Jack Knox: Courtenay-Alberni riding spans age spectrum

A tableful of well-experienced women are in Qualicum Bay’s Sandbar Cafe, enjoying each other’s company, solving the world over coffee on a rainy day.

“They’re talking about a passport you can renew for 20 years,” remarks one.

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“Why on earth would I want a 20-year passport?” barks the eldest of the group, and they all crack up. Eavesdropping at the next table, I try not to laugh, too.

Yes, this side of the Courtenay-Alberni federal riding skews older. It’s where you’re most likely to meet people who can remember not just Trudeau 1.0 as prime minister, but Diefenbaker.

At 50.4 years, the median age in Courtenay is nine years older than it is in Canada as a whole. Yet Courtenay is still relatively youthful compared to Parksville’s 62.2. And the latter is positively spring-chickenlike compared to Qualicum Beach, where the median age of 65.9 is the oldest in the land.

It’s a different demographic on the other side of The Hump, the steep, twisting stretch of Highway 4 that climbs up and over the spine of Vancouver Island, and that divides Courtenay-Alberni in more ways than one.

People tend to be younger west of The Hump, and to live a different sort of life, too.

> More information on the Courtenay-Alberni riding and candidates can be found here

Broadly speaking, people on the west side of the riding drive pick-up trucks, while those on the east drive golf carts.

The diversity is reflected when people are asked, at random, what’s on their mind during this campaign. Surrounded by chainsaws at Port Alberni’s L.B. Woodchoppers shop, Keith Vandenbroek lamented the loss of back-country access for those who love the outdoors. Interrupted while chowing down at Port Alberni’s J&L Drive-In (where $5.99 will buy you the all-but-forgotten Vancouver Island delicacy known as the combo burger, bless ‘em) 30-year-old Torrance Gilmour worried that in their enthusiasm to ban assault weapons -- which he agrees with — the feds will outlaw legitimate hunting rifles, too. Over at the Tseshaht First Nation office on the Somass River, cultural revitalization was on the mind of Jane Jones: “I think they should put something in place that gives people the opportunity to regain their language,” she said. “The younger people want their identity.”

These aren’t necessarily the sort of things people dwell on at the 19th hole in Courtenay.

On the more populous east side of the riding, several of those asked to name their election issues brought up the economy, taxation and fiscal responsibility, territory traditionally claimed by the Conservatives, which might help that party’s candidate, Byron Horner.

He might also benefit, a bit, from the fact that Courtenay-Alberni is the only Island riding in which Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party isn’t on the ballot. Horner, whose background includes time as a New York investment banker and the last decade as a financial executive for the Washington family, whose holdings include Seaspan, also has a political pedigree: His grandfather was a senator and three uncles were members of Parliament.

Even more of those who were buttonholed on the street mentioned the environment as a campaign priority, though that patch is being fought over by both the NDP and Greens. The incumbent New Democrat MP, Tofino’s Gord Johns, cemented his environmental credentials in his rookie term by campaigning successfully to get Parliament to back a crackdown on single-use plastics. Yet the environment is right in the brand name of the Greens, which might give an edge to their candidate, Sean Wood, who owns a Parksville graphic design company.

The New Democrats’ much-muttered nightmare scenario is someone like Johns, who won handily in 2015, losing to the Greens, or allowing the Conservatives to prevail thanks to vote-splitting. But then the Greens could make the same argument. The Liberals are also in the mix, albeit with an outsider for a candidate in 26-year-old, Powell River-raised Jonah Gowans, who works in the legislature in Victoria. The ballot is rounded out by Marxist-Leninist Barbara Biley, who earned 140 votes in 2015.

No party has clearly made itself synonymous with the issue most often mentioned in this unscientific walkabout, though: Access to health care. It came up several times, on both sides of The Hump. “A lot of people in this community don’t have a doctor and can’t find a doctor,” said Barbara Pope, behind the counter of her Mulberry Bush book store in Parksville.

Preparing to tee off at the nearby Pheasant Glen golf course, Bob Seeley had a similar answer when asked to name his priority: “It’s accessibility to health care and prescription drugs.” The retired GM sales manager has a buddy from the Sunshine Coast who has had to uproot and relocate to Victoria while being treated for a serious illness. The guy and his wife are housed during the week, but not on weekends, which means they’re looking at $400 a week in extra expenses. “They’re not rich people.”

Seeley was echoed, sort of, by Brandy Zannet of Bamfield. The 34-year-old would like to see some sort of break for seniors who carry the extra cost of aging in rural communities, the outposts that have none of the hospitals, doctors and other services that city dwellers take for granted. Zannet has spent three years driving her mother to Port Alberni for twice-a-week physiotherapy appointments.

Down by the river in Port Alberni, 62-year-old Vincent Wheeler raised a different kind of health concern: “I’m homeless.” He worked all his life, including 23 years as an industrial meatcutter before a bad shoulder left him with nothing but a $979-a-month disability pension three years ago. Rents are around $1,250. He would like to share a place with one or two other guys, but landlords balk at that.

Wheeler has been sleeping rough for four or five months. “I’m wet, I’m cold, I’m tired and I’m hungry,” he says. “I have a right to have a home.”

And that just helps illustrate the diversity of people and issues in Courtenay-Alberni, and the difficulty of placing them in convenient pigeon holes in an election campaign that has, with just one week to go, yet to find its central focus.

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