Climate change, the economy and COVID-19 are all looming large as voters head to the polls.
Toronto, Canada – Jenefer Lindsay plans to vote in Canada’s federal elections on Monday, but she is so disheartened by the state of the economy, she doesn’t see the point.
Wearing a neon yellow vest, the 66-year-old who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in 1994 lives and works in North York, a working-class inner suburb of Toronto.
“I’ve been a crossing guard for two years now,” Lindsay told Al Jazeera. “I used to do dishwashing in a processed food factory. “I do babysitting. I do everything. Whatever I get to do, as long as I’m getting an honest pay.”
But that honest pay has not been stretching as far lately thanks to rampant inflation that hit an 18-year high last month.
Half Lindsay’s paycheque goes to her rent – an expense she simply cannot put off paying. The same goes for food, another purchase she simply cannot delay.
“It’s harder and harder every day,” she said. “Last week, you go to the supermarket and you find something there for two dollars. This week, it’s five dollars. And that’s five dollars that you don’t have. It’s that bad.”
Canada is known for its relative economic stability. But price increases this year have propelled the affordability of housing, food and other essentials to the forefront of voters’ minds, casting doubt on whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party will maintain their grip on power as Canadians decide their next Parliament.
York Centre, the federal election district that encompasses Linsday’s neighbourhood, is an ethnically and economically diverse area that has almost always voted Liberal.
The political endorsement signs on lawns of 1950s and 1960s-era single-family homes support that political history.
But there is dissent in the air.
Halal butcher shop owner Mike Wells said he has had to scrape by in the eight months since he opened his doors.
“The taxes are too much for us,” Wells told Al Jazeera. “We work 16 hour days here, seven days a week, we only make money for rent and that’s it.”
A native of Turkey who has lived in Canada for 25 years, he takes immense pride in his store’s pristine condition and the quality of its imported products, including racks of beef ribs visible in a window to his freezer.
He also has a front-row seat to how ordinary Canadians are finding it increasingly difficult to afford what he sells.
“Eighty percent use a credit card — credit card, not debit card,” said Wells, indicating people may not have the funds available to pay for purchases right away. “I was shocked.”
Consumer prices in August rose 4.1 percent over the same period a year earlier, according to Canadian government figures. That is the fastest pace since March 2003 and well above the Bank of Canada’s target inflation rate of 2 percent.
Canadians are feeling inflationary pressures at the pumps, where the price of petrol rose 32.5 percent in August over the past 12 months. A strong housing market continues to price homes further out of reach of first-time buyers, while contributing to soaring rents. The cost of food is also on the rise, with the price of meat in August increasing at the fastest pace since June last year.
Price pressures have been building across the world as businesses have shaken off COVID-19 restrictions and ramped up operations, triggering bottlenecks for raw materials and leading to higher shipping costs. The uptick in prices this year is also exaggerated when compared to 2020, when levels had been knocked hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Bank of Canada has highlighted these so-called “base effects” and said it believes that prices will eventually ease. And many Wall Street analysts are still positive about Canada’s overall economic outlook.
But the pain consumers are feeling now has handed plenty of ammunition to the Conservative Party that was neck and neck with Trudeau’s Liberal Party heading into Monday’s vote.
Kitchen table economics
Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs and one of Canada’s most seasoned pollsters, said the number one issue in the Canadian election remains the Trudeau administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But affordability – the cost of living – is a close second.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Bricker told Al Jazeera. “What’s dominating this campaign from an economics perspective is kitchen table economics. Things that affect people in their day-to-day lives.”
While the Conservative Party has billed itself as the one to trust on the economy, the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) is connecting with voters on cost-of-living questions at the expense of Trudeau’s Liberals, said Bricker.
That is one reason why the Liberals and the Conservatives are virtually tied, he explained.
“In 2015, the Liberals campaigned effectively on helping the middle class and those who want to join it,” said Bricker. “That’s now been taken away from it.”
He added that while Liberals still poll well with voters in terms of their capacity to manage the economy during a crisis, they are losing ground to the New Democrats, who are perceived by voters – especially younger ones – as more compassionate towards the struggles of ordinary Canadians.
“They’re the ones who can’t buy houses in cities. They’re paying off student loans, trying to start families, are dealing with all the cost-of-living issues that are associated with people’s early adulthood – those are the people who pulled away from the Liberals and are going to the NDP,” Bricker said.
Corinne Pohlmann, senior vice president of national affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), which represents small- and medium-sized companies, said the question of affordability is on the top of her members’ minds.
“I would say probably their number one election priority [is] to understand what the parties are planning to do to help get the economy back to where it once was,” Pohlmann told Al Jazeera.
While it’s difficult to accurately quantify exactly what the impact of the pandemic has been, says Pohlmann, the CFIB estimates that this year, one in six Canadian small businesses — some 181,000 establishments — are at serious risk of closing for good due to the coronavirus. That’s on top of the 58,000 businesses that called it quits in 2020.
“There certainly is still a lot of anxiety about what the future may hold for a lot of these small businesses still trying to recover from the last year in the pandemic,” Pohlmann said.
“Their costs are going up at the same time they’re trying to deal with the ability to bring in fewer customers because they still have restrictions on their business, or they’re trying to convince customers to come back to the business because some people are still a little nervous about that,” she said.
For North York resident Anthony Cedro, a robust economic recovery is what matters most.
“I have been a Liberal my entire life. I think I want change,” the 45-year-old told Al Jazeera as he took a break from mowing his lawn. “The Liberals’ platform has always been the same platform. I’m more Conservative. I wouldn’t vote NDP. I get their values, but it’s not sustainable.”
Fellow North York resident Hector Herrera Molina, 56, leans in the opposite direction. The Chilean immigrant has seen the cost of living increase significantly in the 25 years since he emigrated, but he’s always been gainfully employed — currently in construction — and that hasn’t changed during the pandemic. The economy appears stable, he said.
“I would never vote Conservative. I find them to be racist. They are too extreme,” Molina told Al Jazeera.
His university-aged sons are urging him to cast a vote for the NDP. Molina says he would consider it if he thought they had a chance of winning.
“I would rather [vote] a Liberal,” he said, “because they have greater reach.”