Why Canada's federal parties still shoot for the stars

The major parties have all recruited star candidates for the federal election, in hopes that name recognition will trump voter indifference.

They can be hard to persuade - but candidates with name-recognition can also yield results

From left, Federal NDP candidate Svend Robinson, Conservative candidate Sylvie Fréchette and Liberal candidate Adam van Koeverden. They're just a few of the well-known names and faces the parties are pinning their hopes on for the Oct. 21 election. (Darryl Dyck, Kevin Fraser, Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives can boast of a Canadian country music star and an Olympic champion synchro swimmer. 

The Liberals are fielding a kayaker who won a gold medal, two silver and a bronze in three Olympic Games, and a high-profile Quebec environmentalist.

The NDP has recruited a critically-acclaimed filmmaker and a familiar face from the party's past.

The Greens are offering up an East Coast comedy legend. The People's Party of Canada has the widow of Canada's most infamous mayor.

The current federal election campaign has seen its share of household-name candidates seeking seats in the House of Commons — even after a frantic first few days that saw the Conservatives, NDP, Greens and People's Party part ways with nominees over revelations of social media misdeeds and impolitic behaviour. (You'll find a current list of celebrity candidates at the end of this article.)

Country music star George Canyon is running as a Conservative candidate in the riding of Central Nova in the upcoming federal election. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

But given a changing media market that's seeing less local coverage — and voters who tend to focus more on the leaders than the teams — the question is whether these 'stars' will shine in the 2019 campaign.

"They still matter," said political consultant David Herle, once a top adviser to Prime Minister Paul Martin and the co-chair of the federal Liberal campaigns in 2004 and 2006. "If you're a government that's long in the tooth, they can represent renewal. And if you're in opposition, they can make you look like you've got the team that's ready to govern."

Herle said he's seen a shift over the years: locally-famous candidates who can pull broad community support and deliver a riding are now harder to come by. So the parties have been seeking out names with provincial (or, better yet, national) resonance who might help drive media coverage and fundraising — even if they're not a lock at the ballot box.

There's a tradeoff, of course: the higher the candidate's profile, the more coaxing and hand-holding it takes to land them.

"It takes a lot of time to recruit star candidates and it does ultimately take the leader to close the deal," said Herle. "These are people of status and stature. And maybe sometimes they feel that you need them more than they need you."

Linda McQuaig is a Toronto journalist and author who ran for the NDP in a 2013 byelection and again in 2015, losing to Liberal stars Chrystia Freeland and Bill Morneau. She said name recognition is perhaps more important than ever.

"We got so much media attention, especially in that byelection. It certainly made it more exciting," she said. "And when you're trying to get people elected, there's nothing wrong with that."

Comedian, actor and Green candidate Greg Malone makes a stop in St. John's with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. (CBC)

Much of that media attention focused on the personalities and their backstories, but McQuaig said the issues still came to the fore. They surely did in 2015, when McQuaig caused a national furor by telling CBC News that oilsands bitumen might need to "stay in the ground" in order for Canada to meet its international greenhouse gas reduction targets.

"I was denounced for days afterwards by Stephen Harper himself, and Justin Trudeau," she said. "And I learned that it's so important to hold your ground and stand by what you believe."

The parties themselves appear to believe in the magic of the stars — both before and after the vote.

A 2010 study by Royce Koop of the University of Manitoba and Amanda Bittner of Memorial University looked at leader-selected "parachute" candidates between 1993 and 2008, and concluded that appointed candidates were 4.4 times more likely to end up in cabinet if their party won — and four times more likely to get a shadow ministry in opposition — than MPs who went through a competitive nomination process.

The late Rob Ford's wife Renata Ford is running for the People's Party of Canada in Etobicoke North. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

It also found that 'name' MPs get better committee assignments and are 70 per cent less likely to end up introducing private member's bills or motions — the hallmark of low-influence backbenchers.

Bittner, director of Memorial's Gender and Politics Laboratory, said the parties like to suggest that their parachute selections help bring diversity to their candidate lists — but in fact, these stars are still mostly white and male.

Whether any of it matters is harder to say. Riding associations are often touchy about losing local control of the nomination process, Bittner said, adding voters don't seem to care one way or the other.

"For the most part, people vote for the person that's running for their party, and that's it," she said. "Voters haven't really changed. They're not so engaged and they're not so informed."

Chris Alexander, who made a name for himself as Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan and then as a deputy special representative for the United Nations, said his public profile helped him get a foot in the door with voters in Ajax-Pickering when he decided to run for the federal Conservatives in 2011. That advantage didn't last very long, he said.

"I don't think it counts for much after the campaign," he said. "People judge you by how you treat them and your track record." 

Alexander said he's not a fan of the 'star' candidate terminology — he said he thinks it suggests 'celebrity', when often it's more a matter of people having experience that might be relevant to politics.

But Alexander, who went on to serve two years in cabinet as Citizenship and Immigration minister before being defeated in the 2015 election, said he fears that it is becoming harder to recruit quality candidates, regardless of their profile. 

"Good people are being turned off politics because they see the waters as more poisoned and brackish than they've ever been before," he said. "There's a higher threshold people must overcome before they are willing to subject themselves to the kind of polarization and unjust discourse that we see all around us."

That's a fault not in our stars, but our system, it seems.

High-profile candidates running in the 2019 election

Conservative Party of Canada

  • George Canyon, country recording artist and Calgary Flames anthem singer (Central Nova)
  • Sylvie Fréchette, 1992 gold medallist in solo synchronized swimming (Rivière-du-Nord)
  • Teresa Kruze, ex-TSN sportscaster (Vaughan-Woodbridge)

Liberal Party of Canada

  • Adam van Koeverden, former Olympic kayaker (Milton)
  • Steven Guilbeault, founding member of Équiterre and ex-Greenpeace campaigner (Laurier-Sainte-Marie)
  • Tamara Taggart, former television news anchor (Vancouver-Kingsway)

New Democratic Party

  • Hugo Latulippe, award-winning Quebec filmmaker (Montmagny–L'Islet–Kamouraska–Rivière-du-Loup)
  • Svend Robinson, member of Parliament 1979-2004 (Burnaby North-Seymour)
  • Rudy Turtle, chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation (Kenora)

Green Party

  • Greg Malone, former star of CBC's CODCO and one-time federal NDP candidate (Avalon)
  • John Kidder, founder of the BC Green Party and new husband of federal leader Elizabeth May (Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon)

People's Party of Canada

  • Renata Ford, widow of Toronto mayor Rob Ford (Etobicoke North)
  • Gurmant Grewal, Conservative MP 1997-2006 (Cloverdale-Langley City)


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

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