A small group of people gathered at Earnest Ice Cream in Vancouver a few weeks ago at 8 a.m., not for some salted caramel, but to hear about the NDP's climate change policies -- and support Mira Oreck, the party's candidate in Vancouver Granville. (Even the Cigarette Smoking Man actor from The X-Files was there.)
Two consecutive polls by activist group Leadnow have put Oreck in the lead in the new riding. But at this breakfast-hour event, the NDP candidate warned her supporters: "I can't win the seat without all of you. My biggest opponent, the Tory, is breathing down my neck and will continue to do so."
It's not quite that simple.
To win the seat, Oreck not only has to defeat Conservative candidate Erinn Broshko, a social conservative corporate lawyer and businessman whose party has dropped leaflets warning of "jihadist terrorists" abroad and at home.
She's also up against another progressive candidate, Liberal Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former B.C. First Nations leader who once told Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the Indian Act was an act of "neo-colonialism." Wilson-Raybould so impressed leader Justin Trudeau when he met her that he talked her into joining the party and ensured she faced no opposition when she sought the nomination.
Then there is Green party candidate and accountant Michael Barkusky. A recent poll put riding support for Barkusky at six per cent, a not-insignificant amount in a close race.
Oreck and Wilson-Raybould are smart and articulate women, each regarded by their parties as star first-time candidates with compelling personal stories and resumes.
But the strength of their candidacies could cancel each other out and allow the Conservatives' Broshko to eke out a narrow win with a minority of votes. The Tyee contacted Broshko's office, but the candidate did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
Anyone's race to win
Former Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus, who knows both female candidates, said each would be an excellent MP or cabinet minister.
"I wish they could both be elected -- they're that good. We need more smart, principled and progressive women in government and it's too bad only one of them can be elected," said the Vision Vancouver trustee.
"What would be really tragic is to see votes split between them, and the Conservative candidate make it over the line ahead of both."
At 37, Oreck has a history of activism with Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver, the city's Jewish community and U.S. presidential politics. Within NDP circles, she is viewed as a whipsmart strategist and organizer, someone with a great political future should she capture Vancouver Granville.
"This new riding has no political identity, and it's a north-south riding that really cuts through every urban issue facing this city," said Oreck. "I think the race is wide open and it's anyone's to take -- and I think the people are looking for a progressive MP."
But there are two candidates running as the anti-Stephen Harper progressive. It was simpler for Oreck three years ago when she was a New York-based political strategist, developing communications plans to help re-elect U.S. President Barack Obama. Then the binary choice was clear: Obama or Republican Mitt Romney.
Oreck flew out to Los Angeles and persuaded comedian Sarah Silverman to write and star in a video called Let My People Vote about voter suppression in Republican states. "Sarah is amazing," recalled Oreck, "and it was fascinating to work with someone who has a voice so much broader and louder than any political voice can provide."
A few months later she helped produce the hilarious Wake the F*ck Up video, starring actor Samuel L. Jackson, which aimed to alert apathetic former Obama supporters about the dangers of a Romney victory.
These two online videos and 10 other pro-Obama videos produced by Oreck's company received nearly 12 million views -- and a progressive majority of Americans narrowly re-elected the incumbent Democratic candidate.
Oreck's current battle is more complicated. The Democratic Party's left-liberal majority, which held on to the White House in the U.S., is divided in Canada -- as it is in Vancouver Granville, a new riding made up of parts of four other ridings.
Drive through the riding and the campaign signs you see pretty much align with income levels. The neighbourhoods south of 41st Avenue, in upscale Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy, feature many Conservative posters. The northern and eastern areas are more split between the NDP and Liberals.
In Leadnow's crosshairs
A case can be made for each party's chances. Much of the federal constituency contains the provincial riding of Vancouver-Fairview, which is held by the NDP. Three ridings adjacent to it -- Vancouver Quadra, Vancouver Centre and Vancouver South -- are expected to go Liberal. If the riding had existed in the 2011 election, according to transposed results the Conservatives would have won with 35 per cent of the vote.
But that was four years ago. Two Leadnow polls conducted by Environics Research have given the NDP's Oreck an edge over Broshko and Wilson-Raybould. The first poll in mid-August showed Oreck leading with 32 per cent of support, followed by Tory Broshko at 27 per cent and Liberal Wilson-Raybould at 21 per cent. A second survey released last week found that Oreck still leads with 36 per cent. But Wilson-Raybould has moved up to 30 per cent, in a dead heat with Broshko.
Leadnow's polls are a worry for Wilson-Raybould because the activist group is urging its supporters to vote for the local candidate most likely to defeat the Tory candidate in their riding. Leadnow has a full-time organizer in Vancouver Granville, urging voters to sign the group's strategic voting pledge.
"I would certainly caution voters in Vancouver Granville against casting a ballot on the basis of polls with small sample sizes and high margins of error," said Wilson-Raybould.
Vancouver Granville can be considered ground zero for strategic voting in this election. Nearly 3,900 people have signed the strategic voting pledge -- the highest number of any riding in Canada.
This Saturday, Leadnow is organizing a door-knocking event in Vancouver Granville called Storm the Riding. It plans to have a get-out-the vote campaign with hundreds of volunteers on election day.
Leadnow is conducting a third poll about 10 days before the Oct. 19 election. People who signed the pledge will then decide in an online vote which candidate to endorse.
Wilson-Raybould believes people will cast their vote for their preferred candidate and party -- not necessarily for a candidate leading in polls. "While discussions around strategic voting are interesting and resonating with people, there are substantive issues that also need to be addressed."
Oreck argues Leadnow's poll results prove that she is the change candidate, not her Liberal rival. "Our numbers are holding and they are holding in the lead. And it's reflective of what we are seeing at the door."
Born into politics, and feminism
Oreck was born and raised in Vancouver, attending schools in the Vancouver Granville riding. Her parents, who met while canvassing for Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, were politically active, especially in the Jewish community. She inherited their political genes at birth. "I was born a feminist. I kind of came out (of the womb) with opinions and a gender analysis."
Oreck recalled how she challenged the powers-that-be on Whistler Mountain at age 10. She wrote a letter to the resort's management, complaining that an easy green run had been named "Mum's run" while "Dad's run" was far more daunting. The resort changed the names.
Oreck joined the campaign to curb logging in the Great Bear Rainforest (Tzeporah Berman has endorsed her candidacy) and gradually became involved in local politics, becoming an organizer for Mayor Robertson when he was first seeking the NDP nomination in Fairview. She worked as his constituency assistant, then as regional director of the Canadian Jewish Congress and later as a strategist for Robertson when he won the mayoralty in 2008.
A few years later Oreck moved to New York City to get a master's degree at the New School. She helped spearhead Make the Road, a grassroots organization formed to help mostly low-income Latino communities connect with education and social services.
Oreck also became a senior associate with a consulting firm hired to develop communications strategy for the Jewish Council for Education and Research (JCER), which was supporting Obama. Orek and the JCER went on to produce the hugely popular pro-Obama videos featuring entertainers Silverman and Jackson.
"Culture leads politics, and in this case it was incredible to watch it happen," said the NDP candidate. "To see the message get carried so far."
Oreck said she learned a lesson while recruiting celebrities that she applies in the election. "People want to be asked. These people were waiting to do something and they needed a vehicle. And the same thing is true in this election. People want to be asked to be part of something. And I feel it is my job to go out and ask them."
A lawyer who stood up to Harper
Liberal Wilson-Raybould, 44, has done her share of asking at the doorstep since she began campaigning over a year ago. She grew up on Vancouver Island, daughter of Bill Wilson, a lawyer and prominent aboriginal leader. Her traditional name -- Puglass -- was given to her by her grandmother and means "a woman born to noble people." It is also her Twitter handle.
Her father negotiated with prime minister Pierre Trudeau during the constitutional talks of the early ‘80s. He was caught in a documentary film telling Trudeau that one of his daughters could become prime minister some day. "It's an interesting symmetry," said Wilson-Raybould of the connections between two generations of Trudeaus and Wilsons.
Wilson-Raybould studied law at the University of B.C. and worked as a crown prosecutor for three years in Vancouver. She later became a member of the B.C. Treaty Commission and then in 2009 was elected regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). In 2012, during meetings in Ottawa, she denounced the Indian Act from a dais in front of Harper.
She was also among a group of aboriginal leaders who in early 2013 met with Harper in Ottawa for discussions prompted by the Idle No More protest movement.
Wilson-Raybould first met Trudeau at an AFN meeting in Whitehorse. He encouraged her to join the party and seek a federal seat. Trudeau also invited her to co-chair the next Liberal convention and made sure she won the Vancouver Granville nomination by acclamation in 2014.
Asked whether she hoped to influence aboriginal policy as a member of a Liberal government, Wilson-Raybould made it clear her focus will be on the interests of her riding.
"I am working hard to earn the support of the people in Vancouver Granville -- to become the first member of parliament in this new and incredibly diverse riding."