Saturday’s event in Vineland with MP Dean Allison drew a quiet, family crowd for burgers and balloons
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
There are two sorts of political barbecues. There are the “sedate affairs attended by partisans of the organization sponsoring the event,” as journalist Shawn Micallef describes them in his new book on Toronto. And then there are those like the Ford family’s “Fordfest,” which Micallef calls “reminiscent of the original Woodstock festival, where hippies abandoned their cars in the rural gridlock and walked to the festival,” big bombastic events with impromptu dance floors and cash bars.
Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff’s first barbecue, held last Saturday at Cherry Avenue Farms in Vineland, was of the sedate variety.
But the tranquility was part of the point, said MP Dean Allison, with whom Oosterhoff co-hosted the event. Allison would know—he held 13 summer barbecues with former MPP Tim Hudak over the years, and was enthusiastic about number 14, this time with a different partner.
“The great thing about this day is that you get all kinds of people out,” he said. “Some are here to voice their concerns,” producing a handful of letters from his back pocket as he spoke, “and some are just here to relax, say hello, have something to eat, and listen to the music.”
Allison emphasized how important it was to actually talk to constituents as a representative, and how much he enjoys that part of job.
One of the primary reasons Allison enjoys returning home is to hear from these different sorts of people—and different ridings, he said, have different concerns. For the first six years of his time in office, he flew to Ottawa, but has since made the drive every week. “When you fly, you really only go from airport to airport––you don’t see anything along the way,” he said, talking about the vast diversity in constituencies from here to the capital.
He makes use of that time in the car, listening to audiobooks or podcasts, or, most importantly, calling his mother. “My mom is happy when she gets those two calls a week,” Allison said.
Even in a riding such as Niagara West, which many might assume to be relatively homogenous, Allison insisted that there is substantial diversity in perspectives. He mentioned, specifically, the number of new residents in the area, many of them retirees from the GTA who have lived their entire lives and are only familiar with the way things operate in Toronto.
Allison spent most of his time standing on one side of the shaded lawn speaking to people, while Oosterhoff stood at the opposite end, shaking hands from the line that seemed to sprout two new members for every one he dispatched. Both spoke of how the joint nature of the day allowed for efficient lessons in governmental jurisdiction—i.e., directing constituents to the correct representative. An older man wryly asked Oosterhoff about “maybe getting a little more pension,” to which Oosterhoff returned a smile and pointed across the grass. “CPP! You’ll have to talk to Dean about that!” Allison sent plenty of people over Oosterhoff’s way, too, saying that many came to him with questions about hydro and health care.
Oosterhoff, dressed casually in rolled-up sleeves and jeans, echoed Allison’s passion for the event. Elected last November, he began work in the middle of a session, and has enjoyed being back among his constituents. The youngest MPP in Ontario’s history surprised many when he won the PC nomination last year, defeating party veteran Rick Dykstra before winning the by-election to fill Tim Hudak’s seat.
Oosterhoff credited the work of his team and his knuckles, saying that he is back to knocking on doors two nights a week and is not “the sort of politician who believes that he should be elected just because this is a conservative riding.”
His first nine months in office have not been without controversy. At the beginning, the Liberals asserted that his swearing-in was delayed so that he would miss a vote on same-sex parenting––a bill he appeared to have opposed during his nomination campaign. PC leader Patrick Brown insisted that the delay was merely to allow for the presence of Oosterhoff’s family and friends at the ceremony. (Half of the PC caucus skipped the same vote.) Criticism of Oosterhoff’s social conservatism has continued since then, but there was no mention of this on Saturday. Fervent opponents of politicians tend not to spend weekends crashing their barbecues, and Oosterhoff gamely listened to complaints about the governing Liberals, punctuating his replies with the points he’d been making all afternoon: hydro, taxes, school closures.
The attendees seemed to enjoy themselves. By the end, the popcorn machine was barren and the wiry man supervising the remaining burgers said he thought there’d been 450 people who’d gone through his line. (There were varying head counts. Some said 350. Closer to 200 signed the list at the entrance.)
At exactly 2 PM, the band stopped playing and started to pack up. The political staffs did the same with their tables. The farm had a wedding coming in at 2:30, and needed the whole place cleared as fast as possible.
The man dressed in orange directing traffic in the parking lot was busier than ever, beckoning wedding guests in with his leathered arms while waving the barbecues attendees out through the gaps. Traffic at Woodstock might not have been so congested had this guy been around.
Even as the lawn was nearly empty and the bouncy castle hung deflated and child-free, Allison was still surrounded by a small group, at least one of whom wielded a sheet of paper. Oosterhoff had around him a few people he knew.
“Did you see that balloon-maker earlier?” he said to them. “A woman had a caricature of me made––out of balloons! She said that she’s going to keep it forever!”
He pulled out his phone and showed them a photo.
“Are you going to post that?” one of them asked.
“Yep,” he said. “Just as soon as I’m done here.”