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Nova Scotia looks like land of promise for Conservatives, despite being shut out of province in 2015 election

Conservative candidate Scott Armstrong, right, speaks with retired electric contractor Robert Basrkhouse while campaigning in Onslow, N.S.
Conservative candidate Scott Armstrong, right, speaks with retired electric contractor Robert Basrkhouse while campaigning in Onslow, N.S. - Sándor Fizli for National Post

Alfie MacLeod was once a shepherd. As Cape Breton tried to boost its economy in 1975, it imported 1,500 sheep from Scotland, and MacLeod was hired to look after them during their years of quarantine.

As the federal Conservative candidate in the riding of Cape Breton-Canso, MacLeod has built a profile from his history of eclectic roles – coal mine inspector, pro bono auctioneer, justice of the peace, member of the provincial legislature of 16 years. To Cape Bretoners, he is the man who can solemnize your marriage, auction off your horse and slow dance at your local dance despite an infection in 2014 that led to the amputation of his left foot.

“Just business as usual, just sometimes it took longer to do things in a wheelchair,” says MacLeod of his initial recovery. After five months, he recalls, “I went and got a prosthetic and just kept going.”

Conditions are choice for Conservatives to win certain seats in Nova Scotia, despite the Liberal’s blanket success of all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada in the last election. Liberal incumbents are retiring, voters are conflating the unpopular Liberal premier with the federal party, and most importantly to a region where the candidate factor weighs so strong, the Tories have recruited candidates with established names.

This summer MacLeod campaigned in a riding that has been held by Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner for the past 19 years. Cuzner announced in April he will not reoffer, nor will Mark Eyking, the Liberal incumbent in the other Cape Breton riding. MacLeod and his fellow Conservative candidate in Cape Breton have both given up their seats at the legislature to run, and Andrew Scheer visited the town of Glace Bay in August, signalling a serious bet at winning the island.

“This conversation wouldn’t have happened in the last 20 years, that the Conservatives could win seats in Nova Scotia,” says Tim Powers, a Conservative commentator from Newfoundland who is vice-chair of a public affairs consulting firm, Summa Strategies. “Frustration with (the premier), the healthcare debate, the two long-serving MPs stepping out, two well-known MLAs stepping in, all create the conditions where it could be possible for the Conservatives to win those seats.”

"Nobody’s paying attention to us."

The healthcare debate refers to the debate about how to address the acute doctor shortages in the province, where 52,000 people do not have a family doctor according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority. The shortage has caused temporary closures of emergency rooms. One emergency department in Cape Breton was closed for the entire months of July and August.

The anger is largely directed at Nova Premier Stephen McNeil, who has just a 16 per cent approval rating as of June, the lowest rating of any Canadian premier according to an Angus Reid poll. In Nova Scotia’s latest budget, the province announced a $200 million increase in healthcare spending and committed to train and recruit more doctors, but many citizens still criticize McNeil. In April, a woman posted a video on Facebook explaining she had cancer for two years before getting diagnosed because she did not have a family doctor. She called on McNeil to declare a healthcare crisis, and the video went viral.

In rural Cape Breton, some residents say all the decision-making and services are concentrated in Halifax, and they express equal disillusion with the federal government.

“Nobody’s paying attention to us in the Cheticamp area,” says Alfred Poirier, deputy warden of the municipality of Inverness, representing the area including Cheticamp on the north side of the island. He notes that their local hospital needs a dialysis machine, and many of their seniors live in overcrowded long-term care facilities. “We’re four to a washroom,” he says.

Poirier also criticizes the provincial and federal governments for considering the construction of an airport in Inverness. The project is currently on hold, and Poirier says the project would be unnecessary and flawed – “Do you really think Air Canada’s going to fly into Inverness?”

Poirier has been a friend of Rodger Cuzner for nearly 20 years, and he does not criticize the man personally for supporting the airport plan. Cuzner announced his retirement in April, attributing it to a lack of energy to meet the demands of the job. He says he solidified his decision to retire when Justin Trudeau did not appoint him to cabinet after the resignation of Scott Brison.

“It was a disappointment, and I shared that with the prime minister,” says Cuzner, but, “it certainly wasn’t what I based my decision on, absolutely not.”

Historically, after the federal Liberals swept all but one riding in Atlantic Canada in 1993, the next election saw heavy turnover. In that case, the Cape Breton ridings swung to the New Democrats, but in this campaign, the NDP has not yet nominated its candidates in those ridings.

Another vulnerable riding is Bill Casey’s riding of Cumberland-Colchester, where the Tory candidate is Scott Armstrong, a former MP and school principal. When Armstrong goes door knocking one evening in August, he already knows many of the residents – a strawberry farmer, a professional poker player, an Ethiopian statistician who was resealing a driveway.

The Liberal candidate in the riding is Lenore Zann, who is also a well-known name as a member of the legislature for six years (she also had an acting career, during which she became the voice of a character in a television series of X-men.) She was part of the NDP caucus and later an independent, and she raises similar issues in her current federal campaign for the Liberals.

“One of the main issues that we’re very, very, very concerned about is climate change,” she says, noting the risk of coastal erosion and tropical storms. “And one other concern I have is bees,” she adds, explaining there importance to the ecosystem. “I want to make sure that the health of bees is kept in everybody’s mind’s eye.”

The Liberals candidates on Cape Breton are Mike Kelloway, who has worked in education for 22 years and chairs a community development group in Glace Bay, and Jaime Battiste, a Mi’kmaq historian and legal advisor who, if elected, would become Nova Scotia’s first Indigenous member of Parliament. Neither Kelloway nor Battiste responded to requests for interviews.

“The Liberal nomination contests were competitive and robust,” says Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University. “The candidates who have emerged are energetic, people with community leadership experience, so they will mount a serious and sophisticated campaign.”

He says the candidate factor is often considered to account for five per cent of a voter’s decision, but that the factor is more important in Atlantic Canada where people are geographically distant from Ottawa and want an accessible politician.

MacLeod might be that politician for some voters. On a recent weekend he drove 1,200 km around the island to attend events, and as a justice of the peace, he has been solemnizing weddings on the side. “Actually I just did one on Saturday past,” he says, “for a young girl I’ve known forever and three days.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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