10/11/2015 12:27 EDT | Updated 10/11/2015 12:59 EDT

TPP, Niqab Debate May Hit British Columbia Voters Differently

OTTAWA — When you get west of the Rockies, the saying goes about Canadian politics, things are different.

In British Columbia, that's proving true about two unexpected issues in this campaign that could well shape the vote: the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the debate over the niqab.

While some argue trade deals don't win votes, the TPP is a political wedge in B.C. because of the province's direct ties to the agreement — the province's ports will be waystations for the countless goods coming and going within the Pacific Rim.

So for the Conservatives, who started the election expecting to lose a handful of their 21 seats but pick up some of the province's six new ones, clinching the deal added credibility to their job-creator claims.

It also gives them a new line of attack against the New Democrats, their greatest threat in B.C.

"The alternative in this campaign, and certainly in the province of British Columbia, is an NDP that was against free trade with the United States, against free trade with Mexico, against free trade with Europe," Conservative MP James Moore said at a recent breakfast event in Vancouver.

"They're against the Trans-Pacific partnership before they've even read it."

Since much of the deal remains a secret, the NDP can't support it — and what is known isn't in Canada's best interests, they argue.

Also not in Canada's best interests, they say, is a proposal by the Conservatives to ban the wearing of veils at citizenship ceremonies.

It's a position costing the NDP support in Quebec, but not in B.C., where they had one of their strongest showings in the 2011 election. Polls continue to suggest they'll do well there come Oct. 19.

The party started this campaign hoping to increase their seats from 12 to as high as 30; while support has softened since, strategists say they're confident they'll hold their existing ridings and pick up several more.

Among the vote drivers for the NDP in B.C. is a strong distaste for the Conservative approach to the environment, an issue that matters to British Columbians because of everyone's proximity to the coast.

Much like B.C.'s coastline drives its response to environmental concerns in a different way than elsewhere in Canada, its history provides a different perspective on identity politics, said Kai Nagata, a spokesperson for the Dogwood Initiative, one of two prominent non-partisan groups working to get out the vote in B.C.

"The idea of playing neighbours against neighbours, and reporting barbaric cultural practices, and telling women what to wear and instituting policies that target an ethnic or religious group — all of that plays very different in B.C. ," Nagata said.

In B.C., "we have a history of institutionalized racism, where there are people who are still alive and still vote who remember Japanese internment and the Chinese head tax and other discriminatory policies."

Liberal governments were responsible for those policies, a reason why many from those communities haven't supported them in the past.

But another historical perspective could benefit the Liberals.

Issues of rights and freedoms inevitably means talk about the charter. And when talk turns to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it turns to the prime minister responsible for it: Pierre Trudeau. His son Justin, the current Liberal leader, comes up next.

Justin Trudeau is the party's main weapon in B.C. His grandfather was popular B.C. politician James Sinclair and Trudeau lived and worked for a time in Vancouver, connections that are highlighted in all of his speeches in the province and even an ad the party is running there.

Current polls suggest the Liberals could surge beyond their early goal of keeping their current two seats and adding two more to win as many as nine or 10.

Liberal candidate Jody Wilson-Raybould, running in the newly-created urban riding of Vancouver Granville, said people are connecting with Trudeau and his plan.

"We are advancing positions and platforms to create a better government and that's what people are asking for," she said.

There are still weak spots, like Liberal support for the anti-terror legislation Bill C-51, widely seen in B.C. as an expansion of police powers that could threaten the right of people to protest, a right many people hold dear as the near-weekly events in downtown Vancouver show.

Liberal support for the legalization of marijuana is also an issue, and despite perception it's an easy vote get in Vancouver, it isn't always, especially among some ethnic communities. That's why Harper usually highlights his opposition to the idea in speeches to large Chinese or South Asian crowds.

While both the NDP and Liberals say the dominant theme in their campaigns is a need for change, that narrative is one Conservatives say will fall to the wayside come voting day when people have actually thought about what it means.

Mira Oreck, who is running for the NDP against Wilson-Raybould, said she's witnessed that play out in a different way.

While doorknocking one night, a man, holding his toddler, told her while his wife was voting for her, he had always been a Conservative.

They chatted for awhile, with Oreck highlighting the NDP's $15-a-day child care plan. A few minutes later, she met him again on the street — he said the plan had convinced him to vote NDP.

Her experience, Oreck said, is he's not alone.

"What I have found really interesting is the number of people who are letting go of past political allegiances and looking at who the leaders are and what they want for this country," she said.

— with files from Michael Tutton

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