How Canadian leaders are fighting a pandemic

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After nearly two weeks of campaigning, it would be an exaggeration to say that the election fever is gripping Canada. Lawn signs are relatively rare in Eastern Ontario, where I live, and others tell me similar stories from other parts of the country.

Political scientists and pollsters expect or hope that the nation’s focus will be on the campaign after Labor Day unofficially ends the all-too-brief reign of summer.

Meanwhile, within the campaigns, candidates and their teams are looking for new ways to get their messages across and interact with voters during the pandemic without risking face-to-face gatherings.

This week I was watching a modified Conservative Party campaign event in Ottawa, my first event in the campaign. The party has turned part of a ballroom in a downtown Ottawa hotel into a television studio that Erin O’Toole, its chairwoman, uses for so-called virtual town hall meetings, which are targeted at specific parts of the country. When I stopped by on Tuesday, the audience was in British Columbia.

For about an hour, the Conservatives robotically dialed voters in the province and asked if they would listen and try to ask Mr. O’Toole questions.

Mr. O’Toole, of course, had an answer to every question. But the callers were not allowed to continue, making it impossible to tell if they were actually satisfied with his answers. Still, the man who asked if O’Toole would take the advice of a recent UN report to begin moving away from fossil fuels immediately can be assumed that he was dissatisfied. After acknowledging that the Conservatives did not have a valid climate plan in 2019, Mr. O’Toole praised the party’s new proposal, a system that would target significantly lower emissions reductions than the government’s current target.

Mr. O’Toole has performed 10 virtual town halls from Ottawa to date. The sessions will be streamed live on YouTube and Facebook, where questions can be asked in writing. But the questioners and listeners are mainly found through automated phone calls made by the campaign, and none of them appear on video. The party declined to describe the verification process it used before putting anyone through to Mr O’Toole. But there are clearly people checking out the callers.

Coincidentally or deliberately, many of the questions in the session I attended and others I watched related to topics polls found to resonate with Conservative voters, such as the budget deficit and the withdrawal of the recently tightened gun controls. But at least two people have called for action on climate change that goes well beyond what the conservatives are proposing.

The session felt like a video stream from a talk radio broadcast. Its moderator was Michael Barrett, a Conservative MP from Eastern Ontario who never questioned any claims or promises made by Mr. O’Toole as an independent host might do.

The huge ballroom, which has become a studio and is dominated by a flag-lined stage that vaguely resembles the interior of the Parliament building, was completely devoid of the campaign atmosphere during the session.

The only people physically present during the town hall were professionals. Besides me, the very socially distant, personal audience consisted of a television producer, a television cameraman, a handful of Conservative Party technicians who ran the show, Mr. O’Toole’s bodyguards, and, in short, a photographer.

Despite the lack of a crowd, let alone the energy of the crowd, Mr. O’Toole remained enthusiastic and energetic throughout the hour.

Whether virtual town halls, like other pandemic make-dos, will replace the traditional campaign roadshow with their jets and buses is still too early. Mr. O’Toole, like the other guides, is still on the move. I will also be out there soon to see how Mr Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh’s campaigns of the New Democrats have adapted to the pandemic.

This week: Letter Boxed, where you try to create words using letters that surround a square. All of the Times games and tips for playing can be found here.


Ian Austen was born in Windsor, Ontario, trained in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has been reporting on Canada for the New York Times for 16 years. Follow him on Twitter @ianrausten.


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