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Short campaign, COVID create challenges for local candidates (5 photos)

Some local candidates are wary of going door-to-door, some lament virtual format of debates and all say brief campaign makes this election unlike any other

The shortest election in Canadian history, contested during a fourth wave of a global pandemic, has Simcoe North politicians scrambling to connect with voters before Election Day on Sept. 20.

One of the most common ways politicians have spread their message in years past is going door to door and chatting with voters. However, New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Janet-Lynne Durnford has refrained from doing so this year.

“As a campaign team we felt that it wasn’t safe or appropriate during the pandemic, which means we have to be more creative,” said the first-time candidate.

Green Party candidate Krystal Brooks says she has been doing door-to-door canvassing, but might be putting a halt to those efforts soon.

“We are keeping an eye on COVID and the active cases. If it gets over 1,000, we probably won’t be doing door to door, which will make things more difficult," she said.

Conservative candidate Adam Chambers has also been finding door-to-door canvassing to be more difficult than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been doing that since the day the election started, and we’ve been very safe about it. We have a mask handy, we are far back from a door, we always stay outside, but we can’t visit apartment buildings, retirement homes, or long-term care homes,” he said.

“It’s a little different, but we are we are trying to do as many of the traditional things that you would find on a campaign as long as it can be done safely.”

Liberal candidate Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux says door-to-door canvassing is going well so far, and says she’s had many great conversations with the people of Simcoe North.

“I’ve heard about vaccinations, anti-vaxxing, some of the issues in Simcoe County about housing, lack of rental properties, and a little bit about child welfare and the need to address situations that are occurring. I’ve heard of lots of different things,” she said.

Simcoe North People’s Party of Canada (PPC) candidate Stephen Makk says most people have been comfortable having front porch conversations during the election.

“We realize that the ground game is vital, we are out canvassing which has been limited to some urban areas to mostly get some of our volunteers properly trained, but it is going good so far,” he said.

As for the sign wars, Makk says they are putting up more than ever before.

“You are going to see lots of PPC signs out there. We honestly can’t keep up with demand (and) we’ve had to order more,” he said.

Durnford admits the local NDP is a little bit behind schedule when it comes to signs.

“Our campaign team decided that we would order our signs locally which meant they weren’t locally ready overnight as they might have been from a big sign company, and we were OK with that,” she said.

Chambers says his campaign has received about 1,500 lawn sign requests, which, he notes, is more than the party had at this point in the last election.

“Our sign crews are having problems catching up to demand, so we are feeling pretty good about the response we’ve gotten,” he said.

The Liberals also have signs virtually everywhere, but Wesley-Esquimaux says they are trying to be more strategic about it.

“I’m very much about the environment and these things are plastic. I’m not crazy about buying all these signs that if we don’t use them again because they will be going into the landfill,” she said.

As for the Green Party, Brooks says her party has not ordered any new signs at all this election and is using signs from previous years and has placed them in marquee spots around the region.

Brooks said she has had the most success connecting with voters this election by visiting the Orillia Farmers’ Market.

“I got most of my signatures (for her nomination papers) at the Orillia Farmers’ Market actually and I’ve met some incredible people,” she said.

“The main thing I noticed is a lot of people literally just want someone to stand there and listen to them. They are feeling very undervalued, very unheard, and it’s a very frustrating time for voters right now."

Chambers has attended the Midland and Oro farmers’ market, but hasn't found them particularly fruiful.

“It’s OK, most people are going in to pick stuff up and there isn’t as much mingling as there was pre-COVID,” he said.

Durnford has been to the Orillia Farmers’ Market a couple of times, but she says politicians need to be cautious about attending local markets.

“The Midland Farmers’ Market, for example, has a no-solicitation policy and we will of course respect that. Farmers’ markets are a great place to meet people as long as we are respecting the bylaws,” she said.

Wesley-Esquimaux has yet to attend a farmers’ market but intends to shortly.

“I love farmers’ markets actually. The only reason I have not gone this year is that I have my daughter and only grandchild visiting with me until the sixth, she is only a year old, and my daughter is absolutely terrified that little girl will get sick. So, I’ve had to be very careful about where I go and how much exposure I have to a lot of people,” she explained.

Makk is planning on attending local farmers’ markets this weekend.

Most of the local candidates believe social media is a key tool in this election campaign.

“We are using Facebook to get out messages and respond and engage with voters on a one-to-one basis, which is important," said Chambers. "You can have a chat with a voter as you would at the door but by text."

Dunford’s campaign has put most of its focus on using social media to connect with voters.

“We are trying to do pop-up events using Facebook. We’ve done a few here in Orillia and they have been actually quite successful. People have come down and chatted, so, we are planning on doing more of those in Tiny and Tay Township, the Midland area mostly in parks because it’s an easy outdoor gathering place for people,” she said.

Brooks, on the other hand, is finding social media to be a somewhat challenging place for her to spread her messages.

“I do have a Facebook page and my personal account. Where it gets tricky is aside from articles, that’s about as far as I’m able to extend online which is very difficult. I’m not allowed to post in most groups because they don’t want anything political which is making it difficult,” she said.

Makk says he would prefer to meet with people in person and host live events rather than campaig online.

“There seems to be fewer events and as a person who loves speaking to the public and engaging with the people, my own performance as a candidate and a speaker is far better if I’m doing it at an event or a meet and greet in the park,” he said.

Wesley-Esquimaux says she has been enjoying some of the online media coverage that her party has been engaged with.

This time around, debates have also been moved online, which is just fine, says Wesley-Esquimaux.

“I’m one of those people who does a lot of public education, I probably do 50 to 70 interactions and engagement sessions a year on behalf of Lakehead University where I’ve worked for the last eight years," she explained. 

"I’m on Zoom all the time, sometimes all day long talking to people and training them on reconciliation, history, all kinds of things,” she said.

As for Makk, he’s going to miss speaking to a live audience.

“I wish we would just open up and be able to engage the public. Democracy with this election is too important to hide in your house. I hope voters engage with all the candidates, all the parties, do their homework, look at the platforms, and make an informed decision,” he said.

Chambers would also like to have live debates, however, he believes the online format is ‘worthwhile’.

“I think it’s harder to connect with people in those virtual forms than it is with a traditional debate. And, of course, there is no mingling after with the crowd which makes it hard to form a connection with people through a computer screen,” he said.  

“It’s still a way to get a message out, but I don’t think it’s as effective as the in-person format.”

Durnford says the online format "definitely takes away" from its effectiveness.

“It always feels good to have an audience who is responding to your ideas and what you are saying. It will be challenging to not have that audience feedback, but it is what it is,” she said.

Brooks said she is confident in the online format.

“I think it is important to recognize that we are in a pandemic right now and indoor gatherings are limited to 25 people which leaves no room for the public. Having it outdoors wouldn’t be a practical thing to do either,” she said.

Traditionally, parties open offices during an election campaign, but even that is different this time. 

“We do not have a physical office and that has to do with the short campaign period again," said Durnford. "We decided to direct our funds to other things such as signs and a postal mail out.” 

Brooks is also lacking an office at this point in the election, but she says her party is "working on it. It would be a good way to reach some voters and I think it would be kind of neat."

Chambers has two offices, one in Midland and one in Orillia, but it’s not business as usual.

“Primarily those are for our volunteers to come in and grab signs, maybe do a little bit of phone canvassing, and to make sure we have some accessibility across the riding,” he said.  

“Traditionally we might hold events there and do that kind of stuff which we haven’t done this go around; it’s been a little different. It’s a short campaign, the traditional longer campaigns with office openings and things like that are gone and would maybe be gone anyway as COVID has changed the game.”

Wesley-Esquimaux has an office set up in Midland and in Orillia, but the Sunshine City location has struggled to find staffing.

“People can pop into our offices to get information, the one in Midland is staffed a little more, Orillia has been challenging because it’s the summer during a pandemic,” she explained.

Makk also has two offices - one in Victoria Harbour and one in Midland - and he is hoping to have one in Orillia by next week.  

“To be able to have private meetings with volunteers and to do planning is important. There is a lot of internal organizing, we have at least 60 people, and we need to have a place to reach them, train them, share information, which is very hard to do virtually,” he said.

“We have merchandise to sell, and if people need a place to pick up signs or make a donation, we have a walk-in business with 9 to 9 office hours. Our office also gives people a place to sit down and talk about what their concerns are,” Makk said.


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Tyler Evans

About the Author: Tyler Evans

Tyler Evans got his start in the news business when he was just 15-years-old and now serves as a video producer and reporter with OrilliaMatters
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