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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The card dealer, the actor or the incomparable man? It's up to Ontario's heartland

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2003

HIGHWAY 7 — There is nothing along this two-lane stretch of highway, which runs like a belt across the gut of Ontario, that suggests an election is on.But then, there is rarely any indication of what might be happening here until the votes are counted.

At the moment, the only thing in the air is ragweed, the only hint of what is coming is a large sign along the Peterborough waterfront advising citizens to get ready for the upcoming soapbox derby.

Highway 7 runs 270 kilometres west from Ottawa to Peterborough and on into that mysterious part of the province known only by its area code: 905.

It covers an area composed of small towns and growing cities, farms, villages, bush, blueberry stands and, at least in the eastern half of the province, more failed businesses along the side of the road than successful ones. It is filled with people pollsters can call, but who won't necessarily answer -- at least not until Oct. 2, Ontario Election Day.

The surprise emergence of NDP premier Bob Rae in 1990 and Progressive Conservative Mike Harris in 1995 have already shown that no electorate is harder for an incumbent -- or, for that matter, the news media -- to read than the quiet voters of the Ontario heartland.

It would be fair to say, however, that there is not today the white anger over arrogance that threw Liberal David Peterson from office and produced victory for Rae. But it is absolutely fair to say there is a disenchantment with all things political -- whether it be the Prime Minister overstaying his welcome in Ottawa or the growing irritation with the inability of Queen's Park to clean up the water, the air, the meat industry, the health crises and, for that matter, keep the lights burning.

Canadians have always been far happier tossing out the scoundrels than they have been putting in the chosen, and it would come as no revelation to anyone along Highway 7 that a recent Ipsos-Reid poll found that 60 per cent of Ontario voters feel the time has come for change.

Premier Ernie Eves, of course, was intended to be a change from Mike Harris, the plodding but determined premier who brought in the Common Sense Revolution that outraged some and delighted others. Eves, with his raked-back hair and sharp, squirrel eyes, was intended to be more sophisticated, but has, instead, simply come across as slicker -- an attribute not much admired in the heartland that quite liked Harris.

Eves, however, might still be as lucky as the card dealer he so resembles, having somehow managed to turn the aftermath of the Aug. 14 blackout into a political plus merely by staring firm-eyed into the cameras and turning off extra lights.

His greatest good fortune may turn out to be his opponents: Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, whose dark brooding looks are forever being compared to actor Anthony Perkins in Psycho, and NDP Leader Howard Hampton, who cannot, unfortunately, be compared to anything.

They are seeking to become premier of the least-examined of all Canadian provinces, the one place in this country where citizens, when asked, automatically refer to themselves as Canadians without first working their way through the provincial and regional strings that make up this Cat's Cradle called Canada.

But that may be changing somewhat, and that change may have started during this spring's SARS crisis when, for once, this huge bulk of a province became furious with Ottawa's lack of response to the point where one cabinet minister actually challenged the value of Confederation.

Such thinking is simply never done out loud along Highway 7.

The month to come will show, eventually, just how disenchanted the heartland is -- if at all. The issues listed yesterday afternoon included balanced budgets and tax breaks, health questions and environmental concerns. But one never quite knows what might move this part of the province, which has such a history of making the final, and often surprising, decisions on voting day.

It might even come down to same-sex marriage, which could end up a federal issue but is playing out first in the provinces. Politicians sitting in their offices and news media sitting at their terminals have an odd habit of failing to pick up what really eats away at people in the quiet heartland, as the gun-registry fiasco rather dramatically illustrated this past year in Ottawa.

One fascinated observer will be Paul Martin, who will shortly afterwards become prime minister of a country that has lately seemed increasingly disappointed with what the political world has to offer.

"Why would anyone study Ontario?" historian Desmond Morton once asked. "Happy times have no historian."

These, however, have not been particularly happy times in the province that usually has the least to say.

And for Martin, what is said on Oct. 2 may be a harbinger for the mood of the country he is about to inherit. Application Error

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