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In Nanaimo-Ladysmith, an Election Race that’s Typical BC: A Four-Way Fight

A Green now holds the seat. The NDP and Liberal are scrapping hard. The Conservative wouldn’t be interviewed.

Andrew MacLeod 14 Oct 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

Five months ago, the Green party had a breakthrough victory in Nanaimo-Ladysmith that the party hopes will repeat on Oct. 21. But the other main political parties are back with the same candidates for a rematch that any of them could hope to win.

The riding had been held by the NDP until the May byelection, when Paul Manly surprised many and became the second Green party candidate ever elected to the House of Commons.

“People have seen that a Green vote in Nanaimo-Ladysmith is not a wasted vote, and they can re-elect a Green incumbent,” Manly said.

The win, which followed the Greens’ success in April in the Prince Edward Island provincial election, where the party won eight of 27 seats and became the Official Opposition, was a major advance for the party.

The Nanaimo-Ladysmith result came primarily at the expense of Bob Chamberlin, who as the NDP candidate was considered by many the favourite. Chamberlin instead came third, a short distance behind Conservative John Hirst and well ahead of Liberal Michelle Corfield.

Manly, who won the byelection with 37 per cent of the vote in a contest where slightly more than four out of 10 eligible voters cast ballots, acknowledged he’d been seen as the underdog, though in the end he outdistanced both Hirst and Chamberlin by more than 5,000 votes.

“The media ignored me,” Manly said, recalling that reporters scrambled to get to his victory party on election night, having guessed wrong on where they should be. “I think I surprised a lot of people.”

Green supporters are often people fed up with the other main parties and believe the Greens are offering a vision for the future, Manly said. “There were people who took a chance to vote in the byelection, because they knew there was another election coming no matter what within six months.”

With that race now here, the candidates and their parties are well aware that the dynamic is different in a general election. There’s more attention on leaders and platforms, and the “send-the-government-a-message” pitch has less resonance with more at stake.

Aggregated polling shows British Columbia to be more evenly divided between the four parties than any other part of the country, with a spread of less than 17 per cent between the front-running Conservatives and the fourth-place Greens.

There will be a lot of three and four-party races like Nanaimo-Ladysmith in the province, with unpredictable results.

In the days after the Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection, some observers predicted the riding would go back to “normal” in October.

That would benefit Chamberlin, who had been the heir apparent to the NDP’s Sheila Malcolmson after she left to successfully seek a seat in the provincial legislature that helped keep John Horgan’s minority NDP government in power.

Chamberlin was on the executive of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs for a decade, including nine years as vice-president. Kwakwaka'wakw, he was the elected chief councillor of the Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation on Gilford Island in the Broughton Archipelago northeast of Vancouver Island for 14 years.

For most of his life, including much of his time as chief, he has lived in Nanaimo.

People in the city are concerned about the cost of living, especially for pensioners, he said. There’s interest in the NDP’s plans for national pharmacare and the commitment to a health system that covers people from head to toe.

Homelessness, poverty and the environment are also key, he said. There’s support in the community for ending fossil fuel subsidies and putting the money into green energy, an approach that would help oil and gas workers transition into new employment.

“The main thrust of where we’re going is some stuff I’ve been fighting for for 14 years anyway,” he said.

Before he became chief, the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper branded his community “the sickest village you’ll never see,” he said. There were 26 homes that were so mouldy they had to be condemned. For eight years there was a “do not consume” order on the local water, and drinking water had to be brought in by barge.

“That’s what I stepped into as chief 14 years ago,” he said.

Fixing the water, a federal obligation that former prime minister Stephen Harper had to be embarrassed into acting on, cost about $7 million in the one community, he said.

At the time, the estimated bill to make drinking water safe on each of the hundreds of reserves that lacked clean water was over $3 billion, Chamberlin said. “Which seems like an astronomical amount until you realize that within a very short period the [current] prime minister spent more than that buying an old pipeline. We can forego human rights for First Nations people in Canada, but we’ve got to get that oil pipeline bought.”

In communities like Grassy Narrows, the government has known for decades that the water was unsafe to drink, he said. “Good gosh. If that was Coquitlam, or Lethbridge, there would have been some pretty serious quick action. Because it’s a First Nation and a largely isolated place, out of sight out of mind, it’s not an emergency.”

On housing, Chamberlin’s community of 25 people first brought in eight emergency trailers to provide homes for elders. Then, through partnerships with the federal and provincial governments, industry and trust funds, and using $2.4 million of its own money, the First Nation built 20 new homes.

“The whole place is brand new, and it’s the work I was leading for all these years,” Chamberlin said. “Needless to say, I’ve got a pretty good handle on the needs of water and housing on reserves.”

The housing problem was solvable on Gilford Island, but for larger communities the scale of the problem is also larger, he said. “When you step into some of the reserves across the country where we’re talking thousands of people and the need for thousands of homes, the scale of it just gets beyond abilities to do.”

Not every community has the money needed to enter partnerships, he added. “Every reserve needs housing,” he said, estimating that on some Vancouver Island reserves as many as 90 per cent of homes should be torn down and rebuilt.

“It’s because they were housing stock that was poorly designed, not enough housing to meet population needs, so you wind up having more moisture inside the home with more people living in it. But the more moisture you have in a poorly built home, the more the chances are of mould,” he said. “I do know this is certainly a human rights crisis for First Nations across this country.”

Water and housing issues, as well as social conditions more generally, could be much improved if the federal government embraced Supreme Court of Canada decisions from recent decades that have recognized Aboriginal title and made sure communities benefit economically from the activity happening in their territories, he said.

“They tinker around the edges, which perpetuates the underfunding, which perpetuates the poverty and housing and drinking water,” he said. “But this is an act of choice by Conservative and Liberal governments. That choice is about a reckless disregard for First Nations’ human rights in Canada.”

The issues faced on reserves are about human rights, and they are comparable to what many other Canadians face in communities across the country, he said. “To me, when I can look at it through a human rights lens and see it for First Nations, and I look over on the next part of the page and I see it’s the exact same for Canadian citizens in many ways, what the heck is going wrong here?”

The Liberal candidate, Corfield, though knowledgeable and sympathetic, said she didn’t see First Nations water and housing as significant electoral issues in the local race. “I don’t think my voters care too much about that,” she said. “There’s nobody in this riding that has bad drinking water.”

Corfield, who on her mother’s side is from the Ucluelet First Nation, has a bachelor’s degree in First Nations studies, a master’s in conflict analysis and management and a PhD in management. She’s worked as an educator, facilitator and negotiator around treaty negotiations for 25 years, including eight years as chair of the legislative council implementing the Ucluelet First Nation’s treaty.

She has also sat as a layperson on the board of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and most recently was chair of the Nanaimo Port Authority.

“On a global scale, on a national scale, this government has moved Indigenous people and reconciliation farther than any other government before,” she said. “They have lifted 87 long-term drinking water advisories.... Pretty good in four years.”

By the government’s count, that leaves 56 reserves with long-term drinking water advisories.

Housing for First Nations has been an issue for decades, Corfield said, noting that it’s a systemic problem that goes back to people being forced onto reserves that may or may not have been in places that were habitable year-round.

Under the Indian Act, people were guaranteed housing, but children were taken from their homes and people were put in small homes on small plots of land. “It’s crazy that became the norm. ‘Oh, we have to have these single family homes.’ They’re all these tiny little homes, right? Well, we don’t live like that. They need bigger spaces to accommodate multiple generations.”

Add in that much of the construction was low quality and that populations are growing, and it’s a huge challenge to keep up, she said.

Asked what the main issues are in the riding, she said, “In all honesty, what I’m hearing is the opioid crisis and crime. That’s what I hear, because that’s at the heart of what’s happening right here in Nanaimo.”

There are some 600 people who are homeless in Nanaimo, and many people are concerned about the social disorder that comes with that and how it affects the city, she said. People are also worried about affordability, the need for shelter, prescription drugs, and the need for amendments to medical assistance in dying legislation.

Running in the general election has been a much different experience than the byelection, Corfield said.

“The national campaign has a big influence, and you’re not as much on stage,” she said. “In a byelection, it’s all about the candidate, or who shows up at the polls.”

Running for the party in government was an added challenge, Corfield said. “Every day in the paper, whatever was going on in government I was being put to task on.... This time, I’m getting hugs and kisses. Much different.”

The byelection happened as the SNC-Lavalin scandal continued to play out. Jody Wilson-Raybould, the country’s first Indigenous attorney general, had resigned from cabinet a few months earlier, and she and Jane Philpott were ejected from the Liberal caucus around the time the campaign began.

Corfield said that while the news about Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin hurt her byelection campaign, it didn’t give her pause as an Indigenous person running for the party. She was reluctant to criticize Wilson-Raybould directly, but said, “What I would say is, I’m a team player.”

When the Greens’ Manly is asked what it’s like to run against two Indigenous candidates, he points out that the party has strong Indigenous candidates in Victoria and Cowichan-Malahat-Langford. “We need more balance and representation in Parliament, but I’m hoping that balance and representation comes from Green party candidates who are going to stand up for the future and for the environment,” he said.

In Manly’s own work as a documentary filmmaker, many of his projects have closely involved First Nations communities, and he has family connections who are Haisla.

“I’ve grown up learning about Indigenous culture, and I’ve grown up learning the unvarnished truth about residential schools and the Sixties Scoop and the treatment of First Nations and Indigenous people,” he said.

Along with documentary projects on language reclamation and the legacy of residential schools, he’s worked on shows for children and youth for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and on projects that have made him a regular visitor to the Snuneymuxw First Nation.

“They know me as a friend of the community, as somebody who cares about their culture and understands the history and is working towards true reconciliation, as an individual and a community member and a community leader,” he said.

Reconciliation needs to happen on both a government and an individual level, he said.

“As an individual, you understand the truth and you hold reconciliation in your heart,” he said. “Everybody needs to be treated properly, and we recognize historic wrongs, but we work towards the future by working together in solidarity and as allies in recognizing Indigenous people have sovereignty and the ability to create their own destiny.”

In his short time in office Manly spoke on a few bills in Parliament and worked on community issues, including concerns about freighters parked in the Salish Sea and the use of Department of National Defence lands.

“People are starting to understand we’re not a one-issue party, although climate change is going to affect our economy brutally if we do not deal with climate change, and it’s going to affect our social programs in a similar way if we do not effectively deal with climate change,” he said.

The Green platform takes a holistic view that also includes health care, seniors, education and the economy, he said. Canada needs a healthy, circular economy that moves beyond treating resources and products as disposable, he said, promising Greens would build that kind of renewable and regenerative economy.

Manly says he’s sick of the hyper-partisanship of politics, but he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the NDP for not taking a stronger stand against the LNG Canada liquefied natural gas project planned for Kitimat, B.C., as well as the increase in fracking for gas it will facilitate in the northeast of the province.

The provincial NDP minority government, in power thanks to the votes of three Green MLAs, has approved and encouraged the project.

“The federal NDP have not been outspoken about what’s going on with LNG Canada even though the Liberal government has given these foreign multinationals $350 million in tax breaks and incentives for cheap hydro and grants,” Manly said. “If they care about climate change, they should be speaking out against it.”

Chamberlin, for his part, sees the criticism as unfair and out of step with the Green pledge to do politics differently.

“What I’ve seen is an active obfuscation of federal and provincial NDP,” he said. “They’ve been throwing LNG at myself and Jagmeet [Singh]. And when that was at the federal level, it was the Liberal government that put it through. They have a majority. When it came to the provincial government, it was the Liberals that pushed it, then they lost, and then the provincial NDP made a decision, not the federal NDP.”

“I felt it was very disingenuous to be muddying the waters by tagging a provincial decision of a party onto the federal party,” he added.

Manly’s response: “When you buy a membership in the NDP, you get a provincial membership and a federal membership.”

The campaign for Nanaimo-Ladysmith Conservative candidate Hirst declined the opportunity to participate in this story.  [Tyee]

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