As voters go to the polls, the B.C. Conservatives trail far behind in public opinion surveys, last out of the province’s four major parties. But while Leader John Cummins concedes he likely will not be B.C.’s next premier, he does feel a thirst for change that cannot be satiated by the Liberals or the NDP. That, he says, is something his party can plant the seed for on election day.
“To be realistic, the polls show it’s a pretty tight race between the Liberals and the NDP,” he said. “But in my travels around the province, I’m more than aware that in areas such as the Okanagan, the Shuswap, Kamloops, the Fraser Valley, up in the Peace River Country and central, northern Vancouver Island, that we’ve got very strong candidates running and our numbers are quite good. My view is, we can win enough seats ... to deny both the Liberals and the NDP a majority in the legislature.”
While Liberal Leader Christy Clark and NDP Leader Adrian Dix campaign on change and moving forward, Mr. Cummins often talks about about the past.
“When I came here in 1967, the place was booming,” said the native of Georgetown, Ont. “There were dams and roads being built. There were a whole lot of things going on. You could make a living here – not just make a living, but do very well. There were high-paying jobs and they were plentiful. The place was popping. That’s not the case now.”
As an example, he says that his is the only party that would move forward with major pipeline projects.
Mr. Cummins had not intended to enter politics. As a young man, the son of a stay-at-home mother and paper-mill engineer, he seemed more driven by a desire to do the travelling his modest upbringing did not allow.
“We never had a car,” he said. “There were four of us, with one salary, so vacations were not something that we did. Until I was 16, I had only been 100 miles from home once or twice, for scout camp.”
His first big trip was to London, Ont., where he attended the University of Western Ontario and received a bachelor’s degree and teacher training. He worked odd jobs to fund his way out west, first at the oil patch in Alberta and then on the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in northern B.C. In between, he pumped gas in Jasper, Alta., and slung beer in Hudson’s Hope, B.C.
At the age of 27 in 1969, Mr. Cummins was in Duncan and running out of money.
“I was kind of looking around for a job, and this fellow I knew from the dam phoned me up and said his partner was looking for a deckhand,” Mr. Cummins said. “He said, ‘Can you make it over to Vancouver tonight?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”
He started working as a deckhand the next day. His new co-workers chided him for showing up in Hush Puppies and a cotton jacket. “I was the most ill-prepared guy going to sea ever,” Mr. Cummins recalled. “I hadn’t even been on a boat before. I had been on a canoe as a Boy Scout and that was the extent of my boating experience.”
That led to a fishing job, which he juggled with teaching reading and math in Delta. After about three years, he was told he needed an additional prerequisite to teach the reading course. It did not make sense to him, he says, but he signed up.
The pivotal moment in his life came just after midnight in the fall of 1987. Then 45, Mr. Cummins was on a break from working on his thesis when he spotted an advertisement in a local newspaper that spoke of the disconnect between western Canada and Ottawa. “It talked about this group that was going to have a meeting in Vancouver, and this is what they were going to talk about, and if you’re interested, send them $20,” he recalled. “The issues that they were talking about were concerns that I had about opportunities for western Canada, and British Columbia in particular. It turned out that that was the first meeting of the old Reform Party.”
He could not attend, but sent $20. He ran unsuccessfully as a Reform candidate in Delta in the next year’s federal election, and was elected in 1993. He was elected five more times – as an MP for the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance and the Conservatives – before moving to provincial politics in 2011.
His campaigning this time has been decidedly low-key, just him and his wife, Sue, driving around the province in his 2001 Ford Supercrew. No chartered flights or staff members spilling out of campaign buses emblazoned with his face.
“I don’t like this entourage thing, anyway,” he said.