PETERBOROUGH, Ont. — Mike Skinner wants me to know this meeting he’s organizing is not related to his election bid. The Conservative candidate says he’s just bringing some folks from the community together to tackle a crisis they all think the province and the federal government should do more to address: opioids.
It’s the end of June and the House of Commons has just wrapped up for the session. Peterborough–Kawartha is my first stop on HuffPost Canada’s election trail. And this piece is the first in a series of profiles that will bring readers into the local battles taking shape across this country.
Skinner, 43, is running to be the Conservative member of Parliament for the area. He’s tried this before, in 2015, and lost. But this time, the businessman, with deep local roots, thinks he may have a better shot.
Peterborough–Kawartha is the last bellwether riding in the country. In every federal contest since 1965, residents here have elected a representative from the political party that won the most seats — with just one exception. In 1980, voters sent a Progressive Conservative to Ottawa, despite Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals forming the government.
This rural-urban riding, located between Toronto and Kingston, was once an important manufacturing hub. The local economy now relies heavily on public and service-sector jobs. There is a push towards high tech and start-ups, and tourism is increasingly important.
Although locals are worried about jobs and keeping their children employed in the community, concerns are changing as the city becomes a bedroom community for Torontonians squeezed out of their own housing market.
Farms dot the riding’s picturesque outskirts, and in town, the student population from Trent University and Fleming College gives Peterborough a younger feel. The riding, however, is pretty grey-haired with 23 per cent of its residents over the age of 65.
Although overwhelmingly white and English-speaking, Peterborough was once considered a microcosm of the country. The federal government even piloted metric conversion here.
And like so many communities across the country, Peterborough is also grappling with a huge problem, one that is killing too many of its citizens.
From Jan. 1 until Sept. 9, there have been 26 suspected opioid deaths in the town of 84,000. Last year, there were 17. The local paper says Peterborough is now No. 1 in per capita deaths in the province.
It’s an issue that now affects everyone, Skinner says. “Some of the people that have had overdoses, I know.”
It’s hard not to notice the drug problem. There are addicts and homeless people all over downtown. People sleep in tents in Victoria Park, a grassy square city block with mature trees across the street from St. John’s Anglican Church.
Rev. Christian Harvey, the director of the church’s Warming Room Community Ministries, says it’s been a tough year. “We don’t have enough good housing for people.”
Home prices have increased as Torontonians move in and a 1.5 per cent vacancy rate means there is little rental space available. Most landlords, Harvey says, would rather rent to students than marginalized individuals.
The shelters are crowded and provincial welfare payments are so low that people resort to rooming houses, which “are often hell holes,” he says. Sleeping outside gives people some semblance of control in their lives.
Drugs and housing are related problems, Harvey believes.
“When having good housing seems out of reach, when you don’t even see the opportunity for choosing for your own food, those sorts of things just build a sense of hopelessness, and we know that when people feel hopeless, they turn to something to ease that.”
What’s different, Harvey says, is those substances are now likely to be poisoned, with fentanyl and carfentanil.
“Calling it an opioid crisis is not as accurate as calling it a drug poisoning crisis,” he says. “People’s drugs are being poisoned.”
Before last summer, Harvey had seen no overdoses in five years. Since then, there have been more than 50 on site. Luckily, he says, staff at their shelter and community centre, where daily free meals are provided, have been able to revive them all.
“But we’re scared, because that is not going to happen forever.”
This year, so far, Peterborough police say they’ve received 185 calls related to suspected drug overdoses.
Alex Bierk, an artist and recovering addict whose studio is just a few blocks from the church, says people don’t have the support needed to get clean.
His friend, a former linebacker from his high school football team, lives in a shelter and is still using, he tells me, over the sound of a passing ambulance siren.
“He literally gets taken in an ambulance to the hospital, dead, like dead, like actually dead. Not sick. Dead. And he gets revived with naloxone and within 15 minutes of being revived, he gets sent on his way. That is a broken system to me,” Bierk says.
“If you go in with mental health problems or a broken knee you are going to be given continued support. People are going in actually dead, and being just sent on their way. It’s crazy.”
Bierk, whose family helped pay for his detox at a Florida treatment centre, says the city needs a detox centre and a safe space for people to use. “People are already using in public spaces, in public washrooms, in the park, in alleyways and stuff … so it needs to happen in sort of a supervised [way] so people are not dying.”
Locals are keenly aware of the problems.
“The opioid epidemic, especially over the past year, has skyrocketed here… as has homelessness,” Janahan Ravikumar says when asked what issues he cares about.
“It’s like, literally, if you slip and fall, you’ll fall on a needle,” he says on the patio of the Silver Bean café by the Otonabee River. “There is no safe place for them to do it. And if they overdose, here by the water, in the middle of the night, no one will be here to help them.”
No safe injection site
Peterborough has no safe injection site. Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government capped the number of sites across the province at 21 and halted funding for a proposed site in Peterborough last year. The local MPP, Progressive Conservative Dave Smith, is lobbying to fund a new consumption and treatment services site that fits in the Tories’ new model of what harm reduction should look like.
The problem is so acute, Skinner — the federal Conservative candidate — says, that he’s leveraged his network to try to do something about it.
Crowded around Peggy Shaughnessy’s boardroom table in the second-floor office of her addiction and counselling business on Peterborough’s main drag are the town’s deputy police chief and seven other people here to talk about the problem — and what they can do.
“What are we at? 11,500 people dead in Canada from Jan. 1, 2016 to December 2018. Well, how many more since then?” asks Tim Farquharson, Peterborough’s deputy police chief. “Like we are over 12,000 people in Canada in three years, and ... to be honest, not a lot is being done.”
Farquharson’s black tie rests on the dark wood lacquered table. He rubs his brow.
“Now, you are into carfentanil and the microcrams,” he says, his voice trailing off as he looks around the table. “You can see the grain of salt, right? That’s fentanyl, but you can’t see, you can barely see [carfentanil] … We found even pills with six milligrams. The lethal dose of fentanyl is two milligrams, so think of it, one pill has six milligrams, that’s enough to kill three of us.”
“That’s what makes it so scary,” says Shaughnessy, whose business, Whitepath Consulting and Counselling, helps addicts. “Because every shipment that is coming out may be a little different than the shipment before. And so, even if you were an expert and a chemist, you are still getting the shipment that you are not 100 per cent sure [about].”
Data collected by the federal government reports that 94 per cent of the apparent opioid-related deaths in 2018 were accidental. In Ontario, 75 per cent of cases of drug overdoses were owing to fentanyl or other fentanyl-related substances.
Skinner wants to help Shaughnessy raise funds so that she can treat more people. He likes her approach, focused on treating trauma and the underlying issues of addiction rather than offering band-aid solutions. The group talks about using their talents and connections, setting up a concert series and selling a restaurant coupon book.
Their efforts led to the formation of Ptbo Strong in July, a not-for-profit group. Skinner says he is not a director because he didn’t want partisan politics to affect the work the group was doing. His wife, Catia, is a volunteer.
As we walk down the street after the meeting, Skinner points out the businesses he’s been involved in. There’s The Venue, a space for weddings, high school graduations, and where many of the fundraising concerts will be held. A few doors down is the Innovation Cluster, from which Skinner has been on a leave of absence since May as its president and CEO .
Fighting the opioid crisis isn’t the reason this father of two is running for office, but in his conversations with me, it’s clear he wants to highlight his presence on the ground and his drive to help his community.
After losing in 2015, and realizing that not everyone in the community knew who he was, he says he’s worked hard to ensure people know who he is.
The local Liberal MP, the suggestion goes, has been missing in action. Four times, he mentions how Maryam Monsef isn’t as responsive as constituents would like her to be.
That’s an allegation that Monsef, the minister of international development and the minister for women and gender equality, strongly rebuffs.
She says she’s held dozens of town halls in the riding to ensure she reflects her riding’s views in Ottawa and has worked “diligently to respond to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.”
Watch: Minister Maryam Monsef announces funding to help universities tackle on-campus sexual violence. Story continues after video.
Her constituency office receives more than a thousand letters or emails a week, and more than 40 people drop in each week with all sorts of challenges, she says.
“At the beginning we were flooded with e-mails and correspondence,” she says. “As well, there was a huge backlog that we had to work through.”
For about a year, Peterborough–Kawartha had no member of Parliament, because its elected MP, former Conservative Dean Del Mastro, resigned after being found guilty of breaking the election law. Her office continues to improve their processing times, she says.
After Monsef, then 30, was elected in 2015 on Justin Trudeau’s bandwagon, she was quickly appointed to the cabinet, becoming the first Afghan and Muslim to hold a ministerial position.
“I went from being a hippie grassroots activist in Peterborough to being one of the 30 voices around the federal cabinet table. That learning curve, for anybody, is intense.”
Now 34, she may be better known nationally as the democratic reform minister tasked with shepherding electoral reform who helped the prime minister break his promise to the country.
“Hindsight is 20/20, and that first year for me was a trial by fire,” she says. “I learned a lot. I went from being a hippie grassroots activist in Peterborough to being one of the 30 voices around the federal cabinet table. That learning curve, for anybody, is intense.”
“If I could go back, perhaps I would not be so innocent to believe that all parties were there to work together,” she adds.
Asked if she thinks the broken promise on electoral reform will hurt her chances of capturing these voters again, Monsef says she’s given the riding a “strong voice” in the cabinet.
“At the end of the day, a decision was made that was in the best interests of Canadians and it’s a decision I stand by.”
Watch: Justin Trudeau on why he abandoned promise for electoral reform
Pointing to Brexit, Monsef says a referendum — which the Tories wanted — would have been divisive. Instead, she’s proud of introducing a new appointment system for a less partisan Senate, proud of repealing parts of the so-called “Unfair Elections Act” that will make it easier for people to vote, and proud of giving expat Canadians who’ve been outside the country for more than five years the right to vote (a right that was actually bestowed upon them through a court challenge).
“We’re all imperfect candidates, and we are all doing the best that we can,” she says. “But at the end of the day, the result that’s been delivered is a result and a record that I am proud of and happy to defend.”
For Monsef, that record is measured by the drop in the unemployment rate, to 4.3 per cent now from 7.7 per cent in 2015. “There are more people working in Peterborough than ever before,” she says, and “more young people have had opportunities to have a summer job before they go back to school and finish their degree.”
It’s measured in new housing stocks. “Fourteen hundred and thirty-two families in this community who didn’t have a safe and affordable roof over their heads, they have that now.”
It’s measured in new money flowing to her riding. “There are 18,000 kids in this community whose parents are getting money tax free every month through the Canada Child Benefit.”
This summer, Monsef has made more than 11 announcements in the riding on behalf of the government:
- $71 million, split between Ottawa and the Infrastructure Bank, to further explore Via Rail’s proposal to build a high frequency rail in the Quebec City-Toronto corridor.
- $71 million to expand telecommunication coverage in rural Eastern Ontario.
- $57 million to further tackle human trafficking.
- $32.4 million for Habitat for Humanity, including $3.1 million to fund 35 new homes in Peterborough.
- $5.2 million for the Brock Mission men’s shelter.
- $3.1 million for an Indigenous-led clean technology pilot project.
- $1 million to bring new or improved high-speed Internet access to residents in Warsaw, in the township of Douro-Dumme.
- $1.2 million to rehabilitate a stretch of road in North Kawartha Township.
- $917,000 towards the reconstruction of Beaver Lake Road.
- $256,250 for three Green Economy Hubs, including one in Peterborough.
- $215,000 to help protect the Cation Wildlife Preserve with the Kawartha Land Trust.
In the local paper, Skinner slams Monsef for failing to pony up housing money sooner.
“We could have started solving this problem four years ago,” he told the Peterborough Examiner, noting that she waited until the end of her term to make funding announcements.
In an email to me this week, Skinner said there is little question that “over the past three months Maryam has been on a pre-election spending spree. Prior to that, she has been very absent from the riding.”
Monsef’s team says Peterborough-Kawartha has received more than $17 million for housing over her four years with funding given to The Mount Community Centre, Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services, YWCA’s Homeward Bound program and the Brock Mission.
She’s also secured $28 million for different community initiatives, such as funding for the Canadian Canoe Museum, Trent University and Fleming College.
But it’s the Via Rail announcement that seems to irk Skinner most. The federal government’s decision to back the project makes his local pitch a bit redundant. One of his key platform pieces, he says, is getting the Via Rail train back into the community. “It’s very important.”
Getting frequent and dependable train service would make rural living more attractive and make it easier to attract more post-secondary students to Peterborough, he says.
On the doorsteps, Skinner drills down on few more items: scrapping the carbon tax, helping people insulate their homes with the Tories’ proposed Green Homes Tax Credit, and a tax break on maternity benefits that he hopes helps will attract young urban families.
“I consider myself more like a green Tory. I’m very environmentally focused,” says the former advisory board chair for the Centre for Alternative Wastewater Treatment. “I believe in technology. Taxes are a punitive way to get people to change.”
The Tories’ plan, he says, resonates well in rural parts of the riding where people heat their homes with oil or propane. He expects rural voters will support him again, as they did in 2015, but he hopes to get more support from the business community.
During the last election, Monsef won by nearly 6,000 votes, or eight per cent of 66,000 ballots cast. The NDP ran a distant third, winning 12,437 votes, to Skinner’s 23,335 and Monsef’s 29,159.
He tells me that “a lot of the tax changes that were implemented the last three years really hurt small businesses.” I ask him what he means since the Liberals reduced the small business tax rate to the lowest in the G7. He points to changes the Liberals suggested but did not enact regarding income sheltered inside private corporations, and he points to the carbon tax.
“Fifty-two per cent the carbon tax is going to be covered by small business,” he says. Skinner may be referring to a survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business which reported that many companies planned to pass the cost of the carbon price along to customers. The Liberals assumed consumers would pay more under their carbon pricing plan and implemented a tax rebate, the Climate Action Incentive, giving people money back through their tax returns.
What Skinner is really passionate about though is budgets and deficits.
“I’m a fiscal conservative,” he says, noting that he doesn’t believe in spending more than one makes. “I really do believe that you need to balance the budget.” Paying for infrastructure is one thing, but borrowing to pay for day-to-day services is another. “Eventually you’ve got to figure out how to pay that back. And there’s really only [one] way to increase your revenues: increase taxes. And I don’t think Canadians can take any more tax increases.”
At the doors, Skinner’s message seems to resonate.
“I’m not going to be voting for Trudeau. I did in the last election, and I had high hopes for him but he seems to have trouble with finances,” says Ann Siddell, a resident of Riverpark Village, a quiet enclave of condo townhouses near the Peterborough Golf and Country Club where Skinner has brought me door-knocking. “The deficit is absolutely huge and I’m concerned for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren — not that I’ve got any yet.”
She thinks Monsef lacks the business experience to be at the cabinet table, but she also has concerns about Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
“I just feel that he doesn’t come across strongly as an opponent to Trudeau,” Siddell says. “Trudeau has a far more outgoing, charismatic nature to him, and Scheer is a very, sort of, a sweet fellow, a nice fellow,” she adds. “I would like to think he could defeat Trudeau, but I’m not sure.”
“Andrew Scheer needs to get known by our community,” Skinner tells me. At the doors, he says, he spends time “really expanding on the type of person Andrew Scheer is.” Someone who, he says, is honest and has the integrity to be prime minister.
Last year, Scheer attended the Peterborough Exhibition and, in August, the Conservative leader stopped by for a community BBQ. Skinner hopes Scheer will be back.
So does Monsef.
The Liberal candidate says Skinner’s “biggest challenge will be the leader of the Conservative Party.” Scheer doesn’t have a plan for the economy and does not have a plan for the environment, she says. “And that’s the banner that [Skinner’s] carrying through this election.”
She expects Scheer’s position on abortion to turn off some voters. “This is a very progressive community.” Canadians in Peterborough and across the country, she says, deserve to know whether Conservative candidates have strong views on a woman’s right to choose or on climate change.
‘This is a very progressive community’
“All the evidence out there, all the economists out there, are telling us that one of the best ways to address climate change is by pricing pollution. And Mr. Scheer, Mr. [Doug] Ford and other colleagues across the country in the conservative tent have been working hard to fight our government on this evidence-based approach to fighting climate change,” she says. “A plan that doesn’t follow what economists are telling us to do is not really much of a credible plan.”
Skinner acknowledges that Ontario Premier Doug Ford comes up often in conversation.
“Are we hearing about Doug Ford at the door? For sure. You know, people don’t necessarily understand how bad our province is today. And so we’re spending a lot of time explaining the fact that you know our third largest expense provincially is interest.”
While he’s doing that, Skinner is also explaining the differences between the Progressive Conservative party and the Conservative Party. “We have the same colour, and obviously, we’ve got some policies that are the same, but we have two different leaders and we have two different membership groups.”
The Ford government’s cuts have proved deeply unpopular. While Scheer has backed away from a pledge to balance the books in two years and now says it will take five years to chart a path back to balance, the Tory leader has not said what he’d cut to get out of the red.
For Monsef, the conversation is about values and results. She wants to talk about the progress Liberals have made towards reconciliation with Indigenous people, the government’s focus on gender, and its climate plan.
“I’m not afraid to stand up for a party and a plan that is working to fight climate change, because I want to be on the right side of history,” she says. “A lot has changed for the better.”
On the issue of opioids, both note the growing importance of the crisis.
Monsef points to agreements Ottawa has signed with the provinces to ensure funds for emergency treatment options, as well as her party’s continued support for safe injection sites.
In July, the Liberal government pledged $50 million for Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program and $3.5 million through the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Pathways to Care program. The cash is part of a $76 million investment to improve access to opioid overdose response training, expand safer alternatives to the illegal drug supply, as well as address the increasing use of methamphetamines.
Watch: Liberal MP apologizes for mocking opioid deaths
While Monsef isn’t involved with Ptbo Strong, her office notes that she hosted a roundtable with local service providers in July to find ways to support their applications for federal monies.
Skinner says he supports a safe injection site as long as it comes with some harm reduction strategy. And, he says, he’s prepared to lobby some of his Conservative colleagues who might feel otherwise.
“Obviously, no one has done enough, because the numbers keep growing,” says Harvey, from Warming Room Community Ministries.
He hopes the opioid crisis is front and centre in the campaign, but he isn’t holding his breath.
“So often, we vote based on what is best for me as an individual,” Harvey says. “And I think parties play to that.”
Harvey knows both candidates and he thinks they are “beautiful people.” Monsef, whom he considers a friend, has “a heart for people,” although he says that doesn’t always come across. “I want to hear that in a bigger way.”
Some of the voters who supported Monsef last time think a repeat performance may not be in the cards.
“People were really excited by Maryam Monsef,” says 20-something Bianca Nucaro Viteri. Women, especially, came out to vote and support her, she says. This time though, Nucaro Viteri thinks the riding will turn blue.
“Do I personally want that to happen? No. But do I think that’s kind of probably the reality.”
Her sister, Mercedez Nucaro, says people have been disappointed with some of the roll-out of the Liberals’ promises.
“There were some big promises that haven’t quite been delivered or have been tricky to get delivered, so I can see in general, at least in my community, and with the people I know, that there is some discontent with the Liberal government at this point. People are looking again for new change.”
“Sometimes you have to just choose the lesser evil and not the party that you really want, and that’s a hard call to make."”
Nucaro volunteered on Monsef’s campaign last time but thinks she’ll vote NDP this time.
Both sisters expect the Tory wave that happened in last year’s provincial election will sweep through their riding too, which places progressive voters in a tough spot.
“Sometimes you have to just choose the lesser evil and not the party that you really want, and that’s a hard call to make,” says Nucaro. “There’s a lot of fear, especially after seeing a sweeping Conservative win, that that might be the case and we might be put in that situation to kind of make those choices, for sure.”
Braden Clark, an innovation specialist who works with both sisters and Skinner, says he also thinks a Tory switch is coming.
“We might be in for a surprise this fall,” he says. Why? I ask. He shrugs.
“Time for a change… again.”
This story is a part of the federal election edition of HuffPost Reports. This summer, the HuffPost Canada politics team spread out across the country to take a look at some of the ridings that could make a real difference in the outcome of this year’s campaign. Ridings To Watch is an ongoing series that looks at the people and politicians in those communities and the role they might play as Canadians head to the polls.