Mark Clairmont | MuskokaTODAY.com

BRACEBRIDGE You know your party’s in trouble when half the caucus wants to be leader.

But there’s hope for Ontario Liberals with a new MPP — once a Tory — a promising poll and half a dozen contenders running to erase the tarnished legacy of Kathleen Wynne.

Then there’s rebuilding a shattered party that is still six seats shy of the 12 needed for official party status. A third of its 124 ridings don’t even have constituency associations.

Parry Sound-Muskoka does, with a new president, but only 89 members.

Possibly a third of those were at the YIG in Bracebridge Monday night to size up five of the six seeking their votes in a March 7 runoff.

Local delegates to the Mississauga convention will be selected in the riding Feb. 6-7.

MPPs Michael Coteau and Mitzie Hunter were joined in the grocer’s community room by former provincial Liberal candidates Alvin Tedjo and Kate Graham who lost in the June 2018 Tory landslide, and by political newcomer Ottawa lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth.

Race frontrunner and former minister Steven Del Duca (Vaughan, elected 2012), who previously visited the riding in his leadership bid, was absent.

Interim party leader John Fraser is not running.

2018 Parry Sound-Muskoa Liberal candidate Brenda Rhodes, left, moderated a Q&A with party leadership candidates Michael Coteau, Brenda Hollingsworth, Mitzie Hunter, Kate Graham and Alvin Tedjo.

Coteau (Don Valley East, 2011) and Hunter (Scarborough-Guildwood, 2013) were also prominent members of the Wynne cabinet.

Longtime Liberals Tedjo (a political adviser and communications worker), Graham (a political studies teacher and writer) and Hollingsworth offered alternative voices to the established candidates with history.

Tedjo expanded on his controversial platform to end Catholic schools in Ontario, by merging the four public and separate systems into English and French boards.

He said that will save about $1.6 billion, which could be used to repeal education cuts, stop larger classes, prevent online courses and put an end to labour strife.

His plan drew no audible response from the audience.

He would also bring back the basic income pilot project Premier Doug Ford cancelled this spring that included nearby Lindsay.

Graham, who has a public servant background and lost her bid in London in 2018, said the party lost voters “left and right” in “a bit of an angry election.”

She acknowledges the good showing of local candidate and host Brenda Rhodes in the face of longstanding voter support for Conservative MPP Norm Miller.

“It’s hard to win in a riding like this,” Graham said, “when the deck is stacked against you” by your own party.

She said Liberal election strategies and policies were designed to go with ridings considered winnable. The party lost almost 50 seats, the largest defeat by a government in Canada; and its worst showing in its 163-year history.

Graham said those Liberals were not representative of all of Ontario.

She is calling for fundamental changes, including “local empowerment.”

Some 30 people turned out to hear lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth and the other four who are looking to permanently replace Kathleen Wynne March 7.

Hollingsworth, another outsider with harsh criticism for the way the party is doing business, calls for Ontario to be a dominant force in green technology and in the fight against climate change.

Health care and home care are also on her radar.

She called all-day kindergarten a “crowning achievement” of Liberal government.

And with Kitchener-Waterloo and Kanata “firing on all cylinders” she said there’s a promising future in the tech work world.

However, her rose-coloured job picture failed to resonate, drawing muted guffaws in a room full of caring, but jaded Muskokans in a depressed district where tech may well be a four-letter word.

Broadband is a black hole trapped in deep space, caught between a rock and hard place in Parry Sound-Muksoka, despite decades of repeated political promises of warp speed ahead.

Coteau, who is of Scottish and Grenadian roots, is a career politician who has split his 16-year career between school board and Queen’s Park. He found his way into the party at 16 and was a Young Liberals president early on.

He touts a changing world and says the party needs to know “what we are fighting for.”

It’s not fighting the Ford government, he stressed.

It’s planning for “the next 50 years,” said the former minister who straightened out Toronto’s PanAm Games and set up the Liberal autism file before the Ford government’s mismanagement of it.

Hunter, who could emerge as the electable face of the party in two months, says this is “my opportunity for change in the party.”

Liberals have to “be the party of all Ontarians,” said the Jamaican immigrant who arrived in Canada in 1975 with her family and grew up with a father who was in the trucking business.

She earned her BA at the University of Toronto and an MBA at the Rotman School of Management.

A former education minister, she told MuskokaTODAY beforehand that she would make peace with teachers, which she said she did during her brief 18-month tenure as minister. Prior to that she was an associate minister in finance responsible for the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. She finished as minister of advanced education and skills development.

An advocate of more affordable housing, she was from 2009-2011 CAO of the troubled Toronto Community Housing, which failed to invest in infrastructure.

She went on to be CEO of the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance a community action group, before winning a by-election in 2013. She was also v-p of Goodwill Industries Toronto.

She, too, wants to see party change would tax AirB&Bs.

Hunter wants the next leader to listen more to small towns and rural ridings, she said in a Q&A. She has committed to making sure decisions are made after being filtered through a rural lens.

It’s something she said she did in education, creating a rural schools consultation group that resulted in extra funding outside larger cities.

Coteau responded to a question about stabilizing municipal funding by saying that the existing formula is more than a century old and “doesn’t work.”

It needs a “rethink” and he would improve that relationship by also moving toward more ownership of local decision-making.

All the candidates were up to speed with the controversial Bala Falls power project and they seem to have some sympathy for opponents like Jeff Mole, who they have spoken to at length and who was on hand to keep the conversation going. But nothing definitively developed in public.

See video clips below of candidates Mitzie Hunter and Michael Coteau during Q&A with public.

Mitzie Hunter chats with local Liberal Claudette Wheeler before Monday’s meeting at the Bracebridge YIG community room.