CBC News Federal Election
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Analysis & Commentary

Robert Jones

Atlantic Canada’s red Tory strongholds struggle with party merger
June 15, 2004

Robert Jones
Robert Jones  

Murray Hawkes is 81 years old but doesn't look or act like he's even seen 70 yet. His massive hands testify to a lifetime toiling on the family dairy farm in Waterford, N.B., but his real talents are political not agricultural.

Hawkes has been the Progressive Conservative poll chairman in Waterford for a half century and in that time Tories have won the Waterford poll in every election, federal and provincial.

 Murray Hawkes
  Murray Hawkes
"They didn't use to plow past the bridge on this road," says Hawkes. "I can remember getting [voters] in the horse and sled and taking them to Waterford in to vote. That was 50 years ago, if not more."

Hawkes has spent his entire life in Waterford. It's a tiny rural community near the base of Poley Mountain, halfway between Saint John and Moncton.

Local Liberals like Dorthy Howell are few and far between here and openly admit that when it comes to voting, Waterford has always belonged to the likes of Murray Hawkes and his Tories.

"I said if he ran his cat they'd probably vote for it," she laughs.

But this election is a little different. The Progressive Conservative merger with the Alliance Party has made many Atlantic Tories a little uncomfortable, even in Waterford.

"Well that seemed to bother some of them, that's for sure,” acknowledges Hawkes. “ Of course, it never bothered me any but some of them it did, that's for sure."

The way old Tories view the new Conservative party is critical to the outcome of the federal election, especially in Atlantic Canada. In 2000 the Progressive Conservative party polled over 30 per cent of the vote in the region, close on the heels of the Liberals and triple its total in the rest of the country.

Vote splitting between P.C. and Canadian Alliance supporters in that election gave the Liberals four seats in the region, one in Newfoundland and three in New Brunswick, meaning if the Tory and Alliance voters stick together in this election they have a chance to capture several Atlantic Canadian Liberal ridings.

But it's a big if. Many former Progressive Conservatives are unhappy with the party's merger with the Canadian Alliance. In a break with the rest of English Canada a majority of Tories in the region voted for Belinda Stronach and against Stephen Harper as the new leader. The region's long resistance to voting for the Canadian Alliance, and the Reform Party before it, combined with a coolness toward Stephen Harper has fuelled Liberal hopes throughout the region.

In the town of Sussex, old Tory stalwart Fred Whalen says he'll be voting Liberal along with other Tories he knows.

"The majority went along with the merger,” Whalen says. “But there are some who just won't go with it and they're just not going to vote for this new party."

Gordon Fairweather
Gordon Fairweather  

Gordon Fairweather is another well-known red Tory in the area. He’s a former six-term Progressive Conservative MP from New Brunswick, who fought for abortion rights and bilingualism and against capital punishment. A dusty old campaign poster he has stored away shows a young Fairweather seeking another term. “It says re-elect, so it must be from 1963 or 1965,” he guesses.

Fairweather is in his 80s now and has never voted anything but Conservative. He says he probably will again this time although he admits he's struggling with the new party's social conservatism.

 Gordon Fairweather election poster
  Gordon Fairweather election poster
"I'm a Red Tory and I'm anxious to see that the party is broadly based. The centre is where anyone who expects to form a government should be," says Fairweather. "I don't like seeing issues that have been long settled by the Supreme Court or the Constitution or time, being hauled out of the barn."

The most prominent Conservative defection in New Brunswick has been by John Herron, the two-term PC MP who this time has run for and won the Liberal nomination.

Herron's counting on large numbers of old Tories following him to the Liberal Party.

Hawkes has five old John Herron lawn signs in his garage from the 2000 election. He jokes about selling them as collectors items at a flea market, but says they wouldn't get much of a price in Waterford.

Hawkes says Herron made an appointment to come and see him after switching to the Liberals, but never showed up. He says he worked hard for Herron in the past and thinks all the talk of Atlantic Tories voting Liberal this time is overblown.

Hawkes' Liberal neighbour Dorthy Howell tends to agree with him.

"Most of my friends who are Conservative seem to be supporting this new party. I've never heard anything negative about it among the people I know," says Howell.

Has the Liberal party ever beaten the Conservatives in Waterford?

"No. Never has yet," Hawkes answers right away. "I doubt if they ever will."

Hawkes knows his politics and he knows Waterford, and he says most local Tories have accepted the new party as their own. If true, that's bad news for Liberals who know they need tens of thousands of old Tories to come their way if they’re to win several close races throughout the region.


Robert Jones is a New Brunswick based reporter and producer who has been with CBC Television News for 13 years. He has worked for many network shows, including the last two seasons with CBC's new investigative program Disclosure.
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