Nova Scotia·Nova Scotia Votes

Cumberland North pits high-profile Independent vs. former 7-term MP

The incumbent is running as an Independent, a political veteran has come out of retirement and two newcomers are looking to break through in the district of Cumberland North.

Newcomers for the PCs and NDP, meanwhile, hope to shake things up in border district

Cumberland North candidates include, from left to right: Bill Casey (Liberal), Lauren Skabar (NDP), David Wightman (PC), and Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin (Independent). (CBC)

As Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin speaks with a visitor to her downtown Amherst campaign headquarters, phones are ringing in the background.

Volunteers are busy talking with potential voters and offering rides to the polls for those who need them. It's what you'd expect at this point in a provincial election and it looks a lot like it did four years ago when Smith-McCrossin ran her first campaign — until you look at her campaign materials.

While she won as a Tory in 2017, Smith-McCrossin's bid to return to Province House is happening under the banner of Independent. She was kicked out of the PC caucus a few weeks ahead of the election call for her part in a blockade that shut down the Trans-Canada Highway and a refusal to apologize.

She was unsure if she'd run again, but Smith-McCrossin said it was her husband and members of the community that convinced her to reoffer.

"At the end of the day, I believe I can still represent the people of Cumberland North — maybe even stronger as an Independent," she said in a recent interview.

Giving the region a voice

There are enough Smith-McCrossin lawn signs in the district to suggest more than a few people agree with her.

Smith-McCrossin said the inability to travel freely between the border community and neighbouring New Brunswick when COVID-19 cases were low, along with long-standing frustrations about the Cobequid Pass toll system, have created a sense of unfairness in Cumberland County.

Signs showcase the candidates for Cumberland North in the ongoing provincial election. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

"They have felt separated from Nova Scotia for a long time," she said. "That needs to change."

Bill Casey also wants to change it, but he hopes to do so as a member of government.

The veteran politician came out of retirement after seven terms in Ottawa to take a run at provincial office for the Liberals. Casey was on hand early in the campaign when Liberal Leader Iain Rankin arrived in Amherst with a promise to remove the tolls for Nova Scotia passenger vehicles this October.

Tapping into green energy potential

They were greeted by a hostile crowd that, while appreciative of Casey's past service, wasn't much interested in what Rankin had to say.

Casey said he understands people's frustrations, and that's all the more reason to send someone to Province House who can ensure "equal treatment."

"That [Nova Scotia-New Brunswick] border affects our employees, our employment, our businesses, our families. And Halifax, I don't think, has ever understood that we have to deal with that in Cumberland County," he said.

"They make regulations and policies and they don't understand that we have a different situation than every other county in Nova Scotia."

Four people are vying to be the Cumberland North district's next representative at the legislature. The CBC's Michael Gorman tells us about them, and what makes this race one to watch. 9:30

Along with border and toll issues, Casey said he's focused on capitalizing on the area's green energy potential and wants to see the area become a hydrogen hub using the power of the Bay of Fundy.

A focus on health care

While some people see this as a two-person race, David Wightman and Lauren Skabar are hoping to change that.

Running for the Progressive Conservatives, Wightman has had some catching up to do because of his late entry into the campaign. Election materials were late arriving, and while Smith-McCrossin and Casey signs pepper the district, Wightman only recently started putting his up.

But he's hoping a platform that focuses on health care, along with community anger directed at the Liberals, will hold him in good stead.

"I think the Liberals have had their turn to try and fix things, and I think they've only gotten worse," he said, pointing to the growing wait list of people looking for a family doctor.

While he expresses interest in working on a variety of issues, Wightman said health care is top of mind for him as a stroke survivor and because his wife went through treatment for cancer. There are aspects of the system unique to that region that Wightman hopes to address. 

"One of the things I'd like to see is a better approach to how to get people to medical appointments that are travelling back and forth across the [New Brunswick] border," he said.

A time to unite

Skabar is the NDP candidate. Her father, Brian, was elected in the district in 2009 as part of the NDP's surge to power, but she said politics was in her blood long before that.

Health care for the area is a major issue, said Skabar, given routine emergency department closures at community sites and difficulties getting enough nurses and doctors to the region.

"Until we start incentivizing health-care professionals coming to places like Cumberland North and our smaller communities, we aren't going to see any improvements," she said.

Skabar is as aware as anyone of the divisiveness that can come from the geography of the area, but she feels the NDP has a plan that can overcome that and help people across the province.

"Just because we're separated from the folks in Halifax doesn't mean we need to be working against them," she said.

"I think it's really important to unite with the people around the province who are experiencing the same issues that we're experiencing in Cumberland North so that we can work together to find something that works for all of us."