A screenshot of Ottawa Mayoral candidate Mark Sutcliffe.
Ottawa Mayoral candidate Mark Sutcliffe. Credit: Mark Sutcliffe campaign video

The election campaign for a new mayor of Ottawa has exposed deep divisions in the federal Liberal party. 

This local election has taken on national significance. The vote takes place on Monday against the background of public hearings into this past winter’s convoy occupation. 

The two frontrunning mayoral candidates, Catherine McKenney and Mark Sutcliffe, have been busy collecting high profile endorsements.

Sutcliffe, a businessman and journalist, has never held political office, but has the support of plenty of current and former officeholders. 

Prominent among those are a number of Conservatives, including Lisa McLeod, who was a senior cabinet minister in Doug Ford’s first government, and has been a Conservative member of the Ontario legislature since 2006.

McLeod once worked for Pierre Poilievre, but the federal Conservative leader has not publicly endorsed Sutcliffe. 

McLeod’s first mentor, John Baird, a former senior minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, has endorsed Sutcliffe. And so have a number of Conservative lobbyists and Conservative-friendly local politicians. 

But a number of Ottawa Liberals, especially those associated with the locally powerful family of former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, have also lined up behind Sutcliffe. 

Among those are: the former premier’s brother, Ottawa South federal MP David McGuinty; Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi, who used to be in Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet; the MP for Orleans, Marie-France Lalonde; and the recently elected MP for Kanata-Carleton, Jenna Sudds, a former Ottawa city councillor who was a protégé of outgoing mayor Jim Watson.

Sutcliffe trots out these endorsements to counter the accusation that his lack of experience in elected office disqualifies him for the city’s top job. 

Catherine McKenney, who has represented the downtown Ottawa ward of Somerset for eight years on city council, has not attracted any significant support from Conservatives. 

On the other hand, McKenney has lots of endorsements from local New Democrats, among them Joel Harden and Chandra Pasma, Ottawa’s two NDP members of the Ontario legislature.

But McKenney can also boast some pretty heavy-hitting Liberal support. 

Justin Trudeau’s former environment minister, Catherine McKenna, who quit politics because she got sick and tired of the harassment she faced as a woman, made a strong statement in favour of her near namesake.

Former governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, Mark Carney, also came out enthusiastically in support of McKenney. 

Both gave high marks to McKenney for the candidate’s environmental promises, which include a major investment in safe cycling infrastructure, and for an ambitious vision for the city. 

Vision is something McKenney’s main rival lacks, or, at least, that’s what many who might otherwise support him say.

One put it this way, in an email to this writer:

“Mark is not a reformer. He will fuss on the fringes, perhaps fix the roof and replace the windows, but he won’t build an addition, let alone a new house. In this campaign, Mark has been brittle, guarded, and unimaginative. He has scarcely offered a new idea. His consuming worry is higher taxes. In a somnolent city which badly needs shaking, he will offer us more mediocrity.”

In addition to the star power of Carney and McKenna, McKenney has earned the support of Senator Peter Boehm, a former Canadian ambassador to Germany and high-ranking foreign affairs official. 

Boehm is one of the many non-partisan senators the current prime minister has appointed. He is not officially a Liberal, but he is close to the Trudeau government. 

Closer yet to the prime minister’s inner circle is Gerald Butts, long time Trudeau friend and former principal secretary to the prime minister. He has joined his voice to those of left-leaning, environmentally-focused Liberals who favour McKenney over Sutcliffe.

And if Gerald Butts supports McKenney we can be pretty sure who has the prime minister’s favour. Justin Trudeau is a resident of Ottawa and has a vote in this election.

A deeply conservative vs a progressive vision

The Ottawa mayoral race has exposed the divisions we have seen over many decades between the notionally progressive and the business Liberals. 

Mark Sutcliffe has a history of advocating small-c conservative ideas. During the campaign, articles he wrote in the past decrying job security and pensions of public servants and praising privatizations have surfaced.

More controversially, there is a piece Sutcliffe penned for the Ottawa Citizen in 2006, in which he proposed the city cease to fund a slew of important cultural festivals. Among those he targeted are the jazz and chamber music festivals, the Franco-Ontarian festival, the Tulip Festival, and Gay Pride. 

Some of the festivals’ organizers have written Sutcliffe to ask if he still holds those views.

More than any Ottawa mayoral candidate in recent memory Sutcliffe has openly made himself the champion of suburban and ex-urban taxpayers and car commuters. 

Sutcliffe uses the word “downtown” almost as an epithet. 

When, during a televised debate, McKenney made the fairly non-controversial statement that folks who lived in outlying areas of the city and those who live in the centre have similar concerns and similar interests, Sutcliffe jumped on McKenney.

The businessman candidate described McKenney’s anodyne statement as the most “downtown” thing anyone said during this campaign. 

Sutcliffe reported that suburban and rural Ottawa residents have told him they feel ignored by the “downtown councillors”. 

What the supposedly non-politician candidate failed to recognize is that during current mayor Jim Watson’s administration those centre-of-Ottawa councillors were excluded from almost all key decision-making bodies. Watson ran the city with the support of a group of councillors loyal to him, all of them from the suburbs or rural areas of Ottawa.

Lansdowne as opposed to cycling infrastructure

The federal Liberals who back Sutcliffe don’t seem to mind that they back an unabashedly conservative, pro-big-business program for the city. 

A case in point – Sutcliffe supports the current mayor’s plan for the city to borrow $275.5 million, to be paid back over 40 years, to complete a redevelopment project on the site of the city-owned sports facility, Lansdowne Park.

Phase One of the Lansdowne re-development project, which consists of out-of-scale condo apartment buildings and mall-style chain stores, has not been a roaring success. The public has tended to stay away in droves. Phase Two promises to be more of the same.

McKenney opposed additional city borrowing for the Lansdowne white elephant when it came up at council this past spring. The project, many critics point out, is typical of public-private collaborations where the public assumes all the risks and the private interests reap all the profit.

McKenney proposes it would be far more useful for the city to float a $250 million green bond to permit it to implement in four years its current 25-year plan to build safe cycling infrastructure throughout the city. 

The downtown councillor points out that the annual cost of the cycling plan, $15 million, would be the same as the money the city allocates annually for cycling enhancements. 

The benefit of accelerating the spending would be safer streets and roads, in all parts of the city, in the near future, not a generation away.

McKenney would spend additional funds on public transit to make the service more reliable.

As for housing, McKenney wants to see an end to a strategy that encourages either high rises or single-family homes, and allows for an already sprawling city to continue to expand its footprint. 

The Somerset ward councillor wants the city to foster more housing of the sort one sees in Montreal or in successful European cities – the low-rise, missing middle of row houses, duplexes and triplexes.

Sutcliffe scoffs at the cycling plan, saying it’s a downtown plan nobody in the suburbs wants, and he does not propose any extra funding for public transit.

His only tangible transportation proposal is to spend $25 million per year repairing roads. 

On housing, Sutcliffe supports the current policy of encouraging massive high-rise apartment buildings at transit hubs while maintaining the restrictive zoning that assures exclusively single-family homes in much of the city. 

It is not hard to see why a federal government that has emphasized policies to combat climate change and, with the prodding of the NDP, foster greater social solidarity, would feel more comfortable with McKenney than Sutcliffe.

What is puzzling is why so many of the current Liberal government’s members are happy to throw in their lot with the candidate whose plans are nothing if not conservative. 

Ottawa votes on Monday, October 24.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...