London·Analysis

Well-known local candidates shake up otherwise humdrum byelection in Lambton-Kent-Middlesex

The PCs are looking to hold onto Lambton-Kent-Middlesex in the May 2 byelection, but a Liberal candidate, who is well-known in the riding's north end, is looking to pose a strong challenge.

Balancing growth a key factor in largely rural riding that's voted PC since 2011

Election signs vie for voters' attention near Strathroy. Voters go to the polls on Thursday, May 2.
Election signs vie for voters' attention near Strathroy. Voters go to the polls on Thursday, May 2. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

For voters, spring and summer byelections are all too easy to ignore. 

On May 2, electors in the sprawling and mainly rural Ontario riding of Lambton-Kent-Middlesex will head to the polls. 

The vote comes at a time when there are many other things to occupy voters, everything from planning summer vacations to watching the Leafs in the NHL playoffs. 

CBC News spent some time travelling through the riding, speaking with candidates and voters. 

And while one voter not intending to vote called this a "bye election," here's a list factors shaping what could be a more-interesting-than-usual spring race.

Easy win for PCs? Maybe, maybe not

On the surface, the riding has all the hallmarks of a PC safe seat. The byelection became necessary when MPP Monte McNaughton quit in September to take a job with Woodbine Entertainment. 

McNaughton had held the riding since 2011. His family has strong ties to the region and he served in Doug Ford's cabinet. 

Steve Pinsonneault, a Chatham-Kent city councillor first elected in 2006, is running for the Progressive Conservatives.

Challenging him and making the jump to provincial politics is Cathy Burghardt-Jesson, another seasoned municipal politician who's currently the mayor of Lucan-Biddulph and deputy warden of Middlesex County.

Brian Ropp said although the riding is a PC stronghold, Liberal candidate and Lucan-Biddulph Mayor Cathy Burghardt-Jesson's entry has made the race more interesting.
Brian Ropp said although the riding is a PC stronghold, Liberal candidate and Lucan-Biddulph Mayor Cathy Burghardt-Jesson's entry has made the race more interesting. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

The NDP candidate is Kathryn Shailer, a retired educator who lives in Alvinston. 

Brian Ropp is the mayor of North Middlesex and knows the riding well. 

"Burghardt-Jesson coming in has made this a more interesting race," said Ropp, who's worked with her at the municipal level. "It's been Progressive Conservative for a long while because Monte McNaughton has represented us so well and he was very popular, but this time I think people are also looking at the person running, not just the party." 

Cameron Anderson is a professor of political science at Western University. 

He said he'd be surprised to see the PCs lose, but also said byelections have a level of uncertainty due to low voter turnout and other factors.

"Surprises can happen," he said. 

Burghardt-Jesson acknowledges she's running in a traditional PC stronghold but points out that it's been Liberal-held before. 

"I know McNaughton was popular but what I'm telling people is that he's not running this time and that it's a chance to give someone else a chance for these two years," she said. 

CBC News asked to speak with Pinsonneault. However, his campaign manager said he was not able to schedule an interview.

Challenging geography

The riding is large, about the size of Prince Edward Island, and extends from Lake St. Clair in the south to the Lake Huron shoreline in the north. It doesn't have a city-sized population centre, but includes Strathroy, Lucan, Wallaceburg and smaller farming communities such as Glencoe and Ailsa Craig.

The riding's size means it's impossible for candidates to knock on every door during what amounts to a 29-day campaign. Campaign teams who spoke to CBC News said a voter turnout of at least 25 per cent isn't a sure thing.

Dresden dump, a simmering issue

A Mississauga company wants to re-open a dormant dump in Dresden despite strong local opposition. Following a fight over a proposed landfill in Ingersoll, the Ford government said it would respect the will of municipalities on landfills. 

There are concerns about the effect re-opening the dump would have on the Sydenham River, located downstream. Both Shailer and Burghardt-Jesson say they'll be using this election to press the PCs to stick to their word.

Environment Minister Andrea Khanjin said last month the application to re-open the dump will be subject to a "comprehensive environmental assessment." 

Liberal candidate Cathy Burghardt-Jesson, fist elected to municipal politics in 2010, is making the jump to provincial politics with a run in the Lambton-Kent-Middlesex byelection.
Liberal candidate Cathy Burghardt-Jesson, fist elected to municipal politics in 2010, is making the jump to provincial politics with a run in the Lambton-Kent-Middlesex byelection. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

This issue will come up in all-candidates meetings and Dresden is part of Chatham-Kent, which is in Pinsonneault's backyard. 

What do voters care about? Affordability over all

CBC News spoke with voters about the byelection at a cafe in Lucan on Friday. 

Some weren't aware of the byelection. Others knew it was happening and said they didn't intend to vote 

One issue almost everyone said is important to them is affordability and the rising cost of everything, from groceries to gas to mortgage rates.

Cathy Belbin pointed to the new subdivisions going in around Lucan. Many of those homes have prices starting at $450,000 and above. Others were built months ago, but remain vacant. 

"The top of my list is affordable housing," said Belbin. "Not big houses that people can't afford to buy, but houses that people can afford to live in and still eat."

She said rents for apartments in Lucan are surging in some cases to around the $2,000 mark, prices she'd typically associate with Toronto.

Healthcare needs care 

Mark Swallow took a break from playing pickelball at the Lucan Biddulph Community Memorial Centre to talk about the byelection. 

He said Burghardt-Jesson is a "strong candidate running for a weak party." He said the federal Liberals' low status in the polls and the provincial party's poor showings in the last two provincial elections don't bode well for them. 

He's also concerned about a healthcare system that had its flaws exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I'm at the age where I'm going to start needing the healthcare system more," he said. "My taxes are very high, the services are very poor and my options are limited."

Unseen Greens

Respiratory therapist Andraena Tilgner is the Green Party candidate but is running a campaign that can best be described as low-key. 

She didn't attend a recent all-candidates debate and CBC News was told she would not be available for an in-person interview. The Greens said she'd respond to a list of written questions from CBC. Those were submitted but the Greens provided no response.

None of her election signs were spotted in and around the Strathroy and Lucan area last week. The Greens won a byelection last December in Kitchener Centre giving the party a second seat at Queen's Park. However, they don't appear to be putting in the same effort in Lambton-Kent-Middlesex. 

Kathryn Shailer is the NDP candidate for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex. She says health care and housing are the main issues she's hearing from voters at the door.
Kathryn Shailer is the NDP candidate for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex. She says health care and housing are the main issues she's hearing from voters at the door. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

How to vote

Information about how to vote in the May2 byelection is here. Advanced voting opened on Sunday and continue through to April 26.

In a vast riding that stretches from Lake St. Clair to the shores of Lake Huron, three candidates have chosen to have their campaign offices in Strathroy, including PC candidate Steve Pinsonneault.
In a vast riding that stretches from Lake St. Clair to the shores of Lake Huron, three candidates have chosen to have their campaign offices in Strathroy, including PC candidate Steve Pinsonneault. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.