Long before anyone knew there would be a byelection in Hamilton Centre, two of the candidates were already on opposite sides.
Sarah Jama, running for the Ontario NDP, was arrested and charged with assault in connection with her participation in a protest against an encampment clearing operation in Hamilton in November 2021.
At that time, Progressive Conservative candidate Peter Wiesner was a sergeant with the Hamilton Police Service involved in the dismantling of encampments.
Politicos of all party stripes told The Trillium affordability and income inequality are particularly acute issues in the riding that has both high rates of poverty and pockets of million-dollar homes, and encampments are a highly visible crisis point.
The Liberal candidate, Deirdre Pike, framed it this way: compassionate, wealthier Hamilton Centre voters “are just finding it abhorrent that they travelled downtown … to hit the farmers market and they see so many people having to suffer the elements in this community.”
The parties' choice of candidates in the byelection couldn't illustrate their stand on those issues more clearly.
Jama, along with the five other members of the Hamilton Encampment Support Network who were arrested, eventually had her charges withdrawn in exchange for peace bonds.
But first, her arrest sparked its own protest outside of police headquarters. She alleged police targeted her “because they found (her) annoying because (she) was taking pictures” and accused her of running over an officer’s foot with her wheelchair, which she claimed was impossible.
“I refuse to stop making sure that people are safe or fed or housed. And just because you charged all of us with assault, it doesn’t mean the work will stop,” she told a press conference at the time.
“The city should be spending its time dealing with the root cause: people don’t have a f---ing place to live.”
The PCs’ Wiesner has been the supervising sergeant of the Hamilton Police Service’s Crisis Response Branch since 2019. The specialized unit combines officers, paramedics, and mental health workers.
In 2021, the year Jama was arrested, the branch helped take down 61 encampments. Its Social Navigator Program, which is meant to connect people to social services and health care, conducted 1,411 visits to encampments.
Before becoming the supervising sergeant, Wiesner conducted that kind of outreach personally. That work included helping get people into detox and bringing them cups of coffee and groceries, according to a profile in the Hamilton Spectator.
In parallel, through her work as an activist and as the executive director of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, Jama was delivering food and personal protective equipment to the people in encampments, one prominent New Democrat told The Trillium.
Matthew Green, the NDP MP who represents the riding federally, said he found it “peculiar” that the Progressive Conservatives chose a police officer who dealt with the city’s encampments to run against Jama, considering her history.
“Who they’re running now is a clear indication of where they want to go in terms of trying to drive wedges into the community,” he said. “And most Hamiltonians see right through that, and they are really pissed off about how [Ford] has acted as a premier.”
Neither Wiesner’s campaign nor the Ontario PC Party responded to The Trillium’s questions for this story, and Jama’s campaign said she was not available for an interview.
Karl Baldauf, a vice president with McMillan Vantage who was a chief of staff in Doug Ford’s PC government, said the party demonstrated a lot of care in picking a candidate who’s demonstrated “a career-long commitment to supporting the people of Hamilton.”
“It's challenging in any election for people to look past party stripes,” he said. “But I think that the Conservatives should be very proud of the type of individual that they put on offer.”
Despite that, Baldauf said no one “has any illusions” that the riding “will do anything other than remain an NDP stronghold.”
And Jama wouldn’t be the first elected official to have been arrested in the course of activism, said Baldauf, pointing to the federal Liberal cabinet; Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault was arrested in his Greenpeace days for climbing the CN Tower to protest Canada’s role in climate change.
If the byelection is a test of the NDP's new leader, Marit Stiles, it is an easy one. “If she lost it, it would be a massive embarrassment of epic proportions,” said Baldauf.
Hamilton Centre has voted NDP at both the provincial and federal levels for almost two decades. It sent NDP-leader-turned-mayor Andrea Horwath to Queen’s Park for 17 years, even as Hamilton’s other ridings shifted among other parties.
Today, Green is the city’s lone NDP MP, and he is surrounded by Liberals. The provincial Progressive Conservatives made inroads in the city in 2022, getting Neil Lumsden elected in Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, thanks in part to the riding’s longtime NDP MPP splintering from the party and running as an independent. Flamborough-Glanbrook, the city’s rural and suburban outer shell, is Conservative at both levels.
But as Baldauf pointed out, when Ford’s PCs won one of the largest majorities in the province’s history in 2022, they only claimed about 16 per cent of the vote in Hamilton Centre.
Green, the MP, describes the riding as a “class stronghold” where the values of the unionized steel-working jobs of the ‘80s and ‘90s live on among non-unionized service-sector workers and white-collar gentrifiers moving in from Toronto.
“They're moving into a working-class city, and they're doing it to maintain working-class values.”
He believes those values will be the deciding issue of the election.
“It’s about how we treat the most vulnerable people that are marginalized in this economy and left out on the streets. Not just that, but also health care and education and everything else. It'll be a values discussion.”
That sentiment was echoed by the Liberal candidate in the riding — who is also involved in the city’s ongoing encampment debate.
Pike, who worked for the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton for 20 years, told The Trillium she was involved in founding the Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters (HATS). It has been advocating with the city, so far unsuccessfully, to build villages of small cabins for unhoused people as a safer alternative to encampments.
The democratic conversation she’s hearing is about how we are treating our neighbours, she said. “These are people that we are connected to. And certainly, calling the police to move people from a temporary solution they've found for themselves to nowhere, is not a solution.”
Pike sees the solution in the tiny shelters initiative and Kathleen Wynne-era provincial Liberal priorities such as the basic income pilot project and increasing the minimum wage; they’re middle grounds, she said, versus the extremes of the other parties.
She contested the riding in 2018, placing third behind Horwath and the PC candidate.
Finding that middle ground is a key to success for Pike and the revival of the Liberal party, according to political strategist Jesse Shea, who said the party needs to “reach across value lines” and “bring together a coalition of voters who understand that we can't be shutting the door or screaming over each other.”
“You need a candidate, and you need an MPP, that can bridge those gaps and not add fuel to the fire,” said Shea, a senior consultant with Enterprise who has worked on many Hamilton-area Liberal campaigns.
“With the direction that both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives put forward, that's all they're doing. It might be good for them to mobilize the base, but I don't think it's good for our democracy. And I don't think it's good for what the city needs, which is someone that can bring folks together.”
The tension between the NDP and the PCs over policing has been high before. In the 2018 election that brought the PCs to power, Ford launched an attack on the New Democrats as anti-police, slamming one candidate who’d carried a “F--- the police” sign in his youth and another who, as a Black woman, had used a racial slur against a Black police chief.
In the early years of his government, Ford’s go-to defence in question period — even in response to unrelated policy questions — was to attack the opposition as “radical” “extremists” who are “anti-police, anti-Christian, anti-military — anti-everything.”
The NDP, in kind, would typically accuse him of being in the pocket of wealthy donors and developers, a line of attack the party continues to take today.
Voting day in Hamilton Centre is March 16.