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Inside the shifting political tides of Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West

Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West has been a Liberal stronghold for decades. But fierce campaigning combined with new riding boundaries could give incumbent Rick Doucet a run for his money.

New faces, fierce race in a longtime Liberal stronghold

A fishing boat moored at the wharf in Blacks Harbour. It's one of many small, once-thriving fishing communities encompassed by the riding, which also includes west Saint John, Grand Manan, White Head and Deer Island. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West. It's a huge riding with a mouthful of a name to match.

It spans three islands — Grand Manan, White Head, and Deer Island — and the quiet coves and harbours of Back Bay and Mascarene, spilling over the industrial rim of west Saint John. In between is St. George — the riding's largest urban centre with a population of 1,543 — and a smattering of scenic, once-thriving fishing communities like Blacks Harbour, Chance Harbour, and Dipper Harbour.

The Musquash River Estuary in Chance Harbour, which is one of several small communities that were added to the riding in 2013. (Julia Wright / CBC)
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It's also a Liberal stronghold: the last time Charlotte County elected a Progressive Conservative MLA, Bachman-Turner Overdrive was still topping the charts, and Pierre Trudeau had just won a third term as prime minister.

But fierce campaigning for the Sept. 24 election, combined with new riding boundaries, could slowly shift that political tide.

Other than west Saint John, which makes up only a tiny fraction of the riding, the town of St. George, population 1,543, is the largest urban centre in Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Incumbent Rick Doucet — a Liberal cabinet minister and businessman with a record of championing local industry in Charlotte County — is hoping to recapture his fifth consecutive term since 2003 in the only Liberal-controlled riding in southwestern New Brunswick.

Doucet succeeded another longtime Grit MLA, Sheldon Lee, who represented the riding from 1978 until his retirement in 2003.

Dreamy New River Beach in Pocologan is one of many popular tourist spots in the electoral district. Contrary to the deserted appearance in this Sept. 5 photo, in 2014 there were 11,650 people in the riding. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Working to break that 40-year red streak is Andrea Anderson Mason, a St. George lawyer and first-time candidate for the Progressive Conservatives.

Running for the New Democrats is school bus driver and union representative Keith LeBlanc. Romey Heuff, a physical chemist and digital literacy instructor, is running for the Green Party, and IT professional Doug Ellis for the People's Alliance.

Lawyer, lifelong resident

Andrea Anderson Mason, 42, grew up in Andersonville — a rural community in St. James Parish, Charlotte County.

Mason, who was called to the bar in 2002 and who primarily works in litigation, decamped from the federal Liberal Party after becoming uncomfortable with "where [the Liberals taking our country or our province right now," said Mason, who lives in St. George with her husband, Rick, and two children.

Andrea Anderson Mason delivers a trunk full of food to the St. George food bank. 'I can relate to so many different types of people here in the province of New Brunswick,' Mason said. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Since joining the PCs two years ago, she said, "I'm hearing positive support for our mission," which she said includes strong support for large and small businesses.

"People are very discouraged about the direction the province is going on. They're very concerned about spending, transparency in government, and the futures of their children and seniors."

Many people fail to realize, she said, that Charlotte County is an increasingly diverse community because of the large number of temporary foreign workers employed in the local fish-processing industry.

"We have a fairly large immigrant community," she said. "There's a large Filipino and Romanian population. We have people from all over."

The covered bridge in Canal, just outside St. George, built in 1917. Seniors and young families make up a large proportion of the electorate — and 'people are very discouraged about the direction the province is going on,' Mason said. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Backing Mason's campaign is former New Brunswick Southwest MP Greg Thompson, who emerged from political retirement to run for the PCs against incumbent Saint Croix MLA John Ames.

Mason called Thompson "a great resource."

"Greg Thompson has been a huge influence in my life," she said. "I met him when I was nine and he was knocking on our door when I was a child."

Mason's opponent, Doucet, has questioned Thompson's "agenda" in re-entering politics, given the Saint Croix candidate's feud with the Liberal government over its refusal to take over maintenance of the private road on which he lives.

"I really have to question what it is he's doing," Doucet said, "and what his plans are. Is he planning on getting his private road done and moving out, or what's going to take place?"

'Taking nothing for granted'

Even in the hectic final weeks of his fifth election campaign, Doucet said, he still has "a ton of energy."

Born in Sussex, Doucet lives in St. George with his wife and two children. As a kid, he said, he helped out in his father's five-and-dime store, and later went on to work as a cargo pilot and in sales and marketing

Starting in 2003, Doucet was appointed critic for the Department of Energy, and was appointed critic for Fisheries and  Aquaculture in 2005.

Liberal Rick Doucet has represented the riding for 15 years. 'I’m taking nothing for granted,” he said. 'I’m hands-on with all the communities I represent, and I’m interested in keeping that going.'

In 2006, he was sworn in as minister of fisheries under then-premier Shawn Graham. Despite occasionally courting controversy, Doucet retained his seat after the Liberals were defeated in the 2010 provincial election, beating out Progressive Conservative candidate Sharon Tucker.

"People are keen on some of the investments we're making on roads, schools and hospitals," he said. "There are some people that have some concerns: unemployment, various things, but whatever it is we do our best to help them out."

Family homes are surrounded by wide expanses of rolling fields outside Blacks Harbour, 15 kilometres east of St. George. The population of the village is approximately 894. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"I'm taking nothing for granted. 

"I'm hands-on with all the communities I represent, and I'm interested in keeping that going."

Signs of the times

There are signs of underlying tension between the Liberal and Conservative camps.

Near St. George, many Liberal election signs have been taped back together after being scratched, ripped and knocked over the night the writ was dropped on Aug. 23. On L'Etete Road, one homeowner appears to have thwarted would-be vandals by rigging their sign onto the top of a crane.

An Aug. 28 letter to the local paper, the St. Croix Courier, Pennfield resident Andrew. J. Peters pointed the finger at the Tories for the sign-bashing extravaganza.

A vandalized Liberal election sign near the St. George exit. Numerous signs were damaged the night the writs were dropped on Aug. 23. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"Who did this? A member of the Green Party or the NDP? Only Rick's signs, so I doubt it. Which leaves the PC party," Peters wrote.

Mason called the suggestion "ludicrous," noting her signs were also vandalized.

"I haven't seen any personal attacks on myself or the incumbent," she said. "Are we not supposed to mention that he was involved in Atcon, or not supposed to mention that he came under the eye of the conflict commissioner because of his employment with the Lobster Sustainability Foundation? That's information the public needs to know."

While Doucet acknowledged some "negativity" in the race, "the campaign I'm running is clean," he said. "I'm maintaining my positivity."

New territory

Also complicating matters is that the riding was affected by the 2013 electoral redistribution in New Brunswick.

In 2014, it was renamed Fundy-The Isles-Saint-John West and moved east, taking in a much larger area including Musquash and parts of Saint John.

Recreational fisherman James Briggs fishes off the wharf in Blacks Harbour. Traditional industries have declined in recent decades, meaning jobs and support for small businesses are a concern for many in the riding. (Julia Wright / CBC)

In the coming days, both Doucet and Mason will face the challenge of cementing their name recognition in areas like west Saint John and Lorneville, where they lack the connections both possess in Charlotte County.

Doucet and Mason, and other candidates have been spending a lot of time on the road, hoping to connect with voters across the riding.

Lorneville, pictured, is now part of the riding, which might prove a challenge for candidates with a stronger base of support in Charlotte County. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"There's always a common tapestry no matter what you're working with," Doucet said. "People all have common concerns and hopes and it's our job to work with them and get them to the next level."

"I can relate to so many different types of people here in the province of New Brunswick," Mason said. "That's what I do every day in the courtroom, that's what I do in my office, and that's what I want to do in Fredericton."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.