For Guy Lem, the pandemic made all the difference.
A self-described “die-hard” conservative voter, he tells the National Post questions over how Ontario’s government handled the pandemic shook his confidence in both the Progressive Conservative party and Premier Doug Ford’s commitment to the conservative cause.
“The Ontario Conservative party has shown me that they are no longer conservative,” he said.
As COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns wore on, voters like Lem grew increasingly frustrated that questions he felt deserved answers weren’t being asked by Ontario’s government.
“They never questioned any of what the medical professionals advisers were telling them,” Lem said.
“They were following orders from unelected people — and to me that means they’re not fighting for us.”
David Pasko, once a card-carrying party member and director in his local PC riding association, is likewise considering a change.
“I am feeling disaffected,” he said.
“I felt let down very early on by the Ford government.”
While he realizes no government can be everything to everyone, accountability and consistency should always be paramount.
“They seemed to waver in the face of opposition, both public and in the House, to his attempts to implement policy,” Pasko said.
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Two parties in particular — the Ontario Party and New Blue Party — are attracting attention from disillusioned PC supporters seeking bluer pastures.
While Pasko is still undecided, Lem’s putting his support behind New Blue — a two-year-old, right-of-centre party founded by lawyer Jim Karahalios and his wife, Cambridge MPP Belinda Karahalios.
Elected in 2018 as a Progressive Conservative, Karahalios found herself booted from caucus last July after voting against Bill 195 — at the time describing the Reopening Ontario Act as a means to silence MPPs and remove their ability to debate future pandemic measures.
In his research, Lem found New Blue best fit his views.
“He’s actually asking the same questions I am,” Lem said of an email exchange he had with Jim Karahalios.
Those questions, Karahalios told the National Post, largely concern the priorities of both the Ontario government and the opposition parties meant to hold them accountable.
“There’s a lack of integrity and the establishment political parties at Queen’s Park,” Karahalios said.
New Blue, Karahalios said, will run a full slate of 124 candidates on June 2.
“We’re authentic, we tell you where we are and lay it out for people,” he said.
“We’ve found that even people who disagree with us, for example on our pro-life position, join the party knowing where we stand. We’re not fooling people.”
Karahalios says support for the party’s platform — which vows to fight COVID-19 mandates, lower hydro rates by decommissioning Ontario’s wind turbines, ending “woke activism” in schools by removing gender identity and critical race theory from the curriculum, and taxing Ontario media outlets who receive federal bailout money — is indeed gaining traction.
This week’s Postmedia-Leger poll puts support for both parties at three per cent — no change for New Blue from last week’s numbers, but for the Ontario Party, who in December 2021 named former federal Conservative MP Derek Sloan as party leader, that’s a two-point gain from last week.
“Things are going very well, we’re getting big crowds wherever we go,” Sloan told the National Post.
“There’s a lot of interest in new options.”
Like Karahalios, Sloan is no stranger to losing the favour of the Conservative party.
The federal Conservative Party caucus voted to remove the Hastings-Lennox and Addington MP in January 2021 for what the party described as a “pattern of destructive behaviour.”
Sitting the balance of his term as an independent, he finished fifth in the Alberta riding of Banff-Airdrie in last summer’s federal election.
Sloan said the party will have 105 approved candidates on the ballot come election day.
Last month, the Ontario Party announced former Trump campaign adviser and long-time Republican political strategist Roger Stone had joined their election team.
Sloan describes a party platform heavy on restoring and protecting freedoms many allege were violated during the pandemic, and includes removing ideological attestations as a condition of employment, and the protection of free expression, conscience rights, medical privacy and autonomy.
Like New Blue, the Ontario Party also supports what Sloan described as “education, not indoctrination” in the province’s schools.
“Voters are used to politicians saying one thing and doing another, but I think there was an expectation with Doug Ford that he was a man of his word, particularly with Ford Nation and his brother (former Toronto mayor) Rob’s legacy,” Sloan said.
“In normal times he would’ve been the guy in the front of the truck pulling the horn, but now he’s the guy calling them names and passing bills to stamp them out.”
I do not think these parties will attract many voters in this election, but in the long run they can become an important group
For many PC voters, said the University of Toronto’s Eric Merkley, Ford’s pandemic policy of consensus proved both decisive and divisive.
“COVID-19 changed a lot, we’ve all been through a lot,” he said.
“There are people that don’t buy into that consensus, that it was a big deal governments needed to take decisive action.”
But as many pandemic restrictions were lifted when the writ dropped, Merkley isn’t confident such a message will resonate as it did during the peak of the freedom convoy.
University of Ottawa Professor Geneviève Tellier said the impact of non-mainstream, right-wing parties is measured on scales beyond single elections.
“I do not think these parties will attract many voters in this election, but in the long run they can become an important group,” she said.
“Look at what we see in other countries, such as France. Until now, Canada — and Ontario — has been somewhat an exception.”