denied any wrongdoing.
This week, when Vuong visited Genttner's zero-waste grocery store, Unboxed Market, she said she hadn't noticed his staffer taking pictures during the meeting — photos Vuong then posted to Twitter, with a caption that said visiting the business was "an absolute pleasure."
Absolute pleasure visiting <a href="https://twitter.com/UnboxedMarketCA?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@UnboxedMarketCA</a> today! They are Toronto’s first zero waste store, everything carefully curated to be local, sustainable, and minimize single-use packaging.<br><br>So great to speak with owners Michelle & Luis, hear their journey, and discuss how we can help. <a href="https://t.co/rntXI4xkn8">pic.twitter.com/rntXI4xkn8</a>—@KevinVuongTO
Angry constituents reacted swiftly.
"Unboxed, do you support Kevin Vuong?" asked one Twitter user. "I actually shop with you — and I won't be if you're backing him."
"I would not associate with him if I were you," warned another user.
Genttner was forced to issue a statement, clarifying Vuong's visit was strictly to seek "help in addressing a federal issue."
Vuong has not responded to several requests for comment from CBC News since he was elected. After the grocery store incident, he tweeted: "Our team is working ... so that Unboxed Market can focus on their business."
Following the publication of this story, Vuong added: "It's unacceptable for people upset with me to harass businesses wanting their MP to help them."
The episode illustrates how Vuong has become a "toxic" figure, said Stéphanie Chouinard, a political science professor affiliated with the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University, both in Kingston, Ont.
She said the incident "should make him seriously reflect on his ability to serve his constituents."
It's only the latest controversy to dog the 32-year-old since the revelation of his dropped sexual assault charge, followed by his election win on Sep. 20. Within days of the vote, Vuong, a naval reservist, was facing a military probe and the elections watchdog was asked to step in, too.
Vuong has remained virtually silent, declining for nearly two months to answer questions from constituents and journalists.
"I feel like I have [an MP] who can't really do much," said Jocelyn MacLeod. She said she voted for Vuong, with the intention of electing a Liberal.
Since the party's split with Vuong came just days before the election, campaign signs dotted around the riding still listed him as the Liberal candidate, as did the paper ballots used by voters on election day.
He later said he would sit as an MP without party affiliation, but Vuong's website and social media profiles don't expressly list him as an Independent.
Military investigation 'not yet completed'
Vuong, a sub-lieutenant in the naval reserves, remains on leave from his role at HMCS York, a navy spokesperson recently confirmed. Vuong's LinkedIn profile lists him as a naval intelligence officer from 2015 to 2018, then as a public affairs officer from 2018 onward.
The reserve division "is conducting an internal investigation. It is not yet completed," Capt. Mathieu Dufour said in an email to CBC.
Armed Forces members like Vuong are required to disclose a criminal charge to their chain of command. The navy has not said what sanctions Vuong could face if the investigation reveals he failed to follow military protocol.
Prior to the election campaign, Vuong himself requested a "pause of service," Dufour said, which was meant to last until Oct. 4. The navy said the pause in service was not related to any news stories about Vuong.
Liberal supporters directed to vote for Vuong
A number of Vuong's constituents have taken steps to complain. One online petition asking Vuong to resign received more than 5,000 signatures.
Some said the federal elections agency should do more to prevent such confusion in the future.
Nadia Qureshi said she complained to Elections Canada after polling staff mistakenly told her husband on election day, "you can still vote for the Liberal Party and they'll still fill the seat with someone."
Qureshi said she's been disappointed with the way Vuong has conducted himself since winning the seat.
"He's not replying to anybody, not engaging in any way," she told CBC News. "What does this say about the way he's going to serve as an MP for the coming years?"
Others on social media say they've written to Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota to demand a byelection in the riding. A byelection could be called if Vuong resigned or if other MPs voted to expel him from the House.
"Our political procedures do not have the ability to respond to such real and nuanced complications," said Arezoo Najibzadeh, the founder of Platform, a civic leadership organization. "This is a matter of democratic integrity."
Elections watchdog received 'several' complaints
Constituent Aris Daghighian filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Canada Elections, alleging Vuong presented himself online as a Liberal even on election day, after the party cut ties with him.
Daghighian wanted the case investigated as a potential violation of the Elections Act, which prohibits publishing "false statements to affect election results" and transmitting "misleading materials."
In an emailed response to Daghighian, the elections watchdog's office said it reviewed the allegation and "several others" it received regarding Vuong. Regardless of the news stories reporting that the Liberals had cut ties with Vuong, the office said he "remained the confirmed LPC candidate" for the riding, according to the email, viewed by CBC.
"We understand that the events in question may give rise to concerns on the part of electors in Spadina–Fort York," the email read. However, it said, "the circumstances described do not contravene any provision" of the Elections Act.
Vuong long aspired to run for public office
The Liberals had tapped Vuong to replace retiring MP Adam Vaughan earlier this year. The son of Vietnamese refugees, he holds a master of laws from the University of Toronto and received a young leaders award from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2017.
An online profile from the University of Toronto in 2016 quotes him as saying: "I aspire to run for public office one day." The same article said Vuong recounted turning to "petty theft" as a teen before his father put him on the right track.
He made an unsuccessful run for Toronto city council in 2018.
In August, Liberal campaign co-chair Navdeep Bains said in a statement he was "pleased" to announce Vuong had been acclaimed as the party's candidate for Spadina–Fort York.
At the same time, Vuong was facing a $1.5-million lawsuit filed by a former business associate, who alleged she was cut out of a lucrative pandemic mask-making firm. Vuong denied the accusations, which have not been proven in court.
The Liberals' vetting process also failed to note the sexual assault charge levelled against Vuong in April 2019. It was dropped the following November. Party officials said Vuong never disclosed the charge. It only came to light in September once the complainant approached the Toronto Star with details of the case.
In Vuong's only public comments about the dropped charge, he called the alleged incident "consensual" and said it involved "a casual but intimate relationship." He pledged to address the allegations at a later date, but that statement was later removed from his Twitter page.