New Brunswick

Chips, booze and lumber: A whirlwind trip with Kris Austin

Trailing Kris Austin on a day of campaigning is much like travelling without a destination.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin attracts some supporters looking for 'common sense'

Kris Austin, leader of the People's Alliance of New Brunswick, has inspired some people with no political experience to join his cause. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

Trailing Kris Austin on a day of campaigning is much like travelling without a destination. 

There are many, many stops in unexpected places. Not a whole lot is planned. And there is lots of buying of things you didn't know you needed.

Austin's tour of the Upper St. John River Valley on Thursday was mostly dictated by the whims of the local candidates he met with along the way. 

"From head office in Fredericton we don't dictate where they go and we don't do a whole lot of, you know, marketing apparatus around things," said Austin. 

Austin and Terry Sisson visit a lumber mill in Perth-Andover. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

A lumber mill, a potato chip plant, a cabinet factory, and a "moonshine" distillery were a few of stops as the People's Alliance "campaign bus," a Dodge Caravan, wrapped in purple campaign decals declaring "Be the Change!" bounced from place to place. 

Arranging to meet Austin along his route proved a bit of challenge, like hitting a moving target. His communications manager suggested the most direct method: "text him." 

Journalists often have to navigate layers of communications officers, emails and calls before accessing other party leaders. Just texting is refreshingly simple.

And that mantra of "common sense" is one that isn't lost on those who pledge their allegiance to the former church minister from Minto. 

Ryan Albright, the president of the Covered Bridge Potato Chip Company, chats with Stewart Manuel and Austin. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

That text leads to a call, which leads to the Covered Bridge Potato Chip Company in Waterville. Once there, it's not hard to pinpoint who's with the People's Alliance of New Brunswick. One purple shirt greets another before Austin and Stewart Manuel, the candidate for the riding of Carleton, take the potato chip tour. 

As potatoes are sorted, diced and cooked in oil in the background, the two men speak at length with company president Ryan Albright about challenges facing small businesses, lowering taxes, and the quality of life in the Maritimes, all while chowing down on a bag of chips. 

Austin makes his arguments for a change in government, shakes hands and buys a few more bags "for the road."

Austin makes a purchase from Moonshine Creek, a local distiller. He's says NB Liquor should be reduced to a regulatory body, and pushed out of the sale of alcohol to make way for private sellers and producers. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

He crosses the street to Moonshine Creek, a distillery of grain spirits. (The term "moonshine" isn't legally recognized in Canada, so the term moonshine is used with a wink.) 

Here Austin repeats the process, touring the plant, then voicing his displeasure with bureaucracy to owner Jeremiah Clark. He criticizes the various taxes faced by local brewers and distillers, vows to move the sale of alcohol to private companies and convenience stores, reducing the Crown corporation to a regulatory body, and promises a flat tax.

Austin leaves the Covered Bridge Potato Chip factory with bags of chips 'for the road' as he continues his campaign swing through Carleton County. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

Austin shakes hands, buys a jar of apple crumble-flavoured definitely-not-moonshine moonshine — wink-wink — and heads to his next stop, wherever that might be. 

He promises he's not a heavy drinker.

A promise of different

For the last eight years, Austin has promised he can do better than either the Liberals or the PCs, two sides of the same coin as far as he's concerned. And that promise is what has brought some people into politics, although many shrug off the label of "politician."

"I was sitting around complaining about the government so I decided to jump in," said Manuel, who also bought jar of not-moonshine.

Manuel is one of 30 candidates running for the People's Alliance and one of many who have no law-making or political experience. After working with CN Rail for 35 years, Manuel describes himself as a guy who, when it comes down to it, just "wants his road fixed." 

Stewart Manuel, the People's Alliance candidate for Carleton, says Austin was the deciding factor when he considered running for the party. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

"The roads are terrible," Manuel said. "People, they buy a new vehicle and they beat the front end off on potholes. And they're just sick of it, really.

"They're just bad everywhere and they hate paying taxes and having nothing to show for it."

But like most of those new to the purple party, Manuel points to Austin himself for recruiting him. 

"I looked at the Green Party and the People's Alliance, and I picked the People's Alliance," said Manuel. 

"People's Alliance to me was the better party. Just the way Kris would talk to you. And his interviews. It's just a common-sense party, basically." 

Austin and Manuel wish each other luck and part ways. Off to meet the candidate farther north, Austin disappears just long enough to sneak some Burger King, before he's shaking hands with the next purple shirt in front of the Victoria Glen Manor in Perth-Andover. 

Perth-Andover 

Terry Sisson, a retired school teacher and former Hockey NB board member heads into the manor, where it seems every second person knows his name. 

The question "How are you doing, Terry?" is often met with the lightning response of "Terrible! How are you?" with a chuckle and a friendly smile. He's a character and he knows it. But so does the community, and the well-known 75-year old is well-liked. 

Terry Sisson, a former teacher and now the candidate for Carleton-Victoria, credits Austin with getting him to run, although he was never interested in campaigning before. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

He's quick to poke fun of himself, but when questioned about the issues he's campaigning on, he becomes sombre. 

"We're not retaining our youth here," said Sisson.

Over the years, he said, he's watched hockey clubs shrink to the point where it's difficult to keep a team going. The community has been aging, and families with children are few and far between. 

"I'm probably a little over the average age, but not by much."

He got sad saying that only two homes have sold over the last five years. 

"I drive up through here and I can see more empty houses and signs with "For Sale" on them and I know that the people aren't going to sell them. Nobody is buying around here. Nobody is coming back here." 

But Austin gives him hope for a change in the way things have been run in the province. Like many in the party, he sees no tangible differences in a community when New Brunswick is run by the PCs or the Liberals. In Austin, he sees something different. 

"I like Kris. He's honest. Straightforward. No beating around the bush. What he says you can take to the bank." 

Sisson sees the major issues as jobs and population decline, while his fellow candidate just down the river points to infrastructure and services being the number one issue. They echo a similar sentiment on at least two things: their leader and language. 

Rally time 

A rally for the People's Alliance candidate Gary Lemmon was held in Nackawic on Thursday. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

Five o'clock rolls around and by this time, Austin has visited close to a dozen businesses and shops throughout the day. 

This culminates in Nackawic, where about 50 supporters — all wearing purple — gather under the "World's Biggest Axe" for a barbecue and a meet-and-greet rally. Potatoes are once again sliced and cooked in oil, and an acoustic guitar solo act plays in the background.  

Here, once again, the local candidate describes his decision to run as the result of Austin's perceived sincerity. 

Gary Lemmon, a retired carpenter is running for the People's Alliance of New Brunswick in the riding of Carlton-York. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

"He sold me," said Gary Lemmon, a retired carpenter running for Carlton-York. "His message was so clear and so honest. And he came across so honest. And I listened to his plan, his policies. And I thought "this was somebody that I could follow," you know, 'I like what you're telling me.'

'He's talking about change, he's talking about a voice for the people and that was a new thing," said Lemmon. 

And Lemmon, like the others who have donned the purple shirt, thinks that if New Brunswick were in better shape it could afford duality, the offering of separate services in French and in English. But not in this economy. 

Language barriers 

The divisive issue of language brings a lot of these candidates together. Each insists there is no deep-seated agenda against the francophone community.

Rather, it's the costs that come with being Canada's only bilingual province. And in a province strapped for cash the idea of "paying double" doesn't jive with the "common sense" mantra.

A rally of about 50 people was held Thursday night in Nackawic for the People's Alliance candidate Gary Lemmon. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

Forgetting for a minute the constitutional protection of both official languages, it's the commonly held belief that there's a mountain of money to be saved by abolishing duality.

The example touted most often is the image of two half-full school buses making the same early-morning rounds, picking up English and French children separately. The "double costs" don't make "common sense," when your targeted base is anglophones in the southern half of the province.

And it's rallying points like this one that have been growing the purple party to the point where there is a very real chance Austin will get a seat in the legislature this fall. 

Asked if his platform is racist, or anti-French, he is quick to rebuff. 

"That's just nonsense," said Austin, who concedes that the issues surrounding language are the biggest criticism his party faces from the general public.  

"Language is always a hot button for us, but just because it's a sensitive issue doesn't mean we should shy away from it politically," said Austin.

"Matter of fact, because it is such a hot issue I think it's something politicians should talk more about. And of course, the debate should be respectful, and we have to find solutions in New Brunswick. We can't just continue to shy away from them because they're sensitive topics." 

Supporters at the rally also disagree their calls for an end to dual services should be seen as anything more than "common sense." 

Bo Sheaves, who lives in Nackawic, says he would never support a party that is "anti-French," but says cutting dual services in a cash strapped province just makes sense to him. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

"It makes me laugh in a way," said Bo Sheaves, who lives in Nackawic and makes 40-minute drive to Fredericton each way daily to work at a grocery store. "First it made me a little bit angry. Now I just chuckle at it because it's the furthest thing. I'm half-French, my mother was a Levesque from the Grand Falls area.

"I would never be against the French people … I would never be supporting any party that was anti-French. … I would never support a party that was against the French population in this province. Or anything that would have anything to do with anti-French. I wouldn't be supporting the party." 

For Sheaves, as every candidate Austin met with during the day, the language issue boils down to dollars and cents they say the province doesn't have. 

Countdown to the 24th 

Austin talks with people as he eats chips and hotdogs, it hasn't been the healthiest road diet, he admits. 

But he's convinced it will all be worth it. 

Four years ago, Austin lost his home riding of Fredericton-Grand Lake by 26 votes (25, said Austin, after the recount.) Since then he's seen his party ranks swell, he said.

Memberships and candidates are about double what they were last provincial election.

The latest projections from the CBC Poll Tracker suggest the People's Alliance of New Brunswick could get a single seat and 6.6 per cent of the popular vote. That's not far off from the NDP's 7.3 per cent or the Greens' 8.1 per cent. 

"My argument has always been that two parties operate so much the same there's no differential opinions, or ideas, or policies, between them," Austin said. "So we want to take a different approach and it's nice to see that people of New Brunswick are finally catching onto that."  

Kris Austin missed his chance at a seat in the legeslature last provincial election by just about two dozen seats. He says the swell in his party since then has been incredible, and he's never felt closer to winning. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.

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