Ground zero in the Conservative plan to regain seats in Atlantic Canada starts here, in the agricultural fairs, Legion Hall breakfasts and rolling farmland of Southern New Brunswick.
Fundy Royal, a rural riding larger than Prince Edward Island that stretches from the Bay of Fundy to the province’s wooded interior, votes so consistently Conservative that only two Liberals have won here since the First World War.
It’s marked by small towns such as Sussex, where stores are expected to remain closed on Sunday, church parking lots are full and thousands descend every August for the annual outdoor flea market.
When Alaina Lockhart beat the odds in 2015 and won Fundy Royal as a Liberal, she made history as its first female MP – albeit by a narrow margin of 3.9 percentage points over Harper-era cabinet minister Rob Moore. She was part of a Liberal sweep that rolled across the four Atlantic provinces, taking all 32 seats.
This time around, few in the East are expecting the Liberals will have that kind of success on Oct. 21. Ridings across Atlantic Canada are seen as key battlegrounds by the four major parties, with their leaders all spending time here recently to shore up support.
Back in New Brunswick, where the Tories and Liberals are in a dead heat in provincial polls, Ms. Lockhart knows she’s in for a fight in a riding that has lost valuable mining jobs and continued to watch its young people leave for opportunities elsewhere. She’s also competing with the growing Green Party, which is after the same left-leaning votes in the wake of the NDP’s collapse in the province. “I knew the numbers and the history of the riding when I decided to run here in 2015,” Ms. Lockhart said. “Yes, there’s been a consistent conservative vote here, but there’s a progressive vote, too.”
Conservatives are hoping several of their closest races in 2015 will swing back in their favour, and have been campaigning hard to reclaim what they see as their rightful turf in the battle for Atlantic Canada. Their eastern heartland is built upon an aging, mostly white population, few immigrants and an electorate who came to the polls in droves last time around.
“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” said John Williamson, the former Conservative MP who lost New Brunswick Southwest to Liberal Karen Ludwig by just more than 2,000 votes in the past election. ”We were close in 2015, but not enough to put it over the top. This time, we feel we’re in a very good position to capitalize on the changed sentiment. There’s a sense Ottawa is disconnected from the everyday concerns of people throughout Southern New Brunswick.”
That includes frustration over the cancelled Energy East pipeline, which many felt would have brought new jobs and investment to the greater Saint John region, and the belief that life is becoming unaffordable for seniors and working people, Mr. Williamson said. While Southern New Brunswick is faring better than the rest of the province, with an unemployment rate hovering around 6 per cent, the economy is a constant focus. Drawing immigrants remains a struggle, and many parents have watched their adult children leave for jobs in other provinces.
“Every election in Atlantic Canada, when you cut through it, it’s about jobs. Other issues come and go, but fundamentally, they want a competitive economy that draws newcomers and keeps people here,” Mr. Williamson said.
In Sussex, the work situation is more challenging, with a jobless rate closer to 10 per cent. People are still feeling the pinch from the closing of the local potash mine, which threw 430 out of work in 2016. There’s a general sense that Ottawa hasn’t done enough to ease some of the employment challenges in the region.
“Last time, [Justin] Trudeau promised to help out the working poor and the middle class. Well, I’ve yet to see that,” said Candise Weston, a 52-year-old Tim Hortons employee, sitting in a lawn chair and watching cars go by outside her apartment on the town’s sleepy main street.
“I know a lot of young people who have left to go to the West. There’s nothing here for them.”
Others in Sussex are frustrated by the empty storefronts and what they see as a lack of government willingness to save local jobs. They look at federal intervention for Quebec companies such as Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin and get angry.
“I’d like to see those mines get going again. But when they shut down, there was never the conversation of ‘What can we do?’ at the political level,” said Tom Dean, a 48-year-old construction-trailer salesman, standing in the empty parking lot of a shuttered Canadian Tire store. “If things don’t change, I’m worried Sussex, and our entire province, is on a funnel to becoming a retirement community.”
Ms. Lockhart and the Liberals are hoping they can capitalize on the recent chaos around the NDP’s sputtering campaign in the province. They’re openly courting disenfranchised progressive voters, after the New Democrats fell to just 5 per cent of the popular vote in the past provincial election. The Greens, who have a strong provincial organization that put three MLAs in the legislature, are hoping to pick up those same voters.
Across the Northumberland Strait in Prince Edward Island, support for the federal Green Party has been steadily rising. In this spring’s provincial election, the Greens took more than 30 per cent of the popular vote, enough to form the Official Opposition.
“There’s a strong Green presence in PEI and it could certainly be a factor in Charlottetown and surrounding areas,” said Stephen Moore, vice-president of Halifax-based polling company MQO Research.
Mr. Moore’s polling data suggest the Liberals still have solid support in Nova Scotia, particularly in the urban areas around Halifax.
The Tories, meanwhile, have closed the gap in rural ridings, he said. “That rural-urban divide is really pronounced in Nova Scotia and could be a really important dynamic in this election.”
The Tories also see opportunity in a few key ridings in Nova Scotia where long-time Liberals have stepped down. That includes Cape Breton-Canso, where six-term MP Rodger Cuzner has retired, and Kings-Hants, where Scott Brison had been unbeatable for more than two decades regardless of which party he was running for.
“This wasn’t a Liberal or a Conservative riding, this was a Scott Brison riding,” said Erin Crandall, a political scientist at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. “Brison created a vacuum here, and all the major parties have been very active as a result, campaigning long before the writ was dropped.”
In Newfoundland and Labrador, where the Trudeau government has discussed a plan to ease rising hydro bills from the controversial Muskrat Falls project, the Liberals still lead in the polls. If the Conservatives have a base of support in the province, it’s in the urban areas around St. John’s, where the oil and gas industry is a big employer – a twist on the conventional wisdom that the Grits usually fare better in cities.
“Things are always a little different in Newfoundland,” said Russell Wangersky, an author and columnist with the St. John’s Telegram newspaper. “The Liberals still enjoy a lot of support, but I wouldn’t expect them to do what they did last time. I wouldn’t actually be surprised to see the NDP take a seat here.”
The NDP’s best shot in Atlantic Canada may well be Jack Harris, the former St. John’s East MP who many observers think is established enough to rise above his party’s recent troubles in the region. A popular figure in Newfoundland politics since the late 1980s, he lost to Liberal Nick Whalen in 2015 by just 624 votes.
Mr. Wangersky doesn’t think the outcome of the recent provincial election will have much impact on Newfoundland voters in the federal election, since the Dwight Ball Liberals were returned to power as a minority government just a few months ago. There’s not the pent-up frustration that voters will sometimes vent at other levels of government, he said. “There’s not a Doug Ford effect here,” he said.
For the Conservatives, the biggest potential gains appear to remain in New Brunswick, especially in the south. In Saint John, Liberal MP Wayne Long has been campaigning on his record of standing up to his own party in an effort to capitalize on anti-Trudeau sentiment. Among his challengers is a former Tory MP and provincial cabinet minister in Rodney Weston.
“Particularly in Southern New Brunswick, they’re all going to be tough fights,” said J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus. “It’s almost like New Brunswick has become a bit of a microcosm of how the country has kind of waned on Trudeau.”
The carbon-tax issue doesn’t appear to be motivating voters here as much as it is in other provinces, he said. One of the largest employers in Southern New Brunswick is the Irving group of companies, and its paper mills, oil refining and shipping operations bring much-needed jobs. Aggressive environmental targets, such as those proposed by the Liberals, may be a tougher sell, he said.
“It’s front and centre in this part of the province, that natural-resource extraction is a driver of the economy,” he said.