Riding profile, Cariboo-Prince George: Safe No More

Could a traditional Conservative safe seat in B.C.’s interior swing left?

infographic credit: Justin McElroy

Since he was first elected as part of the Reform Party in 1993, Dick Harris has been a winner.

From the Reform to the Canadian Alliance to the modern-day Conservatives, voters in the Prince George region sent Harris back to Ottawa again and again, usually with over 50 percent of the popular vote, and never less than 45.

Under Harris, the riding became a so-called safe seat. In the 2011 election, Harris’ closest competitor was the NDP’s Jon Van Barneveld, a 22-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Northern British Columbia. The Liberals couldn’t even find a sacrificial lamb in the area, and instead sent UBC’s Sangeeta Lalli to a fourth-place finish, getting just 5.06 percent of the popular vote.

In a way, the Cariboo was a microcosm of B.C. as a whole: a Conservative stronghold, helping ensure victory on election day after election day. But now the riding, like the province as a whole, is in a state of political flux, and it’s anyone’s guess what could happen on election day.

“Mr. Harris would be the first person to say he’d expect me to do a better job,” says Todd Doherty. He’s Harris’ replacement in the Conservative Party, having bested former Prince George mayor Shari Green and economist Nick Fedorkiw for the nomination.

Doherty grew up in the region, working as a logger in the Chilcotin before moving into a career at the Prince George Airport Authority and, later, the Canada Winter Games. He emphasizes those roles in debates, saying he’s already had experience representing the region on an international stage while still making time to be involved in events back home.

It’s that “time back home” on which he says Harris would expect him to do a better job. During his last few years in office, Harris relocated to Osoyoos, over 500 kilometers southeast of the riding. That move came under scrutiny in the Vancouver Sun, which reported he had been charging taxpayers for travel to and from Osoyoos as part of his “trips to riding” fund, and led some constituents to grumble about their absentee MP.

Doherty says he’s not going to criticize Harris (“Mr. Harris’ record stands for itself”), but he does emphasize he’d do things differently.

“We’ve logged 48,000 kilometers, we’ve gone to all four corners of our riding many, many times,” he said in an interview on CBC in September, citing trips to Prince George, Vanderhoof, Williams Lake, and Quesnel, sometimes on the same day. “We want people to know they’ve got an MP or representative that’s going to be present, and still be part of this community.” He talks tirelessly of meetings with First Nations, municipal leaders, and regular voters.

Since September he’s logged even more kilometers, though it’s hard to say if it’s worked. In August, when Éric Grenier started tracking party support in ridings across the country on his website threehundredeight.com, the Conservatives were below the 40 percent mark in the riding, despite being the only party to have announced a candidate. By September they had moved into the lead, but in the most recent analysis, the NDP has a slight edge, with the Conservatives not far behind. Grenier defines the riding as a marginal NDP gain. Still, he cautions the reliability of any riding-level data, calling it “unpredictable”, and emphasizing the numbers are based on province-wide trends, not local-level polling.

changes in threehundredeight.com projections for the Cariboo-Prince George over the course of the campaign

“Door-to-door there’s been a big strong sentiment for a lot of A-B-C, Anybody But the Conservatives, so I think there is that sentiment there,” says Trent Derrick. He’s the NDP candidate in the riding, his first crack at federal politics after a failed run for mayor of Prince George in 2005 and city council in both 2008 and 2014.

“If you take a look at Jack Layton, he wasn’t successful at the start as well,” Derrick said when asked about his previous failed attempts at office on CBC. “I think that says a lot about my character. When I believe in something, I go for it… I think what I’ve really learned is you need good people around you.” He says his previous campaigns have helped him build a strong team that will play a key role should he win this time around.

“The poll is just the poll, and we’ve got our team working hard, and that’s the important thing,” he says now. “We’ve got a lot of boots on the ground.”

The poll he’s referring to is one conducted by Vote Together, a project being run by the activist group LeadNow with the explicit goal of defeating the Conservatives — and one that has pegged Derrick as the local candidate with the best chance of doing it.

sponsored Facebook ad from the NDP candidate

LeadNow’s methodology is fairly simple. They identify ridings across the country where Conservatives are strong, but not so strong that they have over 50 percent support. They then conduct a poll in the riding to try and determine which non-Conservative candidate has the most support, and then urge other non-Conservative voters to throw their support behind them — strategic voting backed up by numbers.

Over the past week, sponsored Facebook posts have been appearing showing Derrick and the NDP as the candidate favoured to win the riding, using the LeadNow poll results.

Derrick says he believes voters want a change from the Conservative government, and strategic voting can play a role.

“Going door to door I believe it’s a very sizeable percentage of the population. Even our members are looking at the national polls and taking a look at thinking their going to vote Liberal this time to beat the Conservatives. And in this riding it’s between the NDP and the Conservatives.”

But on closer inspection, the numbers aren’t quite so clear. First of all, there’s all the usual caveats that come with local samples- not as many people have landlines anymore, it can be difficult to be sure if people are registered to vote in the riding. And then there’s the margin of error.

At 4.4, the support for any of the parties listed could go up or down by 4.4 percent and still make the poll accurate. That puts all three major parties in striking distance of a lead.

Rather than 36, 30, 29, the more accurate way to read the results is with NDP support somewhere between 32 and 40 percent, the Conservatives between 26 and 34, and Liberals between 25 and 33 (19 times out of 20). The NDP could drop 4 points and the Liberals could go up 4, resulting in a Liberal victory, and it would still be within the margin of error. Or the Conservatives could win. Basically, it’s too close to call. So those social media posts and headlines touting the NDP as the best choice for strategic voters are frustrating for the Liberal candidate in the riding, Tracy Calogheros.

“There is no need to have a strategic vote in my view,” says Calogheros. “I have had I don’t know how many emails come at me, nationally, from these campaigns asking me to step aside and let Trent win. That’s not why I’m running. I’m not running for the NDP, I’m running because I believe passionately in the Liberal platform. I’ve always been a Liberal, I think that I have something to offer this community and I think this community wants someone that’s going to speak for them and someone that they’ve worked with for the past two decades.”

Calogheros came to Prince George two decades ago because, as she says, “it was in the middle” of the province, and she wanted to go west. “And I completely fell in love with the place.” She started working at the Exploration Place museum, eventually becoming its CEO. She’s been a part of the local Liberal campaign teams numerous times, but with Harris stepping aside she saw an opportunity to get out in front. “I couldn’t take not having a representative anymore, I couldn’t take the Harper government in charge anymore.”

Even at 29 percent in the Cariboo, she’s made big gains for the party that finished fourth in the last election, falling behind the Greens and barely ahead of the fringe Christian Heritage Party. Like Doherty, she emphasizes her role representing the community on a larger scale, with the museum and various board positions on her resume. She also points to differences of opinions she has with the Liberal Party itself: when filling out her nomination papers, she says there was a question about any disagreements with the party platform. She wrote she didn’t support Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terrorism bill voted in by the Conservatives and Liberals and opposed by the NDP and Greens. The fact that she was still allowed to run, she says, shows that if elected she’d have the willingness and the room to stand up for the region against party policy.

Calogheros says she has nothing against Doherty. But she questions if he understands how the Conservative party operates. “He talks a lot about consultation and reaching out to the community and providing that voice, and yet that is not what the Stephen Harper government is about… whether he believes it or not, that’s not been the track record of the party that he’s running for.”

And of Derrick she has similar criticisms. She has nothing against him personally, but doesn’t think the NDP has the right budget, or the right programs. And ultimately, she believes she would simply do a better job.

“At this point, the most important thing for people to do when they walk into that polling booth, in my view, is trust their gut. It has to be about who they believe is going to really listen to them and have the skills necessary to communicate our needs and ideas to Ottawa.”

When asked to outline the differences between him and Calogheros, Derrick has much the same answer: the party they’re running for. Where Calogheros sees the NDP platform as not properly costed, Derrick sees the Liberal budget as ignoring the needs of regular Canadians and the environment, and dipping into deficits to achieve its goals.

While Doherty and Calogheros point to their leadership experience with the airport and museum respectively, Derrick likes to emphasize his economic acumen: he’s a small businessman, the owner of a downtown spa in Prince George. At the same time as he’s been stumping for the NDP he’s opened a new business, an outlet of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Spruceland Mall.

“I know the importance of balancing budgets,” he says. “I know the importance of investing and thinking strategically.” He wants people to think of the NDP the same way, saying it is a fiscally responsible party.

Another factor that could be key is Aboriginal voters. Derrick is a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, and has the endorsement of Carrier Sekani Tribal Chief Terry Teegee. Nearly fifteen percent of electors in the Cariboo are Aboriginal, more than enough to make a difference if they turn out in high enough numbers.

The Assembly of First Nations identified Cariboo-Prince George as one of 51 ridings where Aboriginal voters could determine the final outcome

“I’m telling my membership, I’m telling everybody to vote NDP, to elect out the incumbents and see change,” Teegee told 250 News. “And if it doesn’t happen nationally with the NDP then perhaps regionally we’ll have a new representative because clearly the Conservatives haven’t been representing us, at least the First Nations in this area.”

Though he’s long been politically active, Teegee is a first-time federal voter, and says many of his members are in the same boat. There’s been a longstanding debate amongst First Nations whether to take part in federal politics, or if it’s better to work for change on a nation-to-nation basis. But in the 2015 election, there seems to be new levels of mobilization among Canada’s indigenous populations.

In September, Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde urged his members to vote and the organization identified 51 swing ridings across Canada where a strong turnout from First Nations could make the difference. On the list: Cariboo-Prince George.

Trent Derrick (NDP), Adam de Kroon (Christian Heritage), Todd Doherty (Conservative), Tracy Calogheros (Liberal), Sheldon Clare (independent), Richard Jacques (Green): the Cariboo-Prince George candidates, left to right

In a race this close, every vote counts, and so the other factor at play is the other candidates. The Greens are represented by former RCMP officer Richard Jaques, a member of the Poplar River First Nation in Saskatchewan whose wife is rooted in the Chilcotin. He’s also aiming at getting out First Nations voters and, at debates, has been the source of crowd-pleasing laughs balanced with calls for environmentally sustainable resource development. The youngest candidate is Adam de Kroon of the Christian Heritage Party, who has put his emphasis on civil rights, including copyright law (though the party itself emphasizes it’s anti-abortion/pro-life platform, de Kroon himself downplays that aspect in interviews). Then there’s two independents: Gordon (Gordie) Campbell is a perpetual member of federal and provincial elections, and joined this race at the last minute after relocating to Williams Lake and has largely been absent from the campaign trail. More formidable is Sheldon Clare, a former Reform Party organizer and president of the National Firearms Association.

Clare has run a high-profile campaign, and perhaps the most high-profile independent campaign in the country. He’s been featured in Maclean’s, the Toronto Star, and VICE amongst others. He’s also received support from retired Colonel and Canada’s first veterans ombudsman Pat Strogen and, more unexpectedly, Margaret Atwood.

But, as Clare says, “national profile doesn’t equal local vote.”

On that front, however, Clare believes he’ll be a surprise come election day. From the start, he’s said he’ll win over voters from the left and the right, and his platform is a populist mix of Reform-style conservatism and small “l” liberalism, with promises to fight for seniors, veterans, students, and First Nations, something that could go over well in one of the most rural and resource-dependent ridings in Canada’s most left-leaning provinces.

Clare points out that in the LeadNow poll, he wasn’t even an option, so there was no measure of his actual support, even though he’s counted over 2,000 committed voters in his camp. And while he acknowledges it can be tough to overcome the “brand loyalty” that comes with being part of a party, he thinks he has what it takes.

“What we’re voting for here is a representative, one of 338, and there really needs to be a very careful look at the person on that ballot. The people voting need to ask themselves, ‘does this person represent my community, does this person represent my region, does this person represent my values, do I trust this person to take a strong voice to represent me in Ottawa, does this person have community at heart?’ I think I’m that best choice.”

Regardless of what happens, Clare says he believes he’s helped make one thing happen already: send the message that this is not a safe seat. “That’s one of my main objectives in running, to make sure that this seat cannot be taken for granted and it gets the attention it deserves.”

“Everybody’s talking about change. Well, I represent change,” Doherty says as he logs even more kilometers between Williams Lake and Prince George.

“When people mention about anti-Conservative or anti-Harper or whatever, I tell people it is about the representative. The person that is going to be here working with your municipal partners and our provincial partners and making sure that we go after every opportunity here. And for me that is the right candidate.”

“We are showing people that we are going to work tirelessly every day to ensure that people feel confident in who they’re sending out to Ottawa and that our voice is being carried from the Cariboo to Ottawa and not the other way around.”

He’s not alone. Derrick, Calogheros, Clare, Jacques and de Kroon have been driving up and down a riding that’s the size of many European nations.

“I’ve learned more about this home of mine than I ever thought possible,” Calogheros says of her time of the road, calling the experience exhilarating, but exhausting. By the time the campaign is done, she and her competitors will have attended over a dozen debates and countless other events, from Rotary meetings to rodeos to reserves, each trying to prove they are the candidate that will bring change, each saying they are the one who will give this place a voice, each saying they understand the needs of the region best.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Clare says of the eleven-week election period. “I think most of the candidates can actually say that we’ve really actually bonded. It’s kind of like being a prisoner in many respects, you have similar shared experiences. And I’ve gotta say I respect everybody who has put their name forward. I mean, I have fundamental disagreements with them on many issues. But as people, we’ve got a lot of good choices to make here.”

With just three days left, we’ll soon know who that choice is. But regardless of what happens, there’s one thing every candidate agrees: this is a riding that will never be taken for granted again.

If you enjoyed this, you can follow me on Twitter @akurjata where I’ll be providing some election-night coverage and analysis.

More information about the candidates:

Official links:

Adam de Kroon: website | facebook | twitter

Richard Jacques: website | facebook | twitter

Sheldon Clare: website | facebook | twitter

Todd Doherty: website | facebook | twitter

Tracy Calogheros: website | facebook | twitter

Trent Derrick: website | facebook | twitter