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Free Liberal memberships attract thousands of new members ahead of hotly-contested Ottawa-Vanier nomination

By Abbas Rana      

All 10 candidates for the Liberal nomination in Ottawa-Vanier are finalizing strategies to bring out as many of about 7,500 registered party members as possible on nomination day.

All 10 candidates seeking Liberal nomination in Ottawa-Vanier, top to bottom, left to right: Khatera Akbari, Mona Fortier, Nicolas Moyer, Ainsley Malhotra, Véronique Soucy, Francis LeBlanc, Eric Khaiat, Jean Claude Dubuisson, Abdourahman Kahin and Persévérance Mayer. Photographs courtesy of candidates
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With the incentive of free party membership, Liberal Party membership in the riding of Ottawa-Vanier, Ont., has grown eight times over in anticipation of a nomination meeting there, and the 10 candidates running in this safe Liberal riding are focused on getting as many of these members out as possible on voting day.

The nomination vote is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 5. The winner of the contest will represent the party in a byelection that has not yet been called.

“It’s more how we’re going to get the vote out. There’re over 7,000 registered Liberals to mobilize,” said candidate Mona Fortier, a communications consultant and community activist. “It’s key. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that number in our riding.”

As of deadline last week, eight candidates had been vetted and green lighted by the party to seek Liberal nomination in the riding, including: Ms. Fortier; Khatera Akbari, a Senate administration staffer; Nicolas Moyer, former executive director of the Humanitarian Coalition; Véronique Soucy, a host and executive director of French language radio station 94.5 Unique FM; Ainsley Malhotra, a former public servant; Francis LeBlanc, former Nova Scotia Liberal MP; Eric Khaiat, parliamentary assistant to Liberal MP William Amos; and Ottawa lawyer Jean Claude Dubuisson. Two other candidates Abdourahman Kahin, a naturotherapist, and Persévérance Mayer, co-founder of African League Canada, were still awaiting decisions by the party as of deadline last week.

The Conservatives had not nominated their candidate as of last week but the NDP had nominated Emilie Taman, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. Ms. Taman, daughter of former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, was acclaimed as her party’s candidate on Nov. 29. She also ran unsuccessfully in the last federal election.

Ottawa-Vanier is one of the safest Liberal ridings in the country. The federal Liberals have never lost it since its creation in 1935.

The nomination contest in this riding was triggered in August after eight-term Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, who represented the riding since 1995 until last year, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He won the last federal election with 57.6 per cent of the vote, while the second-place NDP candidate Ms. Taman garnered 19.2 per cent. The third-place Conservative candidate David Piccini won 19.1 per cent, and the fourth-place Green Party candidate Nira Dookeran was at three per cent.

The nomination contest, which is expected to be a nail-biter, will take place at the Ottawa Conference and Event Centre. The cutoff date to sign up new members for this meeting was Jan. 17. By the cutoff date, about 7,500 people had either registered online or had submitted their paper forms to the Liberal Party. Prior to the start of the nomination contest, the riding association had 900 members.

Registered Liberals will vote at the nomination meeting based on the preferential ballot system in which they will rank the candidates numerically from most to least preferred. Given the number of candidates, it appears likely it will take more than one ballot for anyone to win the required 50 per cent plus one to secure the nomination.

Ottawa-Vanier is among some of the first ridings in the country where Liberals who registered with the party without paying any fee will be able to vote for a nominee. The Liberal Party eliminated the $10 membership fee last May. Now, any Canadian can sign up with the federal Liberals and can participate in the party activities such as nomination contests, and the party policy development process. The Conservative Party membership fee is $15 and the NDP’s membership fee varies between provinces, ranging from no fee to $25.

Mr. LeBlanc, a former Nova Scotia Liberal MP who participated in Liberal nomination contests both when only paid party members were allowed to take part and now when no fee is required, said it’s easier to sign up new members when they don’t have to pay, and this played a role in signing up so many new members in the riding.

“It’s easier to recruit members, of course. It’s easier for everybody,” said Mr. LeBlanc.

“It has definitely encouraged and increased the number of registrations. We have a very large pool of voters now.”

Since the deadline to sign up new members, all candidates have been focused on identifying their supporters, strategizing, and holding meetings with their campaign teams on how to mobilize their supporters on voting day. It remains to be seen how many of the 7,500 registered Liberals in Ottawa-Vanier participate in the nomination meeting.

Mr. Moyer said his campaign has knocked on 10,000 doors in the riding and has made 2,500 phone calls. He said based on feedback from people in the riding, they are “very engaged,” “very enthusiastic,” and “very excited about this opportunity” to elect their next Liberal candidate in the riding.

“I’m hopeful this will translate into a big turnout on the day of the vote,” said Mr. Moyer.

Ms. Soucy said that her campaign team is working “around the clock and doing whatever it takes” to come up with strategies to ensure that all of her supporters show up to vote at the nomination meeting.

“All the efforts, everything, reaching out, getting them on the phone, the more people I can talk to, the better,” said Ms. Soucy. “I’m just working around the clock and doing whatever it takes. I do what I have to do.”

Ms. Fortier, who was recently endorsed by Catherine Bélanger, widow of the late MP, said she’s not taking anything for granted. A friend of the Bélanger family for more than two decades, she said Ms. Bélanger’s endorsement is a statement that she has what it takes to represent Ottawa-Vanier as a Liberal. Ms. Bélanger is a popular figure in the riding and has been politically active in the party and in the riding for more than two decades.

“It’s very important,” Ms. Fortier said of Ms.Bélanger’s endorsement. “It demonstrates that I have the necessary experience and the abilities and also represent the values.”

Khatera Akbari, a Senate administration staffer who is on a leave-of-absence because of the nomination contest, said, like other candidates, her campaign team is busy trying to reach out to as many registered Liberals in the riding as possible to earn their support. Ms. Akbari, a chartered professional accountant by training, said she’s using a combination of social media and door-knocking in person to make contact with people.

“Social media is important; we need to be at pace with the time,” said Ms. Akbari, who was born in Afghanistan and moved to Canada as a child in 1991 with her parents. “We need to be in line with the times, and so we’re doing social media. We’re certainly doing door-to-door because nothing beats the impact of shaking someone’s hand and having a conversation.”

Ms. Akbari speaks five languages, including English, French, Dari, Hindi, and Urdu.

She said Ms. Bélanger’s endorsement of Ms. Fortier is significant, but she’s focussed more on her own campaign. Prior to running for Liberal nomination, she sought advice from longtime politicos to learn how to run a vigorous and effective nomination campaign. Ms. Akbari said a key piece of advice was to stay focussed on her own campaign no matter what happens in other campaigns.

Ms. Akbari said she has been spending about 10 hours each day meeting with registered Liberals or talking to them on the phone.

Other candidates also said that Ms. Bélanger’s endorsement is important, but it’s just one of many factors people will take into consideration before deciding how to vote.

“It may well [influence the outcome]. That’s absolutely fair,” said Mr. Moyer. “Endorsements are always welcome. I would caution you to think about how a nomination process works, and really that the majority of the people coming out will be basing their decisions on who they’ve met, who they support, and why.”

According to Statistics Canada, the riding has a total population of about 109,000 and about 30,385 declared French as their mother tongue and 52,865 indicated English.

As of deadline last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) had not called a byelection, but according to Elections Canada, a byelection has to be called within 180 days after a riding becomes vacant. Ottawa-Vanier officially became vacant on Aug. 23, so a byelection must be called by Feb. 19.

Besides Ottawa-Vanier, there are two other vacant ridings: Calgary Heritage, Alta., and Calgary Midnapore, Alta., and no byelections have been called there either. In Calgary Heritage, former prime minister Stephen Harper’s riding, the byelection must be called by Feb. 25. In Calgary Midnapore, Jason Kenney’s former riding, it has to be called by March 22. Mr. Harper resigned  his seat in August and Mr. Kenney in September.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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