EDITORIAL: Bridging Town and Country

She seems to be everywhere. Or at least, that is how it felt when the new Leader of the Ontario NDP, not to mention of the Official Opposition, suddenly showed up at the Gazette offices last week.

Marit Stiles was touring Renfrew County and decided to stop in at Quinte West. “We feel we should be able to win this seat in the next election,” she said breezily.

Ms. Stiles makes winning look easy. She won re-election to the provincial legislature as the candidate for Davenport in Toronto in 2022. Her party continued in the role of Official Opposition after the Liberals failed, again, to show up for the race, winning just 8 seats.

She then breezed into the party leadership. The only candidate who stepped forward to replace Andrea Horwath, she was elected by a simple majority, and confirmed in March 2023.

Winning the leadership of a major political party by acclamation might suggest that party is on the ropes — with a premiership in the offing in 2026, there should have been more contenders for the top spot, particularly in a party with this history and expertise.

But having met Ms. Stiles, another reason comes to mind. Perhaps nobody wanted to run against her. Marit Stiles is a political star — and her time seems to have come.

She has that elusive something, whatever it might be called: the common touch, a people person, relatable. You instantly warm to her, not as a star, but as somebody completely normal. She is direct, and unusually forthright. You get the sense she’s not saying things to be liked. She is saying them because she believes them to be true.

That they might also win her another election is a bonus.

Ms. Stiles is asute enough both to see an opening, a shift in the political landscape, and to go about filling it.

She’s been all over Ontario this summer, and all over the news. As Opposition Leader she has not just attacked Premier Doug Ford and his mismanaging government at every turn. That is just routine. She’s gotten results. That’s unusual. The Premier created his Greenbelt crisis — but Ms. Stiles has used the powers of governing against this government, asking for and getting a report from the Integrity Commissioner, one unprecedented in its length and scope, in order to hold individuals to account. She has forced not just resignations but firings from a government that insisted it would do no such thing. She now wants the Premier to put his shoddy land grabs back in the Greenbelt where they belong.

She knows she has the high ground. What’s promising about Ms. Stiles is that she seems to know how to use it. In response to the political pressure to move the NDP closer to the centre, where the liberal votes are, Ms. Stiles was uncompromising. “I really do think that people are coming to us,” she said. “If you look at where the Liberals have actually succeeded in winning, federally for example, it’s because they have adopted a lot of things that we have been fighting for for years.”

The statement is as sharp as it is principled. People really are moving left; they have been for a decade. That the PCs won the province in the last two elections is in part because the provincial progressive vote is now split across the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens, just as it is federally. It’s also stretched across a stark rural and urban divide. While dense concentrations of people in cities are increasingly voting NDP, in rural areas the vote is blue. But that, too, may be about to change.

In the 2014 general election, the Liberals won a majority. In 2018, huge numbers of voters who had backed the Liberals in 2014 moved to the NDP, which helped Ford win. In 2022, after a terrible pandemic, those voters did not vote NDP, nor did they vote Liberal. They didn’t vote at all.

If astute, principled, humane politicians like Marit Stiles and all those that have rallied behind her can get that vote back out, the NDP suddenly has a very good chance, both here in Quinte West and in a host of other rural ridings that have been quietly shifting from blue to green. Energy policy, the environment, climate change mitigation, land use and agriculture, housing, healthcare, schools — the areas in which the Ford government has been an unmitigated disaster are precisely those in which the NDP excels.

These are also the political touchstones that could bridge the rural – urban divide.  If the NDP manages to appeal to a rural audience as much as it does to people who live in Toronto, in other words, they could well take the province.

And so, lo and behold, six months after becoming Leader of the Opposition in the Legislature, Marit Stiles was in Prince Edward County. In the space of a few days, she was also in Renfrew, Kingston, and Kitchener.

As for that land she wants returned. She may just get her way.

—Karen Valihora