The Hump — the steep, twisting stretch of Highway 4 that climbs up and over the spine of Vancouver Island — divides Courtenay-Alberni in more ways than one.
It’s as though someone emptied a ballot box at the top, and the orange votes fell down one side and the blue down the other.
The east side of the riding, home to the retirees who migrated to the golf courses of Courtenay, Parksville and Qualicum Beach, tilts Conservative.
The west, where the loggers and mill workers live, leans New Democrat.
At least, that’s the way it looks if you take the 2011 election results and transplant them on this newly constituted constituency. Good luck figuring out what that means this time, though.
The incumbent, sort of, is John Duncan, the only Conservative running for re-election on Vancouver Island.
Most of the riding he represented for 22 of the past 24 years was farther north, but this time he’s running in the territory held by retiring MP James Lunney for the past 15 years (Lunney resigned from the Conservative caucus in March during a dust-up over his views on the theory of evolution).
Duncan is up against New Democrat Gord Johns, a 45-year-old businessman and former councillor from Tofino. Also running are 51-year-old Green candidate Glenn Sollitt of Qualicum, who owns a seafood-distribution business; Liberal Carrie Powell-Davidson, 56, a writer and former member of Parksville council; and Marxist-Leninist Barbara Biley.
There’s a feeling among the challengers (and who knows if this is based on reality or wishful thinking on their part) that the east side isn’t as staunchly blue as it was.
“A huge portion of this riding has only lived here 10 years or less,” says NDP campaign manager Michele Babchuk.
And Duncan, being new to the riding, doesn’t really have an incumbent’s natural advantage. He carries a bit of baggage, too: An inappropriate letter to the Tax Court resulted in his resignation as aboriginal affairs minister in 2013 (though as far as scandals go, that was hardly Duffy-esque).
Everybody is scrapping over Parksville. The NDP have their main campaign office there, just three doors down from the Liberals. The Conservative HQ is a few kilometres down the highway. The Green Party office is in between.
The New Democrats fuss about the effect of the Greens, who they fear will siphon away enough of the orange vote to keep Duncan in power. They’re counting on the ABC — Anybody But Conservative — crowd to vote strategically.
That sort of thinking is reflected by Maryanne Dreger, standing in the door of her Qualicum Beach shop. “Maybe people who would vote Green will vote NDP if they want Harper out,” she says. Dreger really likes Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, but might disapprove of the prime minister more.
That’s frustrating to the Greens’ Sollitt, who says the NDP’s “scare tactics” are based on the false premise that Green support comes at the expense of the New Democrats. “We’re drawing support from all over.” (And nobody asks where the Liberals scoop their votes.)
Meanwhile, others think the prime minister is doing fine. “I think the economy is as good as we can expect,” says retired radiologist Glen Champion, emerging from a Parksville grocery store. “I don’t see the other two [leaders] doing better with the spending plans they have.”
Demographics drive priorities in this riding. The Hump — a twisting ascent so steep that the logging trucks crawl up with their hazard lights flashing — really is a dividing line.
Out west in idyllic Tofino (honestly, it was some of God’s best work) the environment claims top-of-mind consciousness. Port Alberni loves the outdoors, too, though perhaps in more of a huntin’ and fishin’ way (“Best bang for your buck firearms for sale” read the marquee outside Canadian Tire; you don’t see signs like that in Oak Bay).
Bill Collette, executive director of the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce, thinks the city’s mill town image is changing, though. “People are looking at us differently than they used to.”
It was a great summer for the hospitality industry, with inquiries to volunteers at the info centre, Cathedral Grove and other tourist stops soaring 265 per cent in June. And many of those visitors noticed Alberni’s low real estate prices.
“My house in Parksville is about $220,000 more than my house here,” says Collette, who owns homes in both communities. Tourists from Alberta factor in that kind of difference when they start thinking about where to retire. “This town is going to explode.”
But down at Port Alberni’s Clam Bucket Restaurant, owner Rhonda Ursel has a less rosy view. Tourism is fine for two or three months of the year, but what’s needed is full-time work in a city where the population has long hovered around 17,000 and the Catalyst paper mill doesn’t provide the jobs it once did.
“We need some kind of industry here,” Ursel says.
The young men, the 20- to 30-year-olds, have had to leave town. There are also plenty of families where mom holds the fort in Port Alberni while tradesman dad toils elsewhere, returning every few weeks to reacquaint himself with the kids. The city’s median age of 46 is the same as that of Courtenay, but Courtenay, pop. 24,000, is growing.
Over on the other side of the Hump, it’s not necessarily work, but life after work, that preoccupies voters.
“They should raise the pensions instead of shipping the money overseas,” says Ron Walsh, 19 years retired from a career as a boilermaker, as he emerges from the Qualicum Beach Pharmasave. He also wants better treatment for veterans.
The riding’s east side skews older. The median age among the 12,000 people in Parksville is 58.2 (that compares to 40.6 across Canada). That’s spring chicken territory to Qualicum Beach, the oldest community in Canada with a median age of 64.
Only in Qualicum would the 66-year-old Duncan be nicknamed “Sonny.” Well, no, but you get the point.
Along with Stephen Harper, Duncan is the last of the old-time Reform Party wave of 1993 running for re-election. The Conservatives think that kind of experience carries currency. His opponents are counting on people thinking it’s time for a change, switching their votes.
But some longtime voters are pondering abandoning the ballot box altogether.
“It just seems like games,” says Lou Lefebre, pushing a friend’s child in a stroller outside Cumberland’s Wandering Moose Cafe. “I don’t think anyone’s really concerned about the world. I find it really discouraging.”