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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

How times have changed since premiers talked big about their small-town roots

By ROY MacGREGOR
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2003

LINDSAY, ONT. — As long as Larry Fountain can remember, it's been there.It is called the Downtown Variety and Barber Shop, and it dates back, the only barber on Kent Street thinks, to the 1940s, certainly to the time when Leslie Miscampbell Frost was premier of the largest province and bragged constantly about coming from one of the smallest centres. But Larry Fountain has no real memory of Leslie Frost.

Nor, he says, does anyone talk politics when they come in past the confection counter and walk up the few steps to the single barber's chair in the back room. The No. 1 topic these days is the coming fall fair. Then the weather. Nothing, he says, on the Oct. 2 Ontario election.

In fact, he admits with a slightly embarrassed shrug, he's not even sure who's the sitting member, let alone who is running for the seat.

How times have changed. When Leslie Frost was premier of Ontario, he bragged that the view from the barber's chair in downtown Lindsay, a small city of 20,000 in the lakes district slightly north and east of Toronto, was all a savvy premier needed to know the province.

Such a view today comes with blinders. While many small communities in Ontario remain as lily-white and church-steepled as they were in Frost's time, the province is not even remotely the one he left as premier in 1961 and permanently in 1973.

In Frost's Fifties, people were generally either Catholic or Protestant -- the Muslim faith, to take just one example, wasn't even counted in the last census before his death -- and minorities were very minor indeed.

In the 1971 census, some 60 countries were listed as possible places of origin; in 2001 more than 200 were listed. When Leslie Frost became premier, Ontario had around four million people, approximately as many as Canada's growing visible minorities have today.

He viewed Ontario from the barber's chair when rotary telephones were just coming in. Now they are themselves history, and knowledge once picked up on Main Street is more often downloaded off the information highway.

There was no 905 area code back then, yet today that prefix stands for the very portion of the province that decided the last election, going entirely blue for the Progressive Conservatives, and that may well decide this one as well.

The 905 area code begins not far from Lindsay and loops like a thick collar over the top of Toronto, an area largely composed of new housing, strip malls, traffic problems -- and a population profoundly different from the one Leslie Frost thought he knew so well.

Farther along Highway 7 stands Markham, which the 2001 census identified as one of two centres in the entire country -- Richmond, B.C., was the other -- where the visible minorities have actually become the majority.

This is the new reality of Ontario, and it raises the intriguing political question as to how much rural roots -- or at least the perception of rural roots -- matters today in this province.

Frost was hardly unique. Conservative premiers have always played to small-town values, often with great success.

Bill Davis began almost every convoluted speech he ever made with a jocular reference to his Main Street home in Brampton, Ont., though Brampton was, at the time, itself being threatened by urban sprawl. Frank Miller won the leadership in 1985 in no small part because he was the only candidate not seen as citified, something his opponents could not claim.

A decade later, Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution seemed to come out of nowhere to catch the city experts and media by surprise, but in fact it came out of rural Ontario. Harris continued to play up his own outsider background even after he had left his North Bay home and his wife for a rather more urban lifestyle in a Toronto waterfront high-rise.

Harris's successor, Ernie Eves, may have come out of little Parry Sound, but he may also be the first Tory leader unable to trade on such roots. Eves's slick appearance, his open personal relationship with the sophisticated Isabel Bassett and his switch to a more urban riding have, in effect, turned him into a Toronto personality.

Judging by the latest polls, this may have cost him traditional support but without bringing him the urban support he must have. If he cannot appeal in those areas fast becoming city -- 905 is the classic example -- he cannot win.

It has been nearly 20 years since one of the most successful Conservative premiers, Bill Davis, stepped down and, in his parting words, said, "Let's go home to Brampton."

He was not returning to a small-town notion, but to a growing city, no matter how simple the sentiment might have been.

And even though there is still a barber chair in downtown Lindsay, it will be the view from elsewhere that decides this one.



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