On Vancouver Island, Canada’s potential kingmakers are locked in one of the country’s most interesting political battles.
The New Democrats hold all but two of the seven island ridings in B.C. The other two are held by the Greens, after a February byelection doubled the party’s seats in Parliament for the first time ever.
The Greens think they can make history again, and are aiming for another breakthrough in the island’s southern ridings, where environmental concerns have long been a priority for voters.
But the NDP is also facing pressure in the north, where the Conservatives think they can swing at least one of those seats back to blue. Voters in the north have had Tory MPs before, and the party is counting on remaining support to win there again.
Sensing the pressure, the NDP dispatched one of its biggest stars to tour the island and drum up support: Nathan Cullen, the outgoing MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley who held the riding for five straight terms.
Cullen admits the party is in a vulnerable position but is also bullish about its chances throughout the island.
“We have a bunch of MPs who have a really solid record to run on,” he said. “There’s a good track record of advocacy from Victoria right through to the north. They’re hardworking people who I’d love to see back in Parliament again.”
Cullen says the true battle the NDP is facing, particularly in the southern island ridings, is winning over progressive voters who may want to give the Greens a chance. In the north, meanwhile, he says there’s the risk of splitting that vote enough to allow the Conservatives to slip through.
All those potential pitfalls means the party isn’t taking anything for granted.
“It’s not like as they say in Alberta, you could run a hamster and it’ll win,” he said. “That’s not the case for a New Democrat pretty much anywhere.”
Greens eye a new pickup in Victoria
A particularly vulnerable riding the NDP needs to hold onto is Victoria, where two-term MP Murray Rankin has stepped aside to lead the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency.
Green candidate Racelle Kooy declared her candidacy in February — seven months before the federal election campaign officially began — and started knocking on doors in April.
The reason was simple: she’s confident she can win.
“From the very beginning, I have heard a lot of people deeply frustrated with the NDP, whether it’s provincially or federally,” she said. “There is a movement of people here very committed to long-term decision making and our Green values who want to see a member of Parliament go to Ottawa.”
Kooy says she’s seen her support grow organically in the B.C. capital, led by people who want the climate debate and other Green priorities like universal Pharmacare front and centre for the next four years.
She says she’s ready to push those issues to the forefront if she’s lucky enough to be elected.
“(Green Leader) Elizabeth May has been very clear that there is a whole other marathon to run after the campaign, and that is as a member of Parliament,” she said. “I’m ready for that hard work, and I think the voters in Victoria are ready for someone to take on that hard work.”
While the race in Victoria is seen as coming down to Green versus NDP, Liberal candidate Nikki Macdonald is hoping to break a long losing streak for the party.
The Liberals held Victoria for 13 years before the NDP took over in 2006. No island riding has swung red since 2011, when the Liberals lost the old riding of Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca — also to the NDP.
But Macdonald is confident her experience will set her apart from the rest of the pack and get her elected, despite deep disappointment and skepticism created by the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
“Voters understand how we need to make that transition from one sector to another,” she said, referring to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s promise to invest all earnings from the pipeline into clean energy initiatives.
“There are a lot of people here, as there are throughout the country, who know we need to make that investment somehow. That’s something I’m committed to, and it’s why I think I can win here.”
The NDP are putting their weight behind candidate and Victoria city councillor Laurel Collins, while the Conservatives have put forward Richard Caron. More information about the riding and its candidates can be found here.
NDP look to avoid Nanaimo-Ladysmith repeat
The NDP already knows what it’s like to lose to the Greens on the island.
Eight months ago, Paul Manly became the second-ever Green Party candidate to earn a seat in Parliament, winning a byelection that was forced after NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson stepped down for a successful provincial run.
NDP candidate Bob Chamberlin finished third in that race. He’s running again to prove Manly’s win was a fluke, what he calls a trial run for voters now ready to make the wise decision for the next four years.
“What I heard on the doorstep back in February was, ‘Let’s give Paul a chance, let’s give the Greens a chance.’ They wanted to send a message about the environment,” he said.
“What I’m hearing now is a lot of NDP voters who are saying, ‘Yes, I did a protest vote, I sent the message I wanted to send, and now I’m ready to vote NDP again.'”
Chamberlin says he and his team were able to mobilize themselves more effectively this time around, with more volunteers eager to motivate people to get out the vote.
“Lots of people didn’t vote last time around, because they knew they’d be right back here in eight months,” he said. “We’re feeling more of a wind in our sails and a lot more support.”
For his part, Chamberlin doesn’t feel the pressure the party may be facing on the island as a whole. He says he’s simply focused on his race and looking to finish what he started in February.
“We’re focusing on our platform, the experience of our candidate, and we’re not trying to throw rocks at people,” he said. “This is what we can do, and this is how we can do it. That’s it, it’s that simple.”
The race looks much the same as it did during the byelection. Manly is running for his first full term, facing off again against second-place finisher John Hirst for the Conservatives and Liberal Michelle Corfield, who finished fourth. More about the riding can be found here.
Conservatives swing for the north in Courtenay-Alberni
Hirst’s second-place finish in the middle of the island proved the Conservatives still have a solid support base that spreads to the north.
It’s why one of the few B.C. ridings leader Andrew Scheer has visited are Courtenay-Alberni, where he has campaigned with candidate Byron Horner, and North Island-Powell River.
Both ridings were created ahead of the 2015 election, and redistributed results from the 2011 campaign would have put a Conservative MP in both seats before the NDP took them over.
Horner says that base has been newly motivated to get out the vote this time around, arguing they’re feeling left behind by Ottawa.
“There’s been a real sense on the island that there’s an affordability crisis, that people are struggling, and they’re frustrated,” he said.
While the southern island is also concerned about affordability, Horner says the north also has economic concerns. Workers in the port, forestry and fishing industries make up a large part of the electorate there, he says, and they’re getting older.
“Courtenay-Alberni is actually the oldest riding by median age in B.C.,” he said. “People there are on a fixed income, they’re seniors, they’re more sensitive to health care issues and they’re sensitive to the feeling of wanting to feel that they’re part of a safe community.”
Horner says environmental concerns also play a role in his riding, but argues the Conservatives are still committed to tackling the problem — and will have more success than the NDP.
“I think the NDP has really lost their way,” he said, pointing to the number of MPs, including Cullen and Rankin, who are stepping down this year.
Horner is facing off against incumbent NDP candidate Gord Johns, Liberal Jonah Baden Gowans, and Sean Wood for the Greens. You can discover more about the riding here.
While the NDP may have felt on the ropes at the start of the campaign, the party has seen its fortunes rise as Election Day approaches.
University of the Fraser Valley political science professor Hamish Telford says leader Jagmeet Singh has been a large reason for that sea change, performing well on the trail and in the leaders’ debates.
“He might lose one or two here or there and pick up one or two somewhere else,” he said. “But I think he’s done a very good job of preserving NDP fortunes, and the outlook for their seats on the island is considerably better this weekend than it was at the start.”
Singh has seen his personal popularity and that of his party rise over the past week, closing the gap between the NDP and the still neck-and-neck Liberals and Conservatives.
Telford says there’s still a chance for a Green breakthrough in Victoria and a Conservative surge up north. But overall, he says the NDP have historically been more successful at mobilizing island voters in a way those other parties — as well as the Liberals — have struggled with.
“The NDP have no shame in twisting the arms of their supporters to get them out to vote, vote, vote,” Telford said. “On Election Day, that work will likely pay off well for them overall.”