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Conservative takes lead from Liberals in Toronto byelection as slow results near end

TORONTO — An urban Toronto riding that has been a Liberal-safe seat for three decades appears to be on the verge of falling to the Tories in an upset win for Pierre Poilievre and his Conservatives.
Liberal Party candidate Leslie Church greets supporters as the count continues for the Toronto-St.Paul's Federal Byelection, at an election night event in Toronto, on Monday, June 24, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — An urban Toronto riding that has been a Liberal-safe seat for three decades appears to be on the verge of falling to the Tories in an upset win for Pierre Poilievre and his Conservatives.

If Don Stewart hangs on to win, it will be a major blow to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been under pressure to resign as his party falters in the polls.

Stewart, a financial executive running in his first election, trailed Liberal Leslie Church for hours as poll workers moved at a glacial pace to count ballots that were stacked with independent candidates thanks to a protest group trying to make a point about the first-past-the-post system.

But when the fourth last of 192 polls reported just before 4 a.m., Stewart jumped into a lead of nearly 500 votes.

Both Stewart and Church closed up their campaign parties hours earlier when it became clear the vote count wasn't going to be done any time soon.

Early in the evening longtime Conservative organizer and informal Poilievre adviser Jenni Byrne wrote off her party's chances in an interview with the CBC. When Stewart visited his campaign office around 11:30 p.m., he was trying to be upbeat but wasn't quite succeeding as the polls were not going his way.

"Let's not give it up," he said before reciting Leader Pierre Poilievre's alphabet soup slogan.

"Axe the tax, build the homes, fix the budget, stop the crime," he said, drawing big cheers. "Let's bring it home!"

Church took to the stage at her campaign office an hour after Stewart, and was more buoyant but not ready to celebrate.

"We are feeling great about the result," Church said at her campaign party around 12:30 a.m. to the delight of her supporters who chanted her name and shouted, "Call the race."

But she did not.

"We're not quite there yet," she said.

While her Liberal colleagues lauded her as a great candidate with deep political experience as a chief of staff to multiple cabinet ministers including finance and heritage, the campaign brought challenges.

That included a cranky electorate that had lost patience with Trudeau as inflation soared, housing became unaffordable and hate crimes rose amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Toronto-St. Paul's, in the city's midtown area, includes some of Toronto's wealthiest addresses as well as an above-average number of renters, and one of the largest concentrations of Jewish voters in the country.

Carolyn Bennett, the former Liberal cabinet minister whose resignation in January triggered this byelection, won the seat nine times for the Liberals, and all but once by more than 20 percentage points.

The Conservatives haven't won a single seat in Toronto proper since 2011.

The seat was considered a must-win for Trudeau and a loss is a massive blow that could be the final verdict before he steps down after 11 years as Liberal leader. The Liberals threw everything they had at the riding, with more than a dozen cabinet ministers knocking on doors for Church.

But the Liberals' poor showing will not be the only talked about political story around parliamentary water coolers on Tuesday.

The other big talker is the ballot protest by a group trying to draw attention to the weaknesses of a first-past-the-post voting system, which stymied poll workers who had to open thousands of ballots containing 84 names that were each nearly a metre long and individually folded up like an old-school map.

With the logistics of counting every ballot by hand, the results trickled in slower than a sloth on his way to Sunday dinner.

Elections Canada warned before the polls closed that things were going to move slowly and they were not kidding.

The protest group Longest Ballot Committee stacked the ballot with more than 75 independents, almost half of whom ran a year ago in a Winnipeg riding to make the same protest.

While the final votes were cast at 8:30 p.m., not a single result was reported for more than an hour.

Elections Canada spokesman Matthew McKenna said things were just progressing very slowly and was not aware of any issues with the ballots other than their unusual length.

The glacial pace of counting outlasted the Stanley Cup final hockey game by hours.

It outlasted the CBC, whose live stream with host David Cochrane ran a heroic four hours long without commercial breaks. But finally, they too threw in the towel when it appeared it would be hours more before a winner could be declared.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2024.

-By Mia Rabson in Ottawa and Sheila Reid in Toronto.

The Canadian Press