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The Closest Race in BC?

In North Island, NDP and Tory foes split last two races by a hair. Here comes round three.

Andrew MacLeod 8 Sep

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Vancouver Island North MLA Catherine Bell.

Former Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservative member of Parliament John Duncan has had some time to go over the numbers from the 2006 federal election, when he lost to the NDP's Catherine Bell in the Vancouver Island North riding by just 616 votes.

"It was very hard to take in a sense," he said, noting Bell beat him by a mere 1.1 per cent of the vote. "I did get 41 per cent of the vote. I've won elections with less."

Before his defeat, Duncan, a forester from Campbell River, had held the riding for 13 years, first for the Reform Party, then the Alliance and finally the Conservatives. He stopped short of calling Bell's 2006 victory a fluke, but he noted it was the highest result for the NDP in the riding since 1988.

It was also a two-way race. "We shared 83 per cent of the vote last time," he said, a result made possible by plunging results for the Liberals and Greens.

Before that, in the 2004 election, an even narrower result had gone the other way for Duncan, who squeaked in with 35.4 per cent of the vote, only 483 ballots ahead of Bell. The margin was a tiny 0.9 per cent.

This time around both Duncan and Bell are predicting another hard-fought, two-way race that's too close to call.

Rival records

"I think it's going to be another close race," said Bell, reached at home in Cumberland a few days before the election was officially called.

Duncan had his chance in Ottawa and came up short, she said. "He's been there. Unfortunately he didn't get much done. . . I've had comments, even from people in his party, that I did more in two and a half years than he did in 13."

Her main achievements, she said, were getting the parliament to push the United Nations to recognize Oceans Day and speaking out for small communities and industry towns. She also said she has been approachable and available, opening three offices in the large riding and visiting many of the smaller communities.

"I've been accessible and people have had their issues resolved," she said. "For me, that's the most important thing, representing my constituents to make sure they're well represented."

Harper's shadow

During the election, she'll be reminding people what's at stake if Harper wins. The region has lost many jobs because of the federal government, she said. "He's taken us backwards, sold out our resources and our industrial communities."

The signing of the softwood lumber agreement, for example, contributed to the closure of a local saw mill, as well as part of a pulp mill. "Our government sold out our ability to subsidize an industry that's in trouble, that could use some government support," she said. "It was obvious to me it was a sell out, but they didn't see it."

Duncan, however, said that while times are tough in resource-dependent communities, the Conservatives are the best party for the economy. People looking for a way forward will vote for Harper, he said. "Who's the best fiscal manager? Who's responsive to the needs of resource communities?"

He added, "I think he's the best Prime Minister Canada's had in my lifetime, and I've been around for awhile."

And much as Bell will be invoking Harper's name in the campaign, Duncan will be campaigning against NDP leader Jack Layton. "Catherine Bell's all about Jack Layton," he said. "Jack Layton is as known to you as he is to me. She's running on Jack Layton's record, not on hers. . . The party line is the only line we hear locally."

And while Bell has been doing constituency work and making frequent trips to Ottawa to represent the riding, Duncan said he's also been staying in touch with the region's diverse communities. "I've had a lot of time to organize," said Duncan, who has had an office open since April 2007, and been the Conservative's candidate of record since before that. "We've done a lot of political work in the riding, which we expect will pay dividends in the election."

Green factor

Duncan said he also expects to get a lift from a rebounding Green Party. In 2006, the Green Party's support in the riding dropped by about half from the previous election. Duncan said he figures most of that support went to the NDP.

"I would anticipate things to be different this time," he said. Leader Elizabeth May has given the party a much higher profile and will draw votes from the NDP, he said. "Elizabeth May has more credibility than Jim Harris had."

The Greens are yet to pick a candidate in the riding, though in the days before the election campaign a party contact said they have a prospective candidate close to entering the race.

Bell observed, "Maybe they're going to focus their energies on areas they think they can win. That would make sense for them."

Duncan, however, said, "It doesn't matter who they'll run, they'll do better."

Lacklustre Liberals

Neither sees the Liberals as a factor in the riding. Support for the party has dwindled in the region, and this time they're running a political newcomer, Geoff Fleischer.

"He's not well known," said Duncan. "He's not known by any of the people I've come in contact with over the past year and a half."

Nor does Bell have much to say about the Liberal candidate. "I have never met him. I don't know him," she said. She expects the Liberal support to stay low in the riding, she said, and she's encouraging people from the party to help on her campaign.

Fleischer, for his part, said he's in the race for the experience. A 26-year-old who grew up in Port Hardy and the Comox Valley, he has a political science degree from the University of Victoria and started studies last week in urban planning at Langara College in Vancouver. Despite the election call, he plans to continue at school and return to the riding when he can. "I'm definitely going to be over every single weekend."

He anticipates having about $2,000 to spend on his campaign, which won't be enough to cover things like lawn signs. Lacking signs could be positive, he said, a sign of his environmental commitment. "I have to spin the negatives into a positive."

Nor does he see Stéphane Dion's green shift as something that will resonate easily in his riding. The country does need to find ways to develop sustainable economies and live in tune with the environment, he said, but it may be hard to get people to vote for that. While the North Island has its share of progressive thinkers, there are also many driveways filled with big trucks and power boats. "They don't want to be told their previous lifestyles are going to have to change," he said. "It's a really tough sell."

He is, however, thinking long term. "We're building a base and getting the experience."

Opposing members

The last time voters from northern Vancouver Island sent somebody from the winning party to Ottawa it was 1974, when Hugh Anderson won what was then Comox-Alberni for the Liberals, with Pierre Trudeau leading the national campaign.

Since then, the riding has been consistently out of step with the majority of Canadians, an irony personified in Duncan. After 13 years sitting on the opposition side of the House of Commons, Duncan's Conservative colleagues formed the government, finally getting a chance to steer parliament, but voters kept him home.

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper hoping to form a majority government, the NDP's Bell will be doing her best to keep Duncan back at the Island.

"I plan on winning," she said. "I'm working hard. It's going to be a close race."

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