Pierre Poilievre aims to turn B.C. coast blue at NDP’s expense

Pierre Poilievre aims to turn B.C. coast blue at NDP’s expense
Facebook / Pierre Poilievre
Federal Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre handing out doughnuts to a trucker during the "freedom convoy" that blockaded Ottawa in 2022.

Long before the next election, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre is setting his sights on winning seats on Vancouver Island, despite the NDP’s domination over the past decade.

The NDP holds six of the region’s seven ridings, with the exception of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s Saanich-Gulf Island riding.

Poilievre paid his first visit to Vancouver Island weeks before assuming the Conservative mantle in September 2022 and since then, has visited more often than any other federal leader.

In 2023, Poilievre conducted three separate tours of island communities, aiming to turn Vancouver Island and coastal ridings north of the Lower Mainland blue again after the Conservatives’ command of western B.C. began to falter two decades ago.

Poilievre has spent most of his time outside Victoria’s urban core, conducting rallies and visits in predominantly NDP-held rural ridings featuring smaller cities or towns like Nanaimo, Duncan, Port Alberni and Campbell River.

“These are the ridings you want to watch. Where the city meets the country, but also where the urban economy means the resource economy,” said Stewart Prest, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia.

“Those are the real dividing lines, but the more resource-dependent a given riding is, the more likely it is going to be susceptible to Conservative messaging.”

The island has the lowest workforce participation rates and oldest demographics in the province due to increasing numbers of retirees.

Most communities on the island have experienced healthy population growth coupled with skyrocketing housing costs during the pandemic. Duncan and Campbell River saw housing benchmarks soar by an average of 30 per cent and 26 per cent annually between 2020 and 2022. Yet, income levels on Vancouver Island lag behind the rest of the province, growing 16 per cent from 2015 to 2020 compared to 24 per cent across B.C. during the same period.

Construction, trades, tourism, service, health and education jobs are eclipsing struggling traditional resource sectors like fishing, forestry and agriculture, which have suffered dramatic drops. However, the struggling resource sector still represents 20 per cent of jobs in North Island communities and 13 per cent in the Campbell River region.

Poilievre is adeptly capitalizing on voters’ frustrations with affordability and inflation, street disorder related to homelessness and the toxic drug crisis, and the cycle of public disaffection for a Liberal government in power for a decade, Prest said.

The federal leader is also taking his cue from successful populist Conservative leaders, like Doug Ford in Ontario, who appeal to working-class voters with lower incomes, he said. Even members of declining private sector unions, who are increasingly less likely to vote for left-of-centre parties, are being courted, Prest added.

Poilievre’s key message is the carbon tax is making life unaffordable for working families. But his other go-to topics include inflation, housing, getting tough on crime, doing away with safe supply in favour of treatment to deal with the toxic drug crisis, gun rights and support for the fossil fuel industry, particularly the LNG industry in B.C.

Poilievre aims to woo far-right, populist, libertarian voters back to the Conservative tent and away from Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, which gained five per cent of the votes last election in the island ridings that he’s targeting. Vancouver Island visits see the Conservative leader criticizing “wokeness,” government control, COVID-19 vaccine mandates and nods to conspiracy theorists worried about global control by the World Economic Forum.

Following Bernier’s example, Poilievre is a longtime champion of the “freedom” movement. His latest meet-and-greet with an anti-carbon tax convoy erupted into controversy with the Liberals accusing him of dallying with extremists.

The Conservatives don’t yet have candidates declared in all the targeted coast ridings but recently snagged a strong candidate in B.C. MLA Ellis Ross. Ross is a longtime political leader who will jump into the federal arena in a bid to wrest the Skeena-Bulkley Valley riding from the NDP, which has held it since 2004.

Ross, a former Haisla Nation chief and two-term MLA with the BC United Party (formerly the BC Liberals), is a strong advocate for Indigenous-led LNG projects in the province’s northwest.

However, NDP incumbent Taylor Bachrach, a former mayor of Smithers, has represented the riding since 2019. He won two elections with comfortable margins over the Conservatives, securing a 42.6 per cent share of votes in the last election versus 36.1 for the Conservatives.

“That is a gap that can be closed but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be,” said Prest, noting name recognition in a candidate typically results in a five per cent vote boost during an election.

Another tight race is likely in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith riding where incumbent NDP MP Lisa Marie Barron won with just 1,200 votes over Conservative candidate Tamara Kronis, followed by Paul Manly of the federal Green Party, now a Nanaimo city councillor, who came a very close third.

Kronis is running again and the wave of support the Conservatives currently enjoy may be the deciding factor, Prest said. However, for many voters in the riding and further south toward Victoria, climate change is a big concern, he added.

“Conservatives may be hoping for inroads on the [south] island, but I think the lack of any kind of track record on environmental issues makes it a tougher sell,” Prest said.

Aaron Gunn, a right-wing social media personality from Victoria, boasts an extensive following on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) and has parachuted into the North Island-Powell River riding as the Conservative candidate. Gunn stands to gain from three-term NDP MP Rachel Blaney’s recent announcement that she won’t run in the next election.

While new to the rural riding, it is not Gunn’s first foray into politics.

The longtime YouTube filmmaker and commentator for right-wing news outlets like Rebel News and True North, Gunn was rejected as a candidate for the BC Liberal leadership race in 2021 due to diversity and reconciliation concerns of party executives.

The BC NDP capitalized on Gunn’s bid to run for leadership by lambasting the BC United Party and citing Gunn’s social media posts or interviews that assert the “gender pay gap doesn’t exist” and systemic racism is a “myth.” Gunn has also been critical of Canada’s military hiring process in attempts to diversify its ranks, suggesting “apparently white males need not apply.”

In response, Gunn alleges that Conservatives who believe in common sense and freedom of speech weren’t welcome in the BC Liberal Party. He also said unelected officials, who are concerned his candidacy would be “inconsistent” with the party’s commitment to reconciliation, had denied party members their democratic right to choose their leader.

However, as the election grows closer, Poilievre’s apparent comfort with U.S.-style cultural or identity politics — playing to polarization on issues of immigration, race, sexual orientation and transgender rights — is a risk that can backfire, Prest observed.

The party may squander its “tenuous hold” over centre-of-the road Canadians looking to the Conservatives out of frustration with the current federal government but who aren’t interested in cultural warfare, he added.

“By continuing to court those far-right-of-centre voters and make space for that populist [or] alt-right messaging that is really exclusionary in all sorts of ways is a potential liability.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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