09/01/2015 02:00 EDT | Updated 09/01/2016 05:59 EDT

Federal Parties Ride The Political Waves In B.C.

VANCOUVER — To live in B.C.'s Lower Mainland is to live on the water, whether it's the commuters who speed over the Fraser River each day or the dog walkers strolling the seawall around Vancouver each night.

And it's the waterfront providing a backdrop to many key election issues here, from the affordability of living along it to how it's used to send natural resources abroad.

For the Conservatives, closing the Kitsilano coast guard station in 2013 risks drowning out their efforts to promote their policies in those areas.

Conservative MPs from B.C. recoiled when they learned in 2012 that budget cuts were closing the Vancouver-area station. Several lobbied aggressively to overturn the decision, arguing that even if the station wasn't explicitly needed, $800,000 wasn't worth the impression their government wasn't protecting Vancouver's beloved bays. All it would take is a single incident to cement that in people's minds.

The oil spill in English Bay this past spring was that incident. It took hours for clean-up crews to arrive and though the Coast Guard Commissioner put out a statement saying had the station survived, it couldn't have helped, it didn't matter. Conservatives say privately it's one of the factors now pushing down their support in Vancouver and in ridings on the periphery too.

Fin Donnelly, the NDP incumbent seeking reelection in Port Moody-Coquitlam, led his party's failed charge in the House of Commons to get the station re-opened. He is a longtime champion of B.C.'s waterways; 20 years ago, he swam the 1400 kilometres of the Fraser River to draw attention to environmental issues. 

There are parallels between that swim and the election, he said in an interview during his campaign office opening in the town of Port Moody, about 30 minutes from downtown Vancouver.

"It was 20 days of swimming, and that's a long marathon swim. So it's very similar to this, this is a long campaign," he said.

It's an upstream fight. Donnelly won in 2011 with 46 per cent of the vote, but redistribution brought many historically Conservative voters into his territory, previous constituents of Conservative James Moore, the current industry minister not running for re-election.

Moore is helping others campaign, one of several Conservatives dispatched on the "secondary tour" — popular MPs sent out in Stephen Harper's wake to knock on doors.

The Conservative candidate running against Donnelly is Tim Laidler, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. The ground game for his party's candidates consists mostly of door knocking and small meet-the-candidate events.

Laidler said he said he likes meeting people at the doors, translating the national message into something local voters can connect with.

"When I start to talk high level, people shake their heads and say no, I want to know how my kids are going to afford to buy a house right here," he said, sitting in his campaign office.

Most electoral battles in the Lower Mainland are between the Conservatives and NDP, a reflection of the populist bent both those parties have had over time.

But the closure of the Kitsilano station has also been a source of support for the Liberals. On a recent warm and windy afternoon, a handful of Liberals from Hedy Fry's Vancouver Centre riding threw red t-shirts on and headed out to the seawall to gather signatures on a petition to get the station re-opened.

Phillip Chamberlain, who was leading the team, had six signatures in a matter of minutes on the petition.

"A lot people live in the West End because of the natural beauty. There's a lot of concern about that," he said.

Small, volunteer-initiated events are the backbone of the Liberals' ground game this time around. Their support plummeted in 2011, leaving them with just two seats down from nine. They see room to pick up at minimum two more seats this October, one in Vancouver and one in the suburb of Surrey, B.C.

In part they're doing so by often reminding people of Trudeau's ties to B.C. At a campaign stop in Vancouver recently, Trudeau paused during his speech to give two of his aunts a kiss; his maternal grandfather, Jimmy Sinclair, was a long-time Liberal MP for Vancouver.

Except there's another Jim Sinclair who seeks to stand in the way of what inroads the Liberals might make — the one who led the B.C. Federation of Labour for 15 years.

That Sinclair, who used to lead half a million B.C. workers, appeared at Donnelly's campaign office opening, making a fundraising pitch and pledging his own $250, plus the support of other labour leaders who he said are seeking to raise $50,000.

In 2011, the NDP captured 12 seats in B.C., up three from 2008, and is aiming to win as many as 24 of the 42 available this time around.


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