The Ontario Party has its sights set on southwestern Ontario ridings in the June 2 election, but just what impact the party founded in 2018 will have on the vote count has yet to be seen.
Four years ago, the party ran candidates in five ridings but won zero seats. This time around, it plans to run a full slate, leader Derek Sloan said.
The party is positioning itself to the right of mainstream conservative politics, but Sloan, a former MP who was kicked out of the federal Tory caucus last year, denies it's a fringe group.
"When it comes to teaching, we want to educate them, not indoctrinate them. When it comes to personal medical choices, we want to leave that up to people. And when it comes to budgets and things like that, we want to balance them," Sloan told the CBC.
"We're not a party that traffics in the extreme ... we have all different skin tones, you know, men, women, old people, young people that are running for us."
On Sunday, Sloan appeared at the WFCU Centre in Windsor with three candidates in local ridings:
Frank Causurano for Essex.
Jeremy Palko for Windsor West.
Rick Nicholls, the incumbent candidate for Chatham Kent—Leamington.
Nicholls, the party's only incumbent MPP, was ejected from the Progressive Conservative caucus last year for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Sloan said he believes there is a lot of local support, especially in rural ridings like Essex and Chatham-Kent—Leamington.
"In some of the Windsor proper ridings, that's a more challenging riding where there is longstanding support for other parties, but you never know how an election may turn out."
In Essex, there is no incumbent candidate, but it's been represented by the NDP since 2011. Taras Natyshak announced last year he would not seek re-election after more than a decade in office.
How will they do?
While the party packed a gymnasium at the WFCU Centre on a Sunday, Éric Grenier, a polls analyst for thewrit.ca who's behind the CBC News Poll Tracker, said the impact the Ontario Party and other newcomers such as the New Blue Party will have on the provincial election will likely echo how Maxime Bernier and The People's Party of Canada fared in the last federal election.
"People's Party got about five per cent of the vote, so there was an appetite for this kind of rhetoric in Canada," Grenier said. "Whether it's a growing appeal, that's hard to say."
Grenier said large crowds came out for Bernier, but the party didn't come close to winning a seat.
"It's one thing to have a very engaged and vocal support base, but if i's base is not very big, its impact is relatively small."
The last federal election, in October, could serve as a guide to what might happen in Windsor-Essex, said Grenier.
"In the Windsor-Essex area, the PPC did quite well, getting around 10 per cent in all of the ridings including in the urban riding and the more rural one. It does indicate it could be one place where the Ontario Party could have some success," Grenier said, adding not all the votes would necessarily come from PC backers.
There will always be a certain portion of the electorate that is mobilized by these types of issues. - Emmanuelle Richez
"We did see during the last election federally that a lot of the PPC vote, while some of it did come from the federal Conservatives, there was a chunk that came from the Greens and a chunk that came from non-voters."
According to Grenier, it's apparent that parties like the Ontario Party (which touts itself as the "only true Conservative Party left in Ontario") are trying to follow the U.S. Republican Party's lead.
The party recently hired Roger Stone, an American conservative political consultant, as an adviser.
Sloan, who was an adviser to former U.S. president Donald Trump, was convicted of obstruction, making false statements, and witness tampering related to his role in the 2016 U.S. election. He was eventually pardoned by Trump, who was president at the time.
Emmanuelle Richez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor, doesn't believe the Ontario Party will make much headway, as it and other such parties are likely to split the conservative vote.
"These parties don't have a true party infrastructure in place," she said. "Their leaders are not well known. It's going to be very hard for them to recruit candidates in every riding to get enough donations to run a political campaign."
She doesn't believe hanging on to issues such as pandemic mandates will resonate with a large portion of the population, and said voters in Ontario tend to be closer to the centre politically, where the other parties are positioning themselves.
"There will always be a certain portion of the electorate that is mobilized by these types of issues," Richez said.
'I want total change'
At Sunday's WFCU rally, the word "freedom" was given special emphasis during the singing of the national anthem, reminiscent of shouts and chants made at Freedom Convoy protests and more recently at the Rolling Thunder rally in Ottawa.
"I want total change and the only way we can get change is by getting a new party ... kids' schooling, lockdowns, all that kind of stuff. I'm against everything are doing right now, " said attendee Art Jacques.
"I don't believe in mandates," said another attendee, Laurie Stowe. "If someone wants to get a vaccine, I don't care what vaccine — more power to you. Next person doesn't want to get it, more power to them."
'A time of tyranny'
Windsor criminal lawyer Patrick Ducharme said he was asked to attend Sunday's event by Causurano. In his comments to the crowd, Ducharme spoke about his opposition to pandemic mandates, saying now's a time of "tyranny" that he compared to fascist regimes of Hitler and Stalin.
He added: "Now I might have gone a little far with that comment," to which some in the crowd piped up to disagree.
Palko raised concerns about the education system, saying it is "trying to ram young minds full of socialist swill" — listing issues like criitical race theory and "gender confusion" — and suggested a party platform plan of offering vouchers that would allow parents to choose how to educate their children, in charter, private or public schools.
"Public school has an agenda of their own and parents often times don't align with it," said Palko.
"What is present in our school is ... indoctrination instead of education."
Who's running in Windsor-Essex
Here's a rundown of the candidates running in the region (in alphabetical order by last name):
Lisa Gretzky (incumbent), NDP.
Josh Griffin, New Blue Party.
John Leontowicz, Progressive Conservative.
Linda McCurdy, Liberal.
Jeremy Palko, Ontario Party.
Craig Cameron, New Blue Party.
Andrew Dowie, Progressive Conservative.
Gemma Grey-Hall, NDP.
Gary Kaschak, Liberal.
Manpreet Brar, Liberal.
Frank Causarano, Ontario Party.
Anthony Leardi, Progressive Conservative.
Ron LeClair, NDP.
Kevin Linfield, None of the Above Party.
Danielle Sylvester, New Blue Party.