While voters in the Comox Valley have sent a B.C. Liberal to Victoria in the past three provincial elections, the riding has never been a guarantee for the party.
On the central-east coast of Vancouver Island, it is made up of the cities of Cumberland, Courtenay and Comox, and Denman and Hornby Islands.
It has a thriving shellfish industry, a controversial coal mine project, and a fast-growing population of seniors.
Don McRae, the Liberal incumbent and education minister in the past government, won the riding in 2009, beating NDP candidate Leslie McNabb by about 1,400 votes. In both 2001 and 2005, Stan Hagan took the riding for the Liberals.
But Comox has a long history of supporting NDP candidates as well. Karen Sanford won in 1972, 1975, 1979 and 1983. Margaret Lord won in 1991, and Evelyn Gillespie in 1996.
Mr. McRae says he believes the big issues in Comox Valley are the same as those across the province: health care and the economy. He says the people he has talked to do not want taxes to increase, and are concerned about investments and jobs leaving the province.
NDP candidate Kassandra Dycke – a services co-ordinator at the Comox Military Family Resource Centre – says people want change, and are looking for fairness and accountability in government.
The Comox Valley is aging rapidly, though, and seniors are expected to make up 26.1 per cent of the population by 2031. With some having dubbed the region the boomer capital of Canada, the candidate who resonates most strongly with that demographic could come out on top.
“People are encouraged by the fact that we’re [the NDP] going to make sure there’s a seniors’ advocate in B.C., so that the care that seniors need is something we can get to work on in this province. … We have a lot of work to do to bring seniors’ care up to minimum standards in the province,” Ms. Dycke said, adding that the Liberals have had 12 years to bring in a seniors’ advocate and have not.
Mr. McRae also knows seniors’ care is a hot-button issue in the riding, saying he wants to see St. Joseph’s Hospital in Comox transition into a seniors’ care centre for the whole north island.
Another local issue: the Raven coal mine. The proposed underground project in the hills above Buckley Bay, 20 kilometres south of Courtenay, and a mere five kilometres inland from the province’s finest ocean shellfish waters, has garnered significant local opposition.
The mine is still in the pre-environmental assessment phase. A Vancouver-based company hopes it would yield 0.7 to 1.1 million tons of mostly steel-making, metallurgical coal per year destined for mills in Asia. The mine’s life span would be 16 years.
“People are not only talking about it, but they’ve been protesting it for months,” said Patricia Halliday, director of the Comox Town Residents’ Association. “Where the mine will be is upslope from a very good shellfish industry. We don’t want the possibility of toxicity running down the slope.”
Ms. Halliday said the proposed mine might be a wedge issue, and how each candidate communicates their plan to deal with it could be decisive.
Mr. McRae said he is not entirely opposed to the project and would wait and see the environmental assessment and the conditions placed on the plan.
“Bad projects don’t deserve to go forward,” he said. “But I want the company to have a chance to put forward its application and be judged on its merits.”
Ms. Dyckes said she would dissect the assessment, adding that the NDP “feels very strongly about the threat it poses to the shellfish industry.”
“We have to wait to see the proposal when it’s on the table, but this community has communicated to me very strongly that they want me to be vigilant,” she said.
Larry Jangula, mayor of Courtenay, said he does not think local issues like the mine will be the decisive factor on election day.
“I think the average person is concerned about, ‘How do I pay my bills, how do I get my kid through university.’ … I don’t really know if there’s going to be a wedge issue here,” he said. “I’m betting it’s going to come down to a couple hundred votes here. There’s no way it’s going to be a landslide victory for the NDP or the Liberals.”
Kassandra Dycke, B.C. NDP
Don McRae, B.C. Liberal (incumbent)
Chris Aikman, Green Party of B.C.
Diane Hoffman, B.C. Conservative
2009 election: Liberal Don McRae won the riding with 47.30 per cent of the vote; NDP candidate Leslie McNabb came in second with 42.61 per cent; Green candidate Hazel Lennox was third with 8.78 per cent.
Seniors, 65 and older, in private households: 18 per cent (B.C. average 14 per cent)
Average household income, before tax: $59,493 (B.C. average $67,675)
Source: Elections B.C. and B.C. Stats