Election predictions are murky in Miramichi-Grand Lake
New Brunswick's largest federal riding includes a wide range of views
Sisters Wendy and Wanda Northrup are so in sync with each other that they finish each other's sentences — even when they're trying to sort out who they'll vote for in next week's federal election.
"I don't like Trudeau," Wendy said as the pair arrived at the Foodland grocery store in Minto, in the southwest corner of the Miramichi-Grand Lake riding.
She was quick to add: "I've always been Conservative but I'm not sure this time. The NDP, I think if I vote for them, I'm just taking a vote from somebody else."
"But if everybody thinks like that, you get no change," Wanda answered. "I think I'm voting NDP … I'm tired of the other two."
"Very tired," Wendy agreed.
"It's always one or the other, and look at us," Wanda said.
"They make all these promises," Wendy added. "Some promises happen but we're still in debt."
The indecision afflicting the Northrup sisters speaks to the murky electoral picture in Miramichi-Grand Lake, the province's largest federal riding and perhaps the most difficult to figure out.
Through the woods in Doaktown, Coun. Art O'Donnell, a provincial candidate for the populist People's Alliance last year, had surprisingly good things to say about the first-term Liberal incumbent.
"I've met Pat Finnigan many times and he's a gentleman and he's been good to me."
But, he said, the idea of voting Liberal, of supporting Justin Trudeau, scared him.
The Fredericton riding is getting lots of attention during this campaign as the scene of a possible Green Party breakthrough. But Miramichi-Grand Lake is where a different kind of anti-establishment vibe could affect the outcome on Oct. 21.
"I'm not sure which way this riding's going to go," O'Donnell said. "I think people really do want an alternative."
But, he added, newer parties haven't been quick enough to nominate well-known candidates.
"There's mixed feelings, and they can change any time, at the last minute," said Norma Jean Dickison as she pulled out her flower beds for the fall across from the Doaktown Tim Horton's. "No one knows for sure how people are going to vote."
The constituency sprawls across the province's midsection, running from Minto, near Fredericton, up to Boiestown and Doaktown on the Upper Miramichi, and over to a slice of Kent County and mostly francophone Rogersville and Baie Ste. Anne.
It then continues north to take in the city of Miramichi and communities up the coast, including Neguac and Tabusintac.
In its more than 17,000 square kilometres, there are anglophones, francophones and several First Nations. It is dominated by traditional industries such as forestry and fishing.
"I have a mini-representation of the province here," Finnigan said as he campaigned at a seniors' residence in Boiestown.
The businessman from Rogersville was first elected in 2015, winning 47 per cent of the vote, thanks in part to the Trudeau wave that swept all 32 ridings in Atlantic Canada.
He's running on his own reputation and on the government's record, pointing to the Canada Child Benefit introduced by the Liberals, their middle-class tax cut and the move of the pension eligibility age back to 65 from 67.
He also credits Trudeau with salvaging the North American Free Trade Agreement, almost cancelled by Donald Trump, and with signing a trade agreement with the European Union that opened new markets for lobster fishermen in the constituency.
"We have a record to talk about," he said. "It's a different conversation [than four years ago], but a good one."
But the Liberal wave of 2015 has receded, and provincially, voters here have shown a willingness to try new things.
In last year's provincial election, the People's Alliance won two of the five ridings that overlap with Miramichi-Grand Lake, and came within 35 votes of capturing a third. In another corner of the federal constituency, a provincial Green MLA was elected.
The populist success of the Alliance would seem to open the door to a new party like the People's Party of Canada (PPC), and candidate Ron Nowlan says he's seeing some interest from voters.
"I'm surprised at the support. A lot of doors will say, 'You don't even have to keep talking. We're going to vote for you guys anyway.'" But, he added, "The majority say, 'I don't know what I'm going to do.'"
Nowlan worked on People's Alliance MLA Michelle Conroy's campaign in Miramichi last year and says many of her supporters are backing him, though so far not a lot of her campaign volunteers have signed up to work for him.
They are "either busy or just don't have the time to give us volunteer support."
It's also not assumed that Alliance voters will go to the PPC.
"I don't think anybody's voting for [PPC Leader Maxime] Bernier," said Rodney Hoyt of Minto. "He's too far away in Quebec. We've got problems down here that are different than Quebec."
Nowlan agrees. "People don't understand the different platforms at the federal level and the provincial. It's a very different ball game."
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin has refused to endorse any federal party, making it hard to predict where his supporters will go on election day.
"I hear people say they're possibly going to go Conservative, some others are going PPC and I'm sure there are others of our supporters who will go to the other parties as well … We're a diverse party in our membership and people will do what best suits them."
Nowlan isn't the only candidate making Miramichi-Grand Lake more unpredictable than usual.
There are also two candidates with Conservative ties — the party's official candidate, Peggy McLean, and an independent, Allison McKenzie, who was nominated as a Conservative and then disqualified.
McKenzie beat two other contestants for the party nomination back in April, but after the convention she and one of her rivals were rejected over unspecified irregularities. The third candidate for the April nomination withdrew.
Former MP Tilly Gordon-O'Neill then stepped in as the Conservative candidate, only to withdraw for medical reasons.
McLean was then chosen to carry the party colours, only to have McKenzie jump into the race as an independent.
"That's just exactly what our democracy needs, is more voices creating honesty and integrity and making a voice for everyone in the riding," McKenzie said.
She dismissed the possibility that she'll take away Conservative votes from McLean and make it easier for Finnigan to win for the Liberals. "I'm planning on taking this and coming right up the middle," she said.
McLean is warning voters to stick with the party that has a chance of taking power.
"There's power in numbers," she said. "If you're looking at voting for somebody, if their party stands a chance of forming government, you'd like to be on the same side as government. You'd like to have a voice and have some representation."
Hoyt, in Minto, is receptive: he said he won't support a new party.
"Liberal or Conservative, because I trust them," he said. "I don't trust the other ones."
McLean is campaigning on the theme of affordability, echoing national Conservative themes of attacking Liberal spending and the party's carbon tax, while promising to bring back measures like boutique tax credits that lower the cost of living.
"People are very, very concerned about being able to pay their bills," she said.
She calls her Liberal opponent Finnigan "a really nice guy," and Finnigan refuses to criticize the Conservatives for their difficulty in settling on a candidate to run against him.
"I've got to sell myself," he said. "I'm not going to put down anyone else to prop myself up."
He said that comes from his years operating a business. He founded an agriculture co-operative in Rogersville and started Mr. Tomato, a produce store in the village.
That taught him to get along with everyone — even the provincial MLAs from four different parties within the federal riding.
"I've been in business all my life and I know you have to build relationships," he said. "Our politics are different, but if it's about helping someone or some community, they know I'll be at the table."
The congenial tone between McLean and Finnigan, and the lack of excitement over candidates from other parties, may be another reason why Miramichi-Grand Lake is so hard to read.
"It's extremely quiet," Austin said. "There's not a lot of buzz … and I don't know what that means."
- A previous version of this story said all three of the original candidates for the Conservative nomination in Miramichi-Grand Lake were later disqualified over irregularities. In fact, one of those candidates, Shawn Ingersoll, was not disqualified. He voluntarily withdrew when the party decided to appoint a new candidate. The incorrect information about Mr. Ingersoll was provided by the Conservative Party of Canada, which has apologized.Oct 20, 2019 2:16 PM AT