Doorstep Postings: An election lesson from John Tory’s faith-based schools fumble in Ontario

Leadership Matters
John Tory’s campaign website circa 2007

It’s early September 2007. A long-awaited provincial election has just been called. A chill hangs in the air. 

The Ontario government had moved the final voting date to keep it from conflicting with Shemini Atzeret. A gracious gesture. Ironic, too, given what’s to come. 

I’m standing in a muddy field somewhere outside of Peterborough, about 100 km east of Toronto. That summer, I worked at the regional hospital there during the day and slept in a dorm at Trent University’s Catherine Parr Traill College. In between, I volunteered with the local Progressive Conservative campaign.

Strategically parked 18-wheelers displayed 10-foot tall photos of the candidate’s face. Going to community meetings where locals voiced concerns about funding for local Hwy. 115. And a candidate visit to the local “church-agogue”, where the local Jewish community shared prayer space with the Peterborough Unitarian Fellowship.

I don’t remember the exact hotel where the party unveiled its platform—probably the Grand Westin—but I do remember the Friday night tish in the hotel basement, where Tory and future Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak ate challah and drank schnapps with the party’s Jewish contingent, toasting to fair funding for public schools. 

Now, I wait with a small group of party faithful for John Tory to show up in his campaign vehicle and deliver a speech that goes on for quite a while and which nobody will remember. (Some things never change.)

Tory, and the campaign behind him, believes he is marking time until he becomes the next Premier of Ontario. Every poll has the party winning in a walk, and the Tories plan to spend the next few weeks mouthing platitudes about how Leadership Matters.

But when Tory shows up, nobody’s celebrating. Rumours about these strange “faith-based schools” have been floating down the 401. The issue isn’t playing well at the doors. Elders in baseball caps, well-worn boots and checked shirts with FARMERS FEED CITIES decals on their trucks mutter darkly about the last time the “Catholic school issue” derailed the party’s chances at re-election back in the 1980s.

I wasn’t about to inform them that it wasn’t a “Catholic school issue” this time around. And, truth be told, I don’t think they wanted to know. 


Fourteen years later, John Tory is mayor of Toronto, the Doug Ford Ontario PC government won’t touch faith-based schools with a socially-distanced-length pole—and Jewish journalists are searching hither and yon for a “Jewish angle” for the 2021 federal election.

But as my little mashal hopefully shows, publicizing a Jewish angle to the exclusion of all else during an election might not be such a good thing

Then, as now, campaigners and activists want to narrow their focus to a single issue and a set of talking points. Understandable. The trouble is that despite all efforts to control a campaign narrative—as Justin Trudeau is finding out with the developing situation in Afghanistan—things happen

Once they do, however, it becomes incumbent upon the campaign to ensure that the show goes on without the spectators noticing anything is amiss

And if a “Jewish angle” presents itself during this campaign—be it the reemergence of the debate over Jerusalem’s status as capital of Israel, or the burning of churches provoking a discussion of funding for synagogue security, or if online conspiracy theorists liken vaccine passports to stars worn by Jews in Germany… then it’s time to confront the issue head-on, and provide appropriate context—so that everyone understands why this is becoming an issue. 

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.