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How Canadian Leaders Campaign in a Pandemic

todayAugust 27, 2021

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After nearly two weeks of campaigning, it would be a stretch to say that election fever is sweeping Canada. Lawn signs are relatively scarce 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 turn to the campaign after Labor Day brings an unofficial end to summer’s all-too-short reign.

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

This week, I checked out a modified campaign event hosted by the Conservative Party in Ottawa, my first event of this campaign. The party has transformed part of a ballroom in a downtown Ottawa hotel into a television studio that Erin O’Toole, its leader, uses for what the party calls virtual town hall meetings, which it targets to specific parts of the country. On Tuesday, when I dropped by, the audience was in British Columbia.

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

Mr. O’Toole had an answer for every question, of course. But the callers weren’t allowed to follow up, making it impossible to determine if his answers actually satisfied them. That said, it’s likely safe to assume that the man who asked if Mr. O’Toole would take the advice of a recent U.N. report to immediately start moving away from fossil fuels was not sated. 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 aim for substantially smaller emissions reductions than the government’s current target.

Mr. O’Toole has conducted 10 virtual town halls from Ottawa to date. The sessions are streamed live on YouTube and through Facebook, where questions can be submitted in writing. But the questioners, and the listeners, are found mostly through automated phone calls placed by the campaign, and none of them appear on video. The party declined to describe the screening process it uses before putting anyone through to Mr. O’Toole. But there are clearly people vetting the callers.

Whether by chance or by design, many of the questions at the session that I attended, and others that I watched, were on issues that polls show resonate the most with Conservative voters, such as the budget deficit and rolling back recently strengthened gun controls. But at least two people called for action on climate change far beyond what the Conservatives are proposing.

The session had the feel of a video stream of a talk radio show. Its moderator was Michael Barrett, a Conservative member of Parliament from Eastern Ontario, who never challenged any of Mr. O’Toole’s claims and promises, the way an independent host might.

The vast ballroom-turned-studio, dominated by a flag lined stage that vaguely evokes the interior of the Parliament buildings, was utterly devoid of campaign atmosphere during the session.

The only people physically present during the town hall were professionals. In addition to me, the very socially distanced, in-person audience consisted of a television producer, a television network camera operator, a handful of Conservative Party technicians running the show, Mr. O’Toole’s bodyguards and, briefly, a photographer.

Despite the absence of a crowd, let alone crowd energy, Mr. O’Toole remained enthusiastic and energetic for the entire hour.

It’s much too early to say if virtual town halls, like other pandemic make-dos, will succeed the traditional campaign road show with its jets and buses. Mr. O’Toole is, like the other leaders, still hitting the road. I’ll also be out there soon to see how the campaigns of Mr. Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh of the New Democrats have adjusted to the pandemic.

This week: Letter Boxed, where you try to create words using letters surrounding a square. All of The Times’s games, and tips on playing them, can be found here.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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