The Saanich Fair with its carnival rides and livestock proved fertile ground for federal politicians on Monday as they served up ice cream, popcorn and carrots to potential supporters.
With competition from stomach-roiling rides, food trucks and live bands, it might not seem like talking politics ahead of the Oct. 21 federal election would draw a crowd.
But federal candidates at the country fair said they were meeting hundreds of people and fielding a flood of questions.
Green candidate David Merner, running in Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, said the three-day fair saw him shaking more hands and discussing more platforms than he would have door-knocking. His tent’s free popcorn helped attract multi-generational families.
“The reception here has been amazing and it’s not just the popcorn,” said Merner. “Yesterday was just packed here.” He estimated that he talked to about 200 people a day.
Merner cancelled his scheduled Saturday afternoon door-knocking. “I stayed here because there’s so many more people. Knocking on doors, 50 per cent of people open their doors, but here, everyone just shows up and they want to talk to their politicians. They feel quite passionate about it.”
He said the environment, health care in relation to the doctor shortage, the cost of post-graduate education, and the cost of living and prescription drugs provoked the most questions. Many people were undecided about how they would vote and just wanted to meet the candidates, he said.
(The fair is in the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding, which is represented by MP Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green Party. She was at the fair on Saturday and Sunday, but headed to Toronto on Monday for a climate forum.)
The politicians were tucked away behind food trucks at the front of the fairgrounds in the commercial area, where they tried to attract attention with pamphlets and giveaways.
Saanich-Gulf Islands Conservative candidate David Busch found himself discussing medical assistance in dying with two Saanich residents, one a supporter and another undecided.
One of the women had recently experienced friends choosing assistance in dying and wanted to find out Busch’s stand.
Specifically, she said she wants to be able to make that decision now, for later. It was also a top-of-mind subject for her friend, an undecided voter.
“If you look at what the Liberals actually passed, it doesn’t match with what the Supreme Court said,” Busch responded. “The Supreme Court got it right, the Liberals didn’t,” said Busch, a lawyer and former critical-care nurse. “So a lot of people are concerned that we need to fix this and at the end of the day people can give advance consent for it.”
“Right now, one of the big problems is you have to be competent, and basically say: ‘I want it today,’ but people are saying ‘I don’t want to die now but under these circumstances I will, but when this day comes you won’t offer it to me’,” said Busch. “People are terrified about that. That needs to be fixed.”
Busch was at the fair all three days. “I’ve easily been talking to 300-400 people a day.” There are a lot of undecided voters at the fair, he said.
The main issues he’s hearing are about the cost of living and the economy, health care with respect to the shortage of doctors, and the environment as “a distant third,” said Busch.
Saanich-Gulf Islands Liberal candidate Ryan Windsor, on unpaid leave as mayor of Central Saanich, was spending most of his three days at the fair volunteering for the “Brentwood Bay Rotary Sugar Shack” concession. He is the local rotary’s president.
Windsor worked as a cashier and served up candy floss and soft-serve ice cream. He’s been volunteering at the fair for years. For this year’s fair, he also put in a few hours each day electioneering.
“It’s huge,” said Windsor, of the impact and cross-section of voters and community members a politician can engage.
“The fair is 151 years old. It’s an institution on the south Island,” said Windsor. “People from all over the place come here. I think we have record-setting numbers here again.
“It’s also just a chance to meet people and get to know people better,” said Windsor.
The doctor shortage is a provincial issue but the concern is acute in the riding, said Windsor. “People are obviously concerned about that.”
Voters also want to see re-investment in scientific research (the Institute of Ocean Sciences and Centre for Plant Health in North Saanich are in the area), in health care, affordable housing and infrastructure, he said.
Windsor said his goal at the fair is to show people he is down to earth and someone they can approach and engage in conversation — “that I’m accessible.”
Robyn Reid and partner Ryan Stewart with their children Catcher, 9, and Claea, 4, said it was more important to her as a voter to see the candidate in and serving the community than electioneering.
“He’s demonstrating that he’s interested in the community and events in the community,” said Reid.
The riding’s NDP candidate Sabina Singh, running in her first federal election, said the fair allowed her to introduce herself to more residents. She said voters are already well aware of the NDP’s values.
“We will not leave anyone behind,” Singh said.
She was handing out “Demo-carrots “because our policy is good for you.” It was popular food choice with parents, but at a fair full of fried anything, much of it sprinkled with sugar, at least one child kindly turned down the offering.
Singh said the party’s support of a universal national Pharmacare plan is popular with voters. She said she’s hearing from fair attendees about climate change and the cost of living especially, from the working poor.
People shouldn’t have to choose between paying rent and putting food on the table or paying for medication, she said.
Some families note that just bringing their kids to the fair is difficult, she said. (Admission for kids was free for those six and under, and $8 for children age seven to 13, not including rides and food).
“Everyone is struggling financially,” said Singh. “We are expanding health care, we’re expanding daycare, things for families so they can address the climate-change emergency that we have but you can’t do that if you’re struggling to find food for your family.”
The cost of post secondary education and affordable housing are also concerns, she said. “Affordable housing in this area is out of control,” she said.
Ronald Broda of the People’s Party of Canada is also running in Saanich-Gulf Islands.