PETERBOROUGH, Ont. — “We’re going to get it done,” says Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as he makes his way through the booths at a longstanding pizza place along the busiest street in the city.
The visit is part of a busy day for the Conservative campaign in this key bellwether riding. His bus rolled into town 10 days after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was here rallying his supporters as the fight wages on to win this seat.
For those that believe in the predictive powers of bellwether ridings, where the party that wins this seat ends up winning the election by the end of the night, the race in Peterborough-Kawartha is important and over halfway in to this campaign it still appears too close to call.
You’ve likely seen clips of what some reporters call “whistle-stops” where a leader bounds out of their party logo-adorned bus and into a restaurant or other local business to shake hands, maybe deliver some remarks, or have an orchestrated conversation with voters across a table.
But what is it like when political leaders touch down here in an effort to lock in votes? CTVNews.ca travelled to Peterborough to get a sense of that.
The first stop of day 25 of the federal election campaign was not a Conservative campaign event, rather it was to participate in the opening of a massive Buddhist temple in a rural area down the road from a popular ski hill in the neighbouring riding of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock. An uncommon move by the Scheer campaign, but this event was in a riding currently held by incumbent Conservative candidate Jamie Schmale. While it neighbours the long-time Peterborough bellwether, this riding isn’t one.
It was the opening of what local media have reported is a $80-million development, sprawling acres, and built by the Buddhist Association of Canada. While the grounds were still a work in progress, several enormous statues could be seen dotting the landscape from atop the tall hill where the ceremonies were taking place.
Travelling media and the Conservative campaign team were surprised by what ended up being an enormous crowd, with busses full of people, here from across Canada and beyond for the consecration ceremony for the “Tang-dynasty style” Buddhist temple, the largest in North America.
The first word in this reporter’s notebook was “chaos.”
After a marching band had made it a least twice through some top pop hits—Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” and ban Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” a long promotional video played showing what the space will look like once finished, and then Scheer made his entrance, as part of a group of “honoured guests,” an hour after the event was said to begin.
He ascended the large staircase and took his place at a podium, there was measured applause when his name and title were read aloud. He was given a Chinese transliteration of his name: "peaceful, prosperity and wisdom."
Scheer, with a yellow and red sash around his neck, then spoke briefly, but for long enough to make a partisan jab.
“A new Conservative government will defend religious freedom at home and abroad, by reopening the office of religious freedom, which has been closed by the current Liberal government,” Scheer said. Remarks from Trudeau were read at the event later on, by Mary Ng, the incumbent Liberal candidate for the Markham-Thornhill riding which is just over an hour west of Peterborough.
After he was done, the campaign team made it’s way out of the crowd, climbing through scaffolding and down a hill through mud and gravel to the busses parked below. At around 11:30 it was all aboard and back down Highway 115 to the main thoroughfare in Peterborough, not the downtown core, but along the street that stretches from one end of town to the other with hundreds of retail stores and restaurants.
As the fully-wrapped Conservative campaign pulled in, just over half-a-dozen climate protesters walked in front of the lot where the bus was set to park. Their signs included the sayings: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” and “No climate plan!!! [sic] Scheer insanity.”
Things were running about an hour late at this point so the campaign teamed moved quickly to get media set up inside a restaurant called The Pizza Factory, and to orchestrate the route around the tight restaurant that Scheer would take.
Inside, tables of largely silver-haired diners wearing blue ate their lunches while gawking at the swarm of national media. The décor had a somewhat Italian motif—paintings on the walls, white pillars—but in the middle of the main entryway was a vintage red and white “Texaco Ethyl” gas pump.
Scheer’s wife Jill and Michael Skinner, who is running to out seat incumbent Liberal candidate Maryam Monsef were on-hand and he made his way around the room with Scheer, shaking hands, and listening to encouraging comments from supporters who likely had a head’s up to pick the local eatery for their Saturday lunch if they wanted to catch a glimpse of, as many remarked, the next prime minister of Canada.
Scheer was asked twice to sign copies of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s book “Right Here, Right Now,” and he obliged.
As he made his way to the back of the room there was a face he recognized and he approached with a hug. It was Kathy Katula, the woman who made headlines after making a tearful plea about her bills at a 2017 Trudeau townhall.
Speaking with CTVNews.ca afterwards, Katula, wearing a Conservative-blue “Team Skinner” t-shirt, said that at the time she was not engaged in politics but that moment made her realize that “all of our votes count.”
“Even a little county grandma that lives out in Buckhorn, Ont. can make a difference and I am a strong Conservative supporter now,” she said, acknowledging the still-closeness of the race in this riding.
It wasn’t the first time she had met the Conservative leader, that was at the United We Roll in Rally in February. “Andrew Scheer to me is like middle-class America,” she said, a turn of phrase that was completely unintentional in evoking this week’s news Scheer still holds dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship, though is in the process of renouncing his status as an American.
“He’s a family man… he has Christian values which I value, and he doesn’t discriminate against anybody… So I think he’s exactly what Canada needs,” said Katula.
The Conservative campaign song “Get Ahead” did not play once, and within about 20 minutes, Scheer was in and out, with a stack of pizzas for the travelling media to inhale as they rushed to file quick rants before they got back on the road.
Locals in the room and campaign volunteers that CTVNews.ca spoke with after Scheer left, said they wouldn’t have missed the chance to meet the man they are talking to their neighbours about at the doorstep.
Chris Carson, a 12 year old that was one of the two people to get their book signed, said he was “stoked” to meet Scheer. He’s also helping canvass, and shared with ease the entire Conservative campaign’s mantra: “He has a plan for everyone to get ahead and I think it’s a great plan… and I think Justin Trudeau’s plan has failed Canadians.”