In a very close race, former OPP Commissioner and Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino won Monday's by-election in the federal riding of Vaughan. Running for the Conservative Party of Canada, Fantino won with 49.1% of the vote, just under 1,000 votes clear of Liberal candidate Tony Genco. Remarkably, the Liberal and Conservative candidates combined for nearly 96% of total votes cast, with the NDP and Green Party both falling well below the 1,000 vote threshold. Almost as remarkable is the fact that voter turnout was 30% in a riding with a population of over 154,000.
Since announcing in mid-October that he would challenge for the seat vacated by Vaughan's new mayor and former Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua, Fantino had been conspicuously absent from various campaign activities, attended only one taped debate, and skipped out on any live debates, including an all-candidates debate days before the election. Fantino did, however, manage to gain the support of national hockey guru Don Cherry, and secure an appearance from Prime Minister Stephen Harper at his campaign launch, both important endorsements considering how close the election results were.
The presence of other big-name federal Conservatives, such as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, at Fantino's victory reception Monday night points to the perceived strategic importance of taking the riding of Vaughan, a Liberal stronghold for the past 22 years. The Conservatives have so far struggled to make major inroads in the GTA, and the city remains the largest and arguably most important Liberal stronghold in the country. While Fantino's election does not necessarily indicate that any more ridings will switch from red to blue in the next election, Liberal strategists may well worry that the momentum gained from leader Michael Ignatieff's cross-country bus tour has petered out.
In the weeks leading up to the by-election, there was much speculation over whether Fantino's election would catapault him straight into cabinet. The suggestion does not seem at all far-fetched, considering the federal government's continued focus on “tough on crime” policies. Fantino has made a career out of being a tough, authoritative, old-fashioned law enforcement figure, with little support for criminal rehabilitation programs and expressing his distaste for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on more than one occasion, most notably in his autobiography, Duty: The Life of a Cop. During his time as OPP Commissioner and Toronto Police Chief, Fantino was already expressing his support for mandatory minimum sentences, and has already reiterated that commitment in the few days since his election.
Fantino has not been a stranger to controversy during his law enforcement career, being the subject of corruption investigations on at least three occasions during his time as Chief of Police in Toronto, London and York Region. He has also been accused of illegally influencing elected officials in Caledonia, Ontario, allegedly sending e-mails to the town's mayor and city councillors advising them not to attend rallies that were part of the region's ongoing aboriginal occupation.
These episodes are of little consequence now however, with Fantino set to take his seat at Parliament Hill, a key contender for a cabinet post and bringing with him a perspective on law enforcement that fits into the current government's ideology like a glove. The voters of Vaughan (or at least, 15% of them) have made their choice, and Julian Fantino may well play a major role in Canadian policy in coming years.