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Switching Gears

author: Mandy Martin / illustratrator: Carl Wiens

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The Liberal victory in local ridings reflects the collision of ex-pat urban and traditional demographics that now define the political landscape.

AS A SEVEN-YEAR-OLD KID ATTENDING A TWO-ROOM RURAL PUBLIC SCHOOL IN GORE’S LANDING, a federal election was a time of high anxiety. Long before social media – heck, long before there was more than one television station – schoolyard pundits pegged your family’s political allegiance in a sophisticated analysis of what you brought for lunch, what newspaper you read (yes, people read newspapers back then), whether your Dad bought illegal Irish Sweepstakes tickets which car/farm machinery dealership your family patronized and who knew a certain “knock-knock” joke was the property of John Diefenbaker or Mike Pearson. Land on the “wrong” side of a cabal, you risked being last chosen for Red Rover. You could be shunned or embraced, all in the same day. It was tricky.

Things haven’t changed much.

The two newly-aligned ridings of Bay of Quinte and Northumberland- Peterborough South, our “schoolyards” for the Oct. 19, 2015 federal election, went Liberal. The two incumbent Conservative MPs for the areas were not in the race: Rick Norlock retired from the Northumberland seat and Darryl Kramp opted to go north out of the Bay of Quinte riding (he, too, losing to a Liberal in a close race) leaving it up to newbies to duke it out.

In Bay of Quinte, the top three contenders were former municipal council members: Liberal winner Neil Ellis, a former Belleville mayor; Conservative Jodie Jenkins (who had twice before run as an NDP candidate in elections), a former Belleville councillor; and NDP Terry Cassidy, a former Quinte West councillor. Also running were Green Party candidate Rachel Cassidy and independent Trueman Tuck. The race was not close: Ellis took over 50 percent of the votes cast – 27,795 to Jenkins’s 18,844. Of 83,427 eligible voters, 69 percent acted.

Traditionally, people assume rural areas are Conservative. Big mistake. Rural areas here have had an influx of well-heeled investors and settlers, who champion bucolic ideals of community and nature. By times, this makes for an uneasy coexistence with the long-time locals. But, so too, the County has quietly welcomed Mennonite arrivals drawn to eastern Ontario by the availability of agricultural land and opportunities.

Meanwhile, in the north end of the riding, CFB Trenton, hub of Canada’s Armed Forces, brings a strong awareness of our international status and policies: how vets are treated, and Canada’s bombing missions in Syria, for example.

In Belleville, there’s a solid manufacturing base, remarkable given the tough challenges manufacturing has faced across Canada. So quietly percolating in the background was unease about the unknown impacts of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) on agri and other businesses. All of this is to say that, in the Bay of Quinte riding, what was happening during the national leadership campaign had more impact on the riding than in neighbouring Northumberland-Peterborough South, where it was much more a battle of candidate personalities.

The Senator Duffy scandal went against the Conservatives in the early days of the campaign. The so-called niqab ban was dismissed as a red herring, and yes, money for infrastructure promised by Justin Trudeau mattered, as did his latter-day “inclusive” rhetoric. When the national polls indicated a Liberal win in the week before the vote, it was a given Bay of Quinte would be on that bandwagon.

The race was much closer in Northumberland-Peterborough South where over 71 percent of the eligible 89,128 voters turned out, up from 64.5 percent in 2011.

This was a campaign for textbooks. Liberal Kim Rudd, who had thrown her hat in the ring three elections ago, winning candidacy in 2011 and again in 2015, finally won with 27,043 votes over Conservative Adam Moulton’s 25,165 – a small margin of 1,878. NDP candidate Russ Christianson, in his fifth time out, was a distant third with 9,411 votes, surely a disappointment when the early federal campaign had the NDP in the lead. Fourth was Green candidate Patricia Sinnott with 1,990 votes, who recognized the inevitable and urged people to vote strategically in the days before Oct. 19.

There were grumblings when the then-24-yearold Adam Moulton, son of a Cobourg Canadian Tire (CT) franchise owner, won the Conservative nomination in November 2014. He did it by selling more party memberships than other candidates, in many cases standing at his father’s CT store. This is not a new strategy; it’s as old as the hills. But his win over star candidate Paul Smith raised many eyebrows and prompted coverage in the national media.

Then things got interesting. Moulton announced he would not attend more than two all-candidate meetings in the riding, those that took only presubmitted questions. His chair sat empty at five all-candidate debates. Moulton said it was more important and effective to door-to-door campaign (which certain religious groups can attest hasn’t worked that well).

It was also reported nationally that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had decreed candidates were not to speak to media, except by pre-approved appointment. This made for 11 weeks of a largely absent Conservative candidate running for election. There was an attempt to use social media, but the Facebook and Twitter posts were national party rhetoric, no local context. One Facebook post in particular comes to mind: a photo of Adam Moulton standing alone in an empty street under a banner that said “Adam Moulton: Supporting our troops.” Cognitive dissonance, indeed.

In Port Hope, one week before the election, a neatly wrapped poster was inserted into mailboxes: “Where’s Moulton?” was all it said. The Conservative candidate arbitrarily opting not to speak with media proved a challenge for news organizations attempting to “cover” the election fairly. Even on election day, a message was sent out to media that said only those pre-approved were to be admitted to the “volunteer appreciation” election-night headquarters in Cobourg. Further, Moulton would only answer pre-submitted questions.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Media attended, and Moulton didn’t show up until after most journalists had left to file the Liberal win. It was going on midnight when he arrived in Port Hope to congratulate Kim Rudd on her win.

One sad note about the Moulton campaign: there were lots of young people involved. Lots. But, that positive bonus was invisible in the wake of the media muzzling.

Given all this, why wasn’t Rudd’s win bigger? Ahhh. The new riding of Northumberland-Peterborough South is now primarily rural (and here you CAN make the big mistake of assuming Conservative support). The riding has no city. It is a collection of towns, villages and hamlets in a territory that uncannily resembles the historic map of the United Counties of Durham-Northumberland with the north shore of Rice Lake added in. Now, there is not just Alderville First Nation but also Hiawatha (where Bay of Quinte has none, having lost Tyendinaga in the riding realignment). In this election, First Nations members voted in unprecedented numbers.

The economy was probably the biggest issue in Northumberland, what with strapped or closing industries, a tough job market and the falling Canadian dollar. People were anxious that the status quo be maintained, never mind plotting for future growth. It’s what you can safely call a “white bread” riding.“New” is still suspicious here.

Then Justin Trudeau made a stop in Port Hope on October 13. About 1,000 people jammed the main street and you could feel the electricity in the air. Here was a political event that was inclusive and recognized the electorate. Trudeau spontaneously waded through the crowd, hugged people, posed for selfies, smiled, smiled and smiled (which the other national leaders were short on).

As if in counterpoint, the Saturday before the Monday vote, Harper was all over national media in clearly orchestrated photos embracing disgraced former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his family at a Toronto rally.

This is when the Conservative camp loyalist ties of both ridings snapped.

In the end, wrestling with all the apparent national Conservative affronts – the Duffy scandal, reference to “old stock” Canadians, the niqab controversy, the TPP, the “barbaric acts” snitch line and the emphasis on what Canadians do not have in common, resulted in truly conservative people gulping (some even choking) as they entered the booth and marked their ballot.

So, where are we now? Ellis and Rudd are two of 214 newcomers to Parliament. First they need to get their bearings – and offices – but they do have agendas. Having already met with most municipal mayors in Northumberland-Peterborough South, Rudd says “infrastructure (funding) and jobs” are top concerns, and the two “go hand in hand.” She also has a Northumberland-Peterborough South Action Plan for employment and economic stimulation she intends to champion.

“The new bridge at Hastings is on the books and we want to make sure that happens – to begin within six months. In Brighton, there certainly are (municipal) water issues. Affordable housing is a general concern I am hearing about all across the riding from all mayors.”

“I have had discussion with the Chiefs of Hiawatha and Alderville (First Nations) and I want to make sure that dialogue stays open to assist them in knowing what’s available for post-secondary education.”

Just days after October 19, Rudd met with Durham Region and Northumberland County mayors and officials “to discuss transportation – GO and VIA – to determine what we can do collectively to support the east part of this province. It’s going to be municipal, provincial and federal partnerships that move this forward.”

As for Neil Ellis, he says, “The immediate challenge right now is getting offices set up. With a new government, there’s a huge changeover of staff. It’s a process for us, and all parties, changing staff and revamping offices. The first six months is when we’re getting ready to start making changes.”

“I know from past experience,” the former Belleville mayor says, “if a region wants to get into, say, transportation, social services or health care, you have to decide on which. I’d like to have a meeting with agencies and municipalities about social housing, for example. How do non-profits, like those for housing, fit in to federal funding opportunities? If there’s funding, should it be applied to retrofitting 50-year-old individual units or divesting them and building new multi-unit facilities? Councils will have to make some tough decisions.”

Like Rudd, Ellis talks of the partnership of all government levels to keep things moving forward. Patience is key, as is an awareness that action on a platform is tricky – just like Red Rover on the playground.

‘TWAS EVER THUS
As we reflect on the past few months in Canadian politics, it’s important to recognize that the same old issues surface and galvanize people time and again. In its relatively short history, our nation has gone to the polls on the heels of scandal, immigration, the economy, and religious differences innumerable times. And over the past 147 years, our own local federal politicians have debated those same issues on stages across Northumberland, Hastings and Prince Edward County, adding colourful threads to the political tapestry.

The Watershed region has been home to a prime minister, a Father of Confederation and a bevy of cabinet ministers, two of whom were women.

Consider Sir John A. Macdonald, who led us into Confederation. While he never represented Prince Edward County in government, it could be argued that he honed his political skills there.

Macdonald – a master of charm and wit – knew how to woo both his own party and the electorate. While many Canadians celebrate Macdonald as the firebrand politician who drove Confederation, in contemporary Canada, our first prime minister would be pilloried for his racist comments today. Sir John A. supported slavery, the American Confederacy and the purity of the Aryan race in Canada. And under his leadership, the government of the day had a hand in crushing the Native population in his personal drive to see the national railroad spread a mari usque ad mare.

When the Pacific Scandal broke in 1874, Macdonald was caught with his political pants down. He was accused of taking election funds in exchange for the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway and his government was forced to resign in the face of the dirty affair.

Fast forward 141 years and, while one single scandal didn’t bring down the Harper government, it could be argued that the senate scandal, the robo-call debacle and campaign spending issues, particularly in the former Peterborough riding, didn’t go unnoticed by the electorate.

Next consider religion, which has always played a part in politics. In the most recent campaign, the debate over the niqab and the use of the term “barbaric practices” subtly linked cultural differences to religious beliefs. The CBC’s senior correspondent, Terry Milewski, referred to these tactics as “‘dog-whistle’ politics, meaning a not-so-subtle appeal to prejudice”.

Likewise, the differences between Catholics and Protestants sparked dog-whistle partisanship in the 19th century. Editor and proprietor of the Belleville Intelligencer, Sir Mackenzie Bowell represented the North Hastings riding as a Conservative. He was a staunch Protestant and member of the Loyal Orange Lodge at a time when Orangemen wielded significant political clout and often fanned the flames of conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

Bowell became prime minister after the untimely death of John Thompson in 1894, and during his tenure was faced with the Manitoba Schools question, “one of the most divisive issues in Canadian history, pitting Catholics against Protestants, English against French, West against East, Liberals against Conservatives, church against state.”

The maelstrom began in 1890, when the Manitoba provincial government abolished public funding for Catholic schools, challenging the British North America Act that ensured minority education rights throughout the Dominion. By 1895, despite Sir Mackenzie Bowell’s attempts to settle the issue from within his own party, government business had ground to a halt. He was forced to resign as leader two years into his mandate in the wake of his inability to address the problem.

If you still think Canadian politics are dull, ponder the Gerda Munsinger affair. In 1966, a member of Lester B. Pearson’s minority Liberal government alleged that five years earlier two of Diefenbaker’s cabinet ministers had been involved with a prostitute and purported Soviet spy – an East German immigrant named Gerda Munsinger.

The Conservatives had managed to keep the affair under wraps for five years, but Pearson commissioned a judicial inquiry to determine if national security had been compromised. Supreme Court Justice Wishart Spence delivered his report to the Commons, stating that Progressive Conservative Pierre Sévigny’s relationship with Munsinger had “constituted a security risk,” while George Hees’s lack of discretion with Munsinger was noted as “slight, if not regrettable.” George Hees, a.k.a. Gorgeous George, was the high-profile member for Northumberland County at the time. The local newspapers had a heyday, a sex and spy story that would trump the Duffy scandal any day!

Then in the fall of 1970, the FLQ movement peaked with the kidnapping of James Cross and murder of Pierre Laporte. On October 13, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau uttered his famous quip, “Just watch me,” when asked how far he would go to protect law and order within the country. Three days later, on October 16th, he invoked the War Measures Act for the first time in Canada’s history, effectively limiting political freedom and dissent across the country.

Trudeau’s autocratic move was one of the main reasons Pauline Jewett – a one-time Liberal MP for Northumberland and its first female member – joined the NDP.

Fast-forward 45 years. Pierre Trudeau’s son is our new prime minister. What goes around, comes around. Justin Trudeau is informed and, perhaps, burdened by his Liberal lineage. His government is still a blank canvas, but wait a while. Undoubtedly scandal and those old, thorny issues will rise again, adding hits of colour to the white.

Such is the reality and art of politics.

JANE KELLY

Sources: www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/primeministers/h4-3131-e.html

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carl wiens

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