Colourful Row Houses of St. John's Newfoundland
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Colourful Row Houses of St. John's Newfoundland
POLITICS
10/13/2019 09:01 EDT | Updated 10/13/2019 23:16 EDT

In St. John’s East, Mudslinging And 'Foolishness' Take A Backseat To Issues

“When you sling mud, you lose ground.”

ST. JOHN’S — It’s an impossibly beautiful August evening in St. John’s.

The sun has fallen over the city’s Georgestown neighbourhood, washing the colourful century-old houses with a golden glow. The smell of hot dogs barbequing in a nearby backyard makes the moment extra alluring, a fragrant reminder that it’s suppertime. New Democratic Party candidate Jack Harris has chosen this perfect hour to do some doorknocking.

The 70-year-old lawyer is vying to win his old job back as the member of Parliament for St. John’s East. He wears a Fitbit as he zigzags his way around the block, up and down short flights of stairs of homes, many with their lace curtains drawn. 

We arrive at a multi-apartment house and Harris knocks on the door. A chorus of barking erupts when dogs scramble to the door as a woman named Heather swings it open. Harris is here to ask for her vote, and it takes 14 seconds from the first “Hello” to her confirming, “Oh, you got it.” 

It’s clear that he’s popular in this neighbourhood. And he’s hoping his popularity will help him break through the Liberals’ hold in Atlantic Canada. It was four years ago when the party picked up all 32 seats, including the seven in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The former NDP defence critic found himself washed out of a job, losing the riding by nearly 650 votes to the Liberal Nick Whalen, who happens to be his neighbour. Harris’s son used to babysit the Whalen kids. They and their families still live three doors from each other on the same cul-de-sac. I ask Harris if his relationship with Whalen has become a little bit frosty. He takes a brief pause and looks at me, “I wouldn’t call it anything other than polite and respectful.”

People come to their doors in socks or slippers. “Uh oh, ya caught me,” jokes one man stepping outside his house. At another, a mother with wet hair wrapped in a towel listens to Harris’s pitch as her two young children cling to her side. A few houses over, a woman wearing a sweatshirt bedazzled with the word “LOVE” agrees to take a sign when they’re available.

Zi-Ann Lum/HuffPost Canada
NDP candidate Jack Harris campaigns in St. John's East on Aug. 6, 2019.

Another house. Another set of wooden steps with a teal fishing net stuffed under it. They’re to cover garbage to stop bags from being torn apart by birds, a campaign volunteer tells me.

Another doorbell. This time a strategic voter answers the door.

“Here’s my key dilemma this year,” Margot Dooley says. “It seems to me the NDP does not have a huge chance in forming the government.” Harris listens.

Dooley adds that she would “do anything to prevent Andrew Scheer from getting in.” It’s a scenario that has her thinking about voting Liberal “for a rare time in my life.”

“Well, I know a lot of people did that last time,” Harris responds. He tactfully shifts the conversation away from speculation about his party’s electoral odds to his personal political credentials. “Wouldn’t it be better to have someone experienced in parliamentary affairs, who knows what they’re doing?” he asks. 

Harris argues that having the Liberals hold every seat in the province has created a situation where there are no opposition voices representing Newfoundland and Labrador in the House of Commons. Dooley nods her head, listening.

“So in that sense, the fact that we may not form government shouldn’t prevent us from having a significant influence on the future of the country,” Harris says. “It’s a question of who you want to represent you in Ottawa,” he tells Dooley. “But are we any better off when we don’t have any serious opportunity to challenge the Liberal party?”

Dooley crosses her arms and laughs. “That’s an excellent pitch.”

Zi-Ann Lum/HuffPost Canada
An old Jack Harris campaign sign is pictured in a flower bed outside a house in St. John's.

Looking at a map, St. John’s East is on the northeasterly tip of Newfoundland, a peninsular-shaped riding surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean in the north and east and Conception Bay in the west. There’s a ferry service that runs to Bell Island, a remote community with a few hundred people. Towns and villages are settled along the coast. The northern half of St. John’s rounds out the riding.

“Good you’re having good weather, because we don’t always,” St. John’s resident Mary Ellen Wright says with a chuckle. 

I’ve been invited inside and found myself standing in her living room. She tells me she’s always voted NDP, because she thinks the party pushes boundaries on the social issues she values. “We follow politics in this household; we watch it a lot,” she tells me from the couch. Cats scoot around the room and I realize I’m standing between her and her television set, which is programed to CBC News Network. I move out of the way.

Her son, William, joins the conversation and says he has hip and leg problems aggravated by cerebral palsy. Wright motions to medicine bottles near her. They’re “big medical consumers in this house,” she says, so health care is what they’re paying close attention to in this election.

Watch: Trudeau mingles with Liberal supporters in St. John’s. Story continues below video.

 

Seniors issues and housing affordability are some major issues in this riding, amplified by Newfoundland and Labrador’s outlier status in population trends. 

According to recent Statistics Canada data, the province has experienced population decline for the third consecutive year, while others in Atlantic Canada have seen increases. And as of July 1, the province beat out other parts of Canada — for the first time — in having the greatest proportion of people aged 65 and over, at 21.5 per cent.

The health care industry is the biggest employer in this historically Conservative riding.

***

I meet Liberal incumbent Nick Whalen for coffee at Bannerman Brewery, a taproom furnished with large wooden communal tables in a building that used to be a fire hall. 

The intellectual property lawyer and engineer says nobody was more surprised to win the 2015 election than him, “but I’d say Jack was more surprised than I was. Might have been the only person. …  All the stars had to align for me to win.”

Born and raised in the riding, Whalen has followed a career path familiar to others in his Gen X cohort in that he went west — in his case to Toronto — for professional training. His wife Sarah, a doctor, did the same thing. But the two have since returned home to raise their two young children.

The problems linked with population decline loom in the back of all the candidates’ minds. Whalen says he knows people who’ve taken the risk and moved to Alberta, California, and Toronto and have become successful there. Federal and provincial levels of government have proposed immigration programs to court more people to The Rock, as well as other incentives to lure people to come home.  

“Even if we had the Gen Xers come back to retire here with their retirement funds, that would also go a long way to providing a tax base and [would] support and encourage the maintenance of property taxes,” Whalen says. “But if you lose 10 per cent of your population, housing starts to go, and property values go. …  It’s a domino effect.”

Zi-Ann Lum
Liberal candidate Nick Whalen sits down for an interview with HuffPost Canada on Aug. 6, 2019.

Seniors make up 15 per cent of the downtown part of the riding, which is comparatively higher than, say, downtown Toronto, where the figure is about 10 per cent. 

“We’ve done the things we’ve said, but seniors are still struggling, and I think we need to do more,” Whalen says of the promises the Liberals campaigned on in 2015. He explains after four years as an MP, he’s been briefed on more granular details in the file. “There are issues facing seniors that we didn’t appreciate when we were running as Gen Xers.”

In retrospect, he concedes that the pledges his party made to seniors “weren’t as ambitious” as others they made at the time. He suggests there’s a blind spot in policy-making here because decision-makers aren’t from “that life,” meaning lower-to-middle income seniors.

imagebob via Getty Images
File photo of the shore in Portugal Cove, N.L. Homes are strewn along the hillside. Wharf has ferry to Bell Island.

He begins listing off some issues: Seniors living on fixed incomes, in houses too large to maintain because of mobility and financial restraints, inability and fear of transitioning to new homes, inadequate supply of and access to appropriate-sized homes and drug coverage. “It is a cascade of issues that our society hasn’t addressed because we haven’t been focused on them.”

Recent Statistics Canada figures peg the national unemployment rate at 5.5 per cent. The rate for Newfoundland and Labrador is more than twice that, at 11.5 per cent. The participation rate (a measure of the total labour force relative to the working-age population) is 58.8 per cent — the lowest among Atlantic provinces.

With the average after-tax income at $44,181, affordability is a top concern among voters here.

Whalen, chair of the Liberal Atlantic caucus, says he picked the new brewery to meet because it’s an example of new businesses launching in St. John’s. He points to Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Signal Hill campus, which is just up the road, as an example of where millions of federal dollars have been poured into programs to stimulate research and tech innovation. 

“Our agenda from the last election was, we weren’t going to shy away from a modest amount of deficit spending so we can grow the economy,” he says. He makes a reference to the $153 million in federal funds announced last year to buoy “Canada’s Ocean Supercluster” — a borderline whimsical name for an initiative that aims to modernize marine-related industries and build this segment of the economy to “rival Canada’s energy industry.”

wichan yingyongsomsawas via Getty Images
St. John's harbour, viewed from Signal Hill

His team rebuffed a request to shadow him doorknocking in the riding, saying it’s a “private” thing, so I ask what issues he’s hearing at people’s doors. 

Household affordability is a concern, especially among seniors, says the self-described “economic realist.” He adds that people also press him about the future of the oil and gas sector.

We talk about Muskrat Falls, the $12.7-billion hydro megaproject boondoggle that every single person in Newfoundland and Labrador is on the hook for. There’s talk of rate mitigation to soften the blow of electricity bills that critics warn will double. But no drastic rate hikes have been approved yet. 

“I’m very optimistic that we’ll have a platform piece on that,” Whalen says. If I’d had a reliable crystal ball to peer into at the time, I would have told him no. It would have no mention in the Liberals’ election platform.

The Liberals have adopted a hardline message on the environment, with sliding taxes for polluters, introducing rigorous assessments for major projects, and new marine protection measures. But the party challenged its own credibility on the file by buying the Trans Mountain pipeline last year for $4.5 billion. 

Concerns about Alberta’s economy are being voiced by some voters in St. John’s because a lot of people used to commute west to work in the oil patch, and dried-up opportunities there affect livelihoods here.

“There’s a lot of polarization on that issue here … lots of long, difficult conversations convincing people on both sides that we need to have robust environmental assessments,” Whalen says. “We need to transition our economy, but we cannot do that if we’re poor. …  It’s a tough message.”

Walking down sloping streets toward the water, past century-old jellybean row houses, you see large Irving Oil storage tanks across St. John’s harbour. The mining, quarrying, and oil and gas industries provide more than 1,500 jobs to people who live in the riding. But the biggest employer by a long stretch is health care, with 6,800 employed in related fields. Second is retail.

***

I walk down and up a hill to meet Jack Harris at a large, bustling coffee shop for lunch. I’m early, waiting in line for a few minutes only to be alerted of his arrival when the man in front of me nudges his companion and says, “There’s Jack Harris.”

The veteran politician is a gregarious man and gladhands down the line of people and around the cafe while I wait to order two turkey-avocado sandwiches. When we sit down, he tells me why he decided to run again: “I miss the job.”

He calls being a parliamentarian the best role he’s ever had and admits that when he lost in 2015, he was a bit shocked. He says he went through a bit of a grieving process, “recognizing that there was something in your life that was important” that was no longer there. 

I wasn’t ready to retire in 2015; I’m not ready to retire now.NDP candidate Jack Harris

His decision to campaign again was born from a fit of restless energy that built over the past two years. When I ask about a letter to the editor published in The Telegram a few weeks earlier, urging Harris to “get your ego in check, and retire” and let someone younger carry the NDP banner, he’s not interested in hearing about it.  

“I wasn’t ready to retire in 2015; I’m not ready to retire now,” he says. “If people want someone younger, they can vote for someone younger. If they want someone with experience, they can vote for someone with experience … I don’t think that age matters.”

Harris was first elected to the House after winning a 1987 byelection but was ousted in the federal election the following year. After that he became the provincial NDP leader and held that role from 1992 to 2006. He returned to Ottawa in 2008, once again winning the federal race in St. John’s East. When the NDP won Official Opposition status, Harris was appointed national defence critic. He held onto that position until he was defeated by his neighbour in 2015.

Zi-Ann Lum/HuffPost Canada
NDP candidate Jack Harris speaks to HuffPost Canada in an interview on Aug. 6, 2019 in St. John's.

At the time of our August meeting, on the Tuesday before the Royal St. John’s Regatta, Harris says he’s been canvassing for a month and that it’s too early to identify a single top ballot box issue. He notes that concerns about the high cost of drugs, demographic change, immigration, housing, and the high cost of cell phone bills have come up regularly. They’re themes outlined in the NDP platform as well.

“This is why I’m a New Democrat. We have a comprehensive view on how to build a better world. We’ve been working on it for 75 to 80 years,” he says.

In between bites of salted chips and his turkey-avocado sandwich, Harris entertains the possibility of a minority government. He scoffs at the Liberals’ version of national pharmacare and speculates that the NDP’s holding the balance of power might be the best outcome to see some of the party’s planks come to fruition.

Harris doesn’t speak ill of his rivals. He obliquely criticizes Liberals in government at the federal and provincial level, stating that on immigration, there’s been a “lack of realization of the importance it is to our future.” It’s a loaded comment that touches on concerns about the long-term viability of communities here in the face of low immigration rates compared with the rest of Atlantic Canada.

Similar to the concern Whalen expressed, Harris says if St. John’s East doesn’t build its population, the riding will likely see a cascade of interconnected employment, affordability, and housing issues. Population growth here comes more from immigration than births, he explains. “If we’re not part of that process, we’re not part of the future.”

***

Green Party candidate David Peters is another name voters will see on the ballot. Similar to others, he left home to give Toronto a shot in the mid 1980s, but returned home after finding that the “big city grind” didn’t jibe with him. Peters is a familiar face. It’s his second time running for the seat after losing in 2015.

When Peters knocked on doors four years ago, he said he usually found himself immediately on the defensive with people criticizing the Green party’s stance on the commercial seal hunt. The college instructor is personally supportive of the hunt, contrary to party leader Elizabeth May. It’s an industry that has been decimated by international sanctions, he explains. “And I try to take the case to change our policy, we haven’t succeeded yet.”

With Swedish teenager Greta Thunburg leading the world’s youth in a fight against climate change inaction, Peters says that talking about the issue is “completely different” from the last election. The conviction and enthusiasm among young voters on climate change is what has him surprised and hopeful on the campaign trail.

 

Concerns about health care and the economy round out the top three concerns Peters is hearing from residents. He says for his campaign, hitting campuses to sell the message that Greens are serious about climate change is his best shot at winning support from young voters.

“They understand that my generation has sort of hoodwinked them. I sort of refer to it as a generational theft,” he continues. “We used up the resources, we’ve poisoned the climate — or are in the process of poisoning the climate…. It is the most important issue.”

***

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau happens to be in St. John’s as well, holding a small fundraiser at MUN’s Signal Hill campus. There are young people lined up outside. Protesters, holding signs that read “NO MORE BROKEN PROMISES” and “PROTECT WATER,” chirp at Liberal ministers and supporters as they make their way through the main entrance.

“It’s really easy to get up in front of people and say that you’re sorry. It’s a lot harder to change your actions,” one young Indigenous woman tells me. She declined to share her name. “If Justin Trudeau wants to say sorry to Indigenous people, he can start by halting the development of pipelines. He could start by stopping in the way of Muskrat Falls.”

I ask for her thoughts on Whalen, the Liberal incumbent in the riding.

Zi-Ann Lum/HuffPost Canada
Protesters gather outside a Liberal fundraiser at Memorial University's Signal Hill campus in St. John's on Aug. 6, 2019.

“Eat-the-fish Whalen?” she says, referring to a flippant comment the Liberal MP made in response to peoples’ concerns about methylmercury levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir related to the Labrador project. He apologized for the “insensitive” remark. 

Her friend jumps in and starts an impromptu rhyming game: “Not-lit Whalen. He-needs-to-quit Whalen.”

Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan arrives and gives a thumbs up to the young people protesting there. They’re exercising their democratic right to protest, he says. 

The Indigenous young woman calls out to the St. John’s South–Mount Pearl MP: “I’m glad you can drink the water.”

Zi-Ann Lum/HuffPost Canada
Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan is confronted by protesters outside a Liberal fundraiser at Memorial University's Signal Hall campus in St. John's on Aug. 6, 2019.

Trudeau’s four-minute speech is one he’s been repeating across the country, sprinkled with veiled shots at Conservatives, customized with small nods to his current location. He warns of the “politics of division, of negativity, of fear” and leans on platitudes.

“The kinds of folks you are, has always been focused on the future, ready to roll up your sleeves,” the prime minister tells the paying crowd. He adds that people from the province are “very aware we’ve got real challenges in our daily lives and our future” and are “always more than confident we’re going to be able to tackle them.”

***

Conservative candidate Joedy Wall shares an anecdote to illustrate how the province’s famed “Anything But Conservative” campaign, waged by former premier Danny Williams in response to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, has subsided. 

The Pouch Cove mayor says he was doorknocking in St. John’s when he crossed paths with a man and his wife coming in with groceries. 

“Him and I started to chat. And he said, ‘My son, I’ll tell you this. I’m 78 years old, and I voted Liberal all my life. …’ But he said this time round, after the last four years, he says ‘I cannot vote Liberal.’” Their conversation picked up from there.

“He grilled me — it was a job interview, is what it was. He grilled me for 20 minutes.” 

Zi-Ann Lum/HuffPost
A residential area of St. John's looking down towards the harbour.

Wall said the man, a former RCMP sergeant, wanted to know about his background, where he’s from, what jobs he’s held, what his parents did, what he’s done for his community, and where he volunteered his time.

“When we were finished, I shook his hands and I said, ‘Sir, I enjoyed your conversation, it’s been a pleasure … All I can ask of you is for your consideration on Oct. 21.’ And he said, ‘My son, it looks like you have my vote.’”

Conservative senators have been out campaigning with him, but Wall said that interaction with the lifelong Liberal voter meant the world to him.

 “All this is humbling. It truly is. But for that gentleman to say that to me, in his driveway, in the presence of his wife,” he said, voice trailing off in his recall of the moment.

Wall enters the federal campaign with a 25-year career in health care working as a group home counselor for mentally delayed and autistic adults. “Over a period of time, I’ve worked with many people who couldn’t speak for themselves. I had to be their voice and their advocate.” 

Over the past few weeks, he’s honed in on a tagline that he says is resonating with residents. “I want to be Newfoundland and Labrador’s voice in Ottawa. Not Ottawa’s voice in Newfoundland and Labrador. There’s a big difference,” he says.

If the line sounds familiar, it’s because Trudeau said it in stump speeches during the last campaign to make inroads with “tired and disconnected” Canadians, pledging that Liberal MPs would have more free votes. Four years later, the Liberals didn’t come through on that promise in government after two Atlantic MPs were punished for breaking ranks to support Conservative motions.

Veterans are also being overlooked, Wall adds. There’s too much out migration, he continues, explaining that Ottawa has to do more to promote the oil and gas industry in Alberta as well as offshore projects in the Atlantic because they employ people from St. John’s. “The level of work has dropped,” he says, compared to boom times eight years ago. He’s quick to add that he’s “very mindful” of the environment as well.

“I have children. I want to have grandchildren one day.” He says he wants to leave a good place for them.

Wall is still the mayor of Pouch Cove, a community of just over 2,000 near the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula. He didn’t have to take a leave from his job to run for federal office. By the time I connect with him, the election campaign has already started. Wall is a lifelong conservative with progressive social values.This year is his first as a card-carrying member of the Conservative party.

Drew Angerer via Getty Images
Small icebergs float off the water in Pouch Cove, N.L. at dusk on April 25, 2017.

His reputation transcends partisan lines. Both Whalen and Harris speak highly of him, too. Their mutual respect has come across in the candidate debates. It turns out they made a pact to keep the debate professional and respectful.

At a recent debate, Trudeau’s blackface scandal did not come up once as the candidates pushed and pulled each other on housing affordability and health care.

“There’s enough issues here in St. John’s East that we can discuss openly and rationally and have good debate on [rather] than getting on with foolishness, as far as I’m concerned,”  Wall says.

“Jack, and Nick, and myself, the first interview we had at CBC, we said that openly that there would be no mudslinging, and we haven’t. I can tell you that honestly.” And, in this crucial last stretch of the campaign before voters head to the polls, he tells me why.

“When you sling mud, you lose ground.”

This story is a part of the federal election edition of HuffPost Reports. This summer, the HuffPost Canada politics team spread out across the country to take a look at some of the ridings that could make a real difference in the outcome of this year’s campaign. Ridings To Watch is an ongoing series that looks at the people and politicians in those communities and the role they might play as Canadians head to the polls.