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ONTARIO: Meet the Northern Ont. woman running against Erin O'Toole as an independent

Manitoulin Island's Sarah Gabrielle Baron says she feels 'morally compelled' to stand against Conservative leader in Durham riding
Sarah Gabrielle Baron.

Manitoulin Island resident Sarah Gabrielle Baron on is taking on leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), Erin O’Toole, as an independent candidate in the riding of Durham, Ontario. Part of the reason she chose that riding was to use the platform to bring small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) into the election conversation. 

Ms. Baron is a vocal opponent of SMRs, and Durham is home to the Darlington nuclear generating station and next door to Pickering. Once she began knocking on doors and speaking to residents, her goals quickly changed. Her platform has a strong focus on climate change and social justice issues and she credits the resilience of Manitoulin communities in guiding her vision. 

Just days before the writ was dropped, Ms. Baron learned there were some anomalies reported in hydrogen levels in the cooling tubes in the Pickering and Bruce nuclear generating stations. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission did take it seriously but in her opinion, they didn’t take it seriously enough. “That was one of the main reasons I just got in my car and drove to Durham and started collecting signatures. Then I started hearing some of the things that Erin O’Toole was saying.”

Mr. O’Toole wants to abolish the CBC, refuses to denounce conversion therapy and “it’s like the climate crisis isn’t really happening for the Conservative Party of Canada,” Ms. Baron said. “On my first day of collecting signatures, Erin O’Toole said ‘raise the flag.’ Mr. O’Toole commented that he would re-raise Canadian flags on Sept. 30 as a sign of commitment to reconciliation. Flags have flown at half-mast at federal buildings, including the Peace Tower, since May 30 following the discovery of unmarked graves on former residential school grounds. That comment was “astounding and heartbreaking, callous and cruel,” she said. 

“I consider myself an ally to Indigenous nations,” she added. “My degree is in politics and Indigenous studies. My teaching degree was through the Aboriginal Teachers Education Program at Kenjgewin Teg. Half of my students or more have been Indigenous. I’ve learned from knowledge keepers like Alan Corbiere and other Anishnabek elders here on the Island. I’m shocked that none of our so-called leaders have the guts to use the word genocide. No one talks about the reality of intergenerational traumatic response.” 

Ms. Baron’s Indigenous platform is “Truth first, then Reconciliation.” We’re still in the truth stage and Canadian political leaders “clearly do not have a grasp of treaties,” she said. For Mr. O’Toole to speak the way he does and then to have to confront some “pretty serious racism” in that riding has made her proud to include this in her platform.

After knocking on more than 600 doors in the riding, she believes that one in five would be very conservative. “I think that Erin O’Toole is overconfident,” she said. The People’s Party of Canada candidate has a lot of signs on lawns (“those are guaranteed votes”) and there is a Rhino party candidate as well, evidence of a split right within the riding. 

“You don’t have a strong Liberal or Conservative presence down there, so I think three out of every five doors I knocked on were very receptive to me and my message,” Ms. Baron said. “They were receptive to someone running as an Independent. When I was giving the messaging on new nuclear, that was difficult as a lot of them are OPG (Ontario Power Generation) workers but they were willing to engage and some of them were shocked at some of the information I was giving them.”

“Facts like the SMR plan for Point Lepreau (in Saint John, NB) has already received (more than) $50 million. Nine non-proliferation experts who have served under six United States presidents have written to Justin Trudeau twice this year begging him not to go ahead with that design. It’s looking like Canada could potentially be ground zero for a nuclear weapons race. The whole idea of these SMRs is to market them around the world.” 

She pointed to UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) legislation in Canada. “The law in our country says for any land use project to go ahead we need free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous nations and the Anishnabek Nation in conjunction with the Iroquois caucus, way back in 2017, stated clearly that SMRs shall not go ahead on their traditional territories, so to even be talking about it is to break not only national but international law.”

“I’m very, very grateful for my Anishinaabek students,” said Ms. Baron. “I’m very, very grateful for the strong Anishinaabek culture, the strong Anishinaabek politics that have really informed my ability to address the type of rhetoric that’s coming from Erin O’Toole.”

Some of the rhetoric coming from the right in this election is frightening, she said. “For somebody who may be our future prime minister to say, raise the flag, at the beginning of an election, when at that time we were at 7,000 bodies found in unmarked graves, it worries me.”

It’s part of a far right faction that is raising its head again, she noted, and Erin O’Toole is “not going to keep his pro-life ethic and his party on the backbench. He will allow them to come forward on this issue. It will become open again in the next parliament. We need to be prepared for that.” 

Talking about the climate crisis has resonated with every single person that Ms. Baron has spoken with, including the conservatives. That’s why she decided to place the climate crisis platform first. “It really is the most important question facing Canadians, and in fact all human beings. It is not at the top of the agenda in this election and it really should be. Everything on my platform page evolves from looking at the different issues always through a climate crisis lens. Whether you’re talking about health or housing, any of these issues, if you look at them with a climate crisis lens then the types of solutions that we should be going for changes drastically.” 

Ms. Baron pledges to cut Canada’s carbon footprint by 60 per cent in eight and one half years, with every community developing their own appropriate projects and plans. “Clearly we do not have time to wait for leadership from the federal government,” she said. “Those ideas of resiliency are actually inspired by folks here on the Island.”

She mentions the group ‘Resilient Manitoulin’ as just one example. “That kind of community-based resiliency, that whole concept is inspired by what I see on Manitoulin Island. The number of farmers that took advantage of putting in solar when there were feed-in tariffs. They put in this wind farm here on the Island but didn’t have the foresight to put in breakers. We can still install that here on the wind farm, but a lot of that power is actually wasted in transmission. We can still install community-based storage solutions for that power.”

“Mark Jacobson (a renewable energy expert and senior fellow at Stanford University) has clearly costed out for 180 countries, including Canada, that with renewables and efficiencies and resiliency-based solutions, we can definitely reduce our carbon footprint in eight-and-one-half years. We can definitely do it. It’s just a matter of political will,” she said.

“I started out as a one issue woman,” said Ms. Baron. “It’s called a stunt candidate. After knocking on doors I just felt morally compelled to expand my platform into something that provided a more holistic and more realistic response to everything I see going on in politics today.”

- Lori Thompson, Manitoulin Expositor, Local Journalism Initiative. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the government of Canada.