Atlantic Canada’s red Tory strongholds struggle with party
June 15, 2004
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.
"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
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 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.
"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."
||Gordon Fairweather election poster
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
Herron's counting on large numbers of old Tories following him to the
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.