Jack Knox: 49 running for seven Island seats; one candidate’s rough ride

The Heiltsuk First Nation is mad at Byron Horner, which raises two questions: 1) Why? 2) Who is Byron Horner? Which leads to a third question: Who are Mark de Bruijn, Blair Herbert and Rhonda Chen — and, frankly, most of the other Vancouver Island candidates running for Parliament.

Nominations closed Monday with (unofficially) 49 people running for the Island’s seven seats (see the list here). That’s a baker’s dozen more than ran in 2015. No offence to the nominees, but if you can pick more than six of them out of a photo lineup, chances are you’re already wearing a lapel button declaring your political allegiance. For most others, the names don’t mean much.

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This anonymity is a challenge for voters and candidates alike. Naturally enough, the latter present their most-attractive qualities when trying to woo the former.

Take Horner, the Conservative candidate in Courtenay-Alberni. In an election with such emphasis on the environment, it would only make sense to play up his role as an executive producer of the Great Bear Rainforest Imax film shot on B.C.’s central coast.

The problem is that in doing so, he upset the Bella Bella-based Heiltsuk, one of three First Nations whose participation gave social licence to the documentary, a stunningly shot paean to the beauty and fragility of B.C.’s largely wild central coast. The use of Great Bear Rainforest images as part of a political campaign violated the spirit of the agreement made with the filmmakers, the Heiltsuk wrote Horner in January, the month before the film debuted on the big screen.

Horner, who had won the Conservative nomination in June 2018, responded by agreeing to pull film-related material from his social media, website and other campaign communications (even though the copyright for those images is held solely by Spirit Bear Entertainment, of which he is president).

But Horner continues to exploit his connection to the film, bringing it up in campaign speeches and on the doorstep, the Heiltsuk said in a statement last week. They want it made clear that “any references to the film and its images are being done without our explicit consent, and that we do not have a relationship with Mr. Horner, nor do we endorse his political campaign.”

On Monday, the film’s director, Ian McAllister — someone Horner has known for 30 years — weighed in, criticizing both the Conservatives and the candidate: “This is the same party that fought for oil pipelines and tankers in the Great Bear Rainforest, gutted the Fisheries Act and other environmental protections, and burned research libraries in the recent past. The federal Conservative agenda is clearly at odds with all the reasons that I made this film, and I find it highly ironic that a Conservative Party candidate would use the film for personal political gain.”

Horner has a different take. “The reality is I care deeply about environmental sustainability,” he says. He got involved with Great Bear Rainforest through his association with the Washington family, for whom he has acted as a financial executive for 12 years, and whose holdings include Seaspan, the sponsors of the film.

He said he put three years of effort and some of his own money into the business side of making the movie, so, yes, it forms part of his bio. It tells people who he is, what he believes in.

“I think I have the right to share with voters my experiences and passion that have shaped who I am as a person and who I would be as their representative,” Horner said on Monday.

It might just be a backwater skirmish relative to the main campaign, but a spat like this can’t be pleasant for any of those involved, not after working on the film together. “I don’t take it personally,” Horner said. Being a candidate requires thick skin.

Thick soles, too: Horner figures he has worn out three pairs of shoes in the past year and a half while door-knocking in Courtenay-Alberni, trying to overcome the lack of profile that most candidates face. Those who stepped into the ring only recently might find they left it too late to be fleshed out.

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