Life and politics are full of paradoxes. Politics, for some, is a petty and futile activity. For others, it’s grist for the mill of life in community. For some of us, it is both at the same time.
Drama and significance ought to go together. Drama is usually a signal that something big is happening. This month in politics, the opposite has been true. Albertans overwhelmingly chose to return to the conservative brand of government not terribly different from the ones they’d always had until recently. But, the drama of their election filled national news headlines for weeks.
The voters of Prince Edward Island will also soon go to the polls. Islanders are having a moment. First there was the excitement of competition – whatever happens in this election, the results will be unprecedented. Then without warning, there was tragedy and deep sadness – a young candidate, and his son were killed in a canoe accident. Because the electoral clock turns without regard for the pace of human grief, today is election day, and excitement and grief are here together. None of it has been dramatic. It’s been just the opposite.
What follows is my attempt at explaining what is happening at this moment in Island politics, from the perspective of an outsider, and presumably for the better understanding of other outsiders. Why did the Greens become so popular? How did the traditional parties lose so much support so quickly? What can be learned from the responses of these parties and their leaders? What happens after the election? What can citizens, politicians and community activists learn from this election, wherever they may be in Canada?
After years of steadily growing support, the final polls taken before election day show 35 – 40% of decided and leaning voters on Prince Edward Island intend to vote for candidates running for the province’s Green Party. For other parties, that kind of support could lead one to predict a majority government. For the Greens, those numbers might not be enough. The party polls highest among urban and young voters, and lacks the political machinery that Liberals and Tories have relied on for decades to ensure their own supporters make it to polling stations on election day.
To understand what’s happening on PEI, you need to understand the political culture of the place. Once you begin to understand the uniqueness of Island politics, you might start to wonder whether there are any lessons in this slow burn of a political story for those of us living elsewhere in Canada. I believe there are.
Politics anywhere, after all, is subject to the same primal forces: the intersection between the psychology of mass behaviour and the psychology of elites; the balancing of the self-interests with the collective ones, and the struggle to live in community despite strong differences in worldview with our neighbours.
To better understand this political moment those of us from elsewhere first need to consider what makes Island politics so unique.
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND IS A CANADIAN POLITICAL ANOMALY
For starters, the Island is tiny as far as Canadian provinces are concerned. Its population registered at just 142,907 at the time of the 2016 census. There are 27 members of the legislative assembly. Each represents about 5,200 residents, only two-thirds of whom are registered voters. Islanders enjoy the highest elected-official-to-elector ratio of any Canadian province. By comparison, the municipality of Halifax, Nova Scotia, is roughly equal in acreage to PEI, includes both rural and urban communities, and has triple the population. Halifax, meanwhile, is served by only 20 MLAs, and 18 municipal councillors.
The politics of the Island are more intimate than most places in Canada. 86% of registered voters cast ballots in the 2015 provincial election, and Islanders boast of the highest level of turnout in Federal elections in the country. Still, there are community groups on the Island dedicated to boosting those numbers in the future elections.
Since the provincial election was called on March 26, there have been countless community organized leaders debates. The Island’s Environmental Coalition, the Coalition for Women in Government, the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce – each of these organizations and more hosted their very own debates with all party leaders. Oh, and the CBC held one too. Elsewhere in Canada, you’d be hard pressed to bring together all party leaders in one place without a media partner that can ensure the event is also broadcast to several hundred thousand people.
Unique in some respects, Island politics is predictable in others. The four major parties are the four major parties you’d expect in a primarily English speaking province: Liberals, Tories, New Democrats and Greens. Only the Tories and Liberals have ever formed government, and only a single New Democrat has been elected to provincial office on the Island, and none have been elected to federal office. The polls suggest the NDP is unlikely to win any seats in either of the provincial or federal elections this year.
From province-to-province, and leader-to-leader, the leanings of each of these four parties varies. In some provinces, the NDP hugs the centre line, while in others, the Liberals are as right-leaning as the federal Conservatives. Progressive Conservative Parties in Atlantic Canada don’t much resemble the politics of Rob Ford or Jason Kenney, and, in government, often don’t govern further from the centre than the Liberal or NDP governments we’ve seen in the region, and have gone veered left as much as they’ve veered to the right (which is, not often).
When I first became involved in politics in Nova Scotia, I was told that the ideological spectrum of the parties in our legislature could fit on the head of pin. Until recently, the same might’ve been true of Island politics.
The Rise of Peter Bevan-Baker and the Green Party of Prince Edward Island
Enter the Green Party. The party ran its first slate of candidates in the 2007 election under Sharon Labchuck’s leadership. Just 3% of voters supported its candidates that year. Greens ran in just 18 of the province’s 27 districts. Party candidates bested NDP candidates in 14 of those districts, and Green support exceeded NDP support in the province-wide popular vote (but just barely). Peter Bevan-Baker earned 6.8% of the vote as a candidate in that election. Still not party leader, he would run again in the 2011 provincial election, boosting his support to 9.4% of the vote in the same district. A year later, in 2012, Bevan-Baker would be acclaimed as Green Party leader.
It was the next year, 2013, that I became aware of Peter Bevan-Baker’s politics. My first introduction now feels symbolic. Before I knew what a selfie stick was, I came upon a video of Bevan-Baker walking through the streets of Charlottetown, talking politics and apparently capturing the whole video himself with a selfie stick. But now, re-watching the video, I realize as he walks past some reflective glass that he is not holding a selfie stick at all.
He’s holding a conventional camera tripod as if it were a selfie stick. He rants as he walks, and the video is part of a series of videos on his YouTube channel titled ‘Pete’s Peeves’. This one is about what ‘Pete’ describes as the government’s fondness for ‘bankrolling the pet projects of international tycoons’ – golf courses, fancy hotels, that sort of thing.
Bevan-Baker appears visibly irritated on his walk through Charlottetown, but it’s clear this is not an off-the-cuff rant. There are too many one-liners and zingers sprinkled throughout the piece for it to be that. At one point, a couple of teenagers appear to be stifling laughter as he walks by. Pete just keeps peeving, unphased.
If you had watched this video in 2013, when I first did, perhaps you’d have been tempted to label his efforts a futile form of activism that wouldn’t be likely to manifest into much of a political anything, as I did at the time.
What I missed then, that I now see, is what a rare set of skills and personal temperaments a video like this represents. Most of us involved in politics have daily feelings of frustration and anger at the state of things beyond our control, but only a few can channel it into a persuasive and entertaining script. Bevan-Baker knows how to put his thoughts together into a compelling narrative, but not all writers can memorize their work. Rarer still is the one who can perform it while walking downtown streets with a makeshift selfie stick and not trip over their own boots. This should have been my first clue that, while Bevan-Baker is as idealistic as any other dreamer, he’s fiercely practical.
In May 2015 Bevan-Baker wins a seat in the Kellys Cross-Cumberland district that he’s run in twice now. Thi time he collects 54.8% of the vote. He unseats the incumbent Liberal, Valerie Docherty, who has been running against Bevan-Baker since her first election to the legislature in 2007.
Now, back to March of 2019, the night the writs were dropped. Liberal Leader and Premier Wade MacLauchlan makes a point of singling out Bevan-Baker before calling the election at the nomination meeting for one of his cabinet ministers.
“The future of our province is too important to risk on uncertain, potentially expensive social experiments led by a career politician,” he told his supporters shortly after local party members re-nominated Richard Brown, who has served over 18 years of his life as an MLA.
The Premier’s comment was an odd one. Bevan-Baker worked for most of his adult life as a dentist, though he ran unsuccessfully as a Green for various orders of government nine times between 1993 and 2011 (in 1993, he was running in Ontario).
When I interviewed Bevan-Baker in early 2018, I asked him about the self-talk it takes to persevere as a losing candidate over the course of nine elections, and to take the risk of losing a tenth one.
“I looked at it very much as an educational exercise,” he replied. “[I said], ‘Okay, I’m not going to get elected, but I can at least learn, I can expand my own understanding of myself and the world around me. Plus, I can hopefully lay the foundation for somebody later on who will be able to run for the Green Party and actually get elected,’ never imagining that one day that person might be me.”
When I suggested that his approach ended up doubling as a long-game strategy to eventually winning power, he brushed off the notion.
“I was just doing what felt comfortable for me, and looking at the context in which I was running as a Green Party candidate with that low chance of success … I did what I thought was the best use, the most effective use of my time and my energies. I would not have got to election number ten … had I not put in the work and those years of figuring out how to debate properly, of understanding the issues, and trusting myself. And it took a long time for that to develop for me.”
“If I haven’t got my head around it after 25 years,” he adds, “Then probably I should go and find something else to do.”
Running in ten elections and winning one of them hardly warrants the label of ‘career politician’. But there’s a difference between being a career politician and being a professional politician. The career politician’s identity is attached to the title of the office they hold. A professional in any field brings a dedication to excellence and mastery of their craft that is central to their identity. Bevan-Baker’s history and perseverance in politics suggests little obsession with titles or position and plenty of focused efforts on mastering the often unrewarding terrain of political change-making. Though, it’s safe to assume that is not what MacLauchlan meant.
Now, Skip ahead to last week, when all four party leaders gathered on stage for the televised leaders debate (that one organized by the CBC). Watch Bevan-Baker, and you begin to appreciate what his blend of idealism and practicality looks like at political scale. He’s not manning his own camera anymore, but he certainly knows how to present himself to it and the audience watching at home.
Up to this point, he’s earned a reputation for being highly principled, but also highly collaborative and civil. He’s mused publicly about the difficult learning curve involved in becoming an MLA – not just in podcast interviews, but in the legislature and on the debate stage itself. In this debate, he presents himself as someone who wasn’t ready last time, but is now.
At one point in the debate, the moderator asks each leader what makes them the best choice for Premier.
“Louise, four years ago when Bruce asked almost that exact question I said I wasn’t sure that I was [the best choice for Premier],” responds Bevan-Baker. “But this is four years later and I feel entirely different about that.”
Four years later, the ideological spectrum of the legislature doesn’t quite fit on the head of a pin anymore. The diversity of ideology that, in 2015, was just beginning break through the ground of the legislature now has a much deeper base of grassroots support. The rise of the Greens will inevitably force the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties to clarify their own ideological values and rethink the playbook that has served many a grit and tory candidate well for over a century. When a party grows its popularity among voters from low single digits to front-runner, the parties those voters used to support must eventually take a hard look in the mirror or risk irrelevance. If this reckoning is happening, it is likely not a finished process, and one that will surely take beyond a single election cycle for the red and blue teams to work through.
In the meantime, there is an election happening. And voters are deciding who to support. In Island politics, as is often the case elsewhere, it’s not the party itself, but rather the party leader’s positions and disposition that signal to voters the kind of government they think they’ll get. Watch parts of the debate, and you might dismiss this lot of leaders as awfully polite, civil and kind to one another. You might even conclude that the election results hardly matter, because these aren’t the kind of men who will turn on one another in order to serve their political bases, self-interests or ego needs. Surely they can sort it all out and figure out how to govern this small place after Election Day.
But, pay close attention over the course of the campaign and in the years leading up to it, and you see that there is more to it. Civility isn’t so much what unifies these leaders, it’s a corner of the new turf on which this election is being fought. A more civil politics filled with fresh faces, an enthusiastic embrace of progressive political ideals, and a focus on environmental protection – these have been the defining distinctions between the Greens and the traditional power-holding parties on the Island (we’ll get to the NDP in a moment).
The Tories and Liberals seem aware of this reality. Tory policies and politics this election blur that distinction (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) between themselves and the Greens, while the Liberals seem determined to stay the course and, rely on voters to choose the familiar over the new.
So, the distinctions between Bevan-Baker and Liberal Leader and Premier, Wade MacLauchlan are the most apparent. On civility, MacLauchlan is on shaky ground. Just a few weeks ago, he made that remark about Bevan-Baker being a career politician, which doesn’t appear to have earned him any points – political or otherwise. He must also defend his decision to ask Islanders back to return to polls for a second vote a new voting system, after a majority of voters already indicated a clear preference for the Mixed Member Proportional voting system in a 2016 plebiscite.
MacLauchlan has the distinction of being the first openly gay man to serve as Premier of a Canadian province. It was and remains a powerful symbol and achievement of progress, but should not be confused as a proxy for the progressiveness of his policy approach. Consider, for instance, MacLauchlan’s reluctance to ensure women on PEI have access to abortion. Only when threatened with a court case fighting to secure access to abortion for Island women did MacLauchlan’s government make abortion services available to Island women. When he explained the decision, MacLauchlan cited the legal advice he received and the low chance of the government winning a ‘long and costly court case.’
On environmental issues, MacLauchlan’s government seems a reluctant participant in the federal government’s carbon pricing initiatives. Initially his government asked Ottawa to approve an emissions reduction plan without a carbon tax, but eventually submitted one that included a tax. For a province with a coastal way of life that will be threatened by the rising seas and more frequent storms from climate change and instability, this reluctance seems more noteworthy than the others. The most conservative-lead provinces already resist carbon pricing. Islanders are among the Canadians with the most to lose as climate change continues. One must wonder why any PEI premier would not be a more enthusiastic supporter of, and evangelist for policies like carbon pricing to reduce emissions, and prevent runaway climate catastrophe.
In the leadership debates, MacLauchlan is neither laid back nor excitable. His speaks slowly, and in monotones. His approach to persuasion is simply to explain. He explains policy-making, intergovernmental cooperation, and making bureaucracy work better.
“Let me tell you a story about a building that is on the next block to where our offices are,” he says at one point in the CBC debate.
The Premier goes on to tell a story about his government’s role in saving a low-rent apartment building destined for upscale development. He describes bringing various government agencies together to ensure the residents can continue to enjoy an affordable rental situation. It sounds like a story worth telling, but it’s difficult to imagine MacLauchlan’s telling of it resonating much with the voters who care about the issue. Government agencies are the main characters, while residents of the building somewhere in the background. It’s more difficult still to imagine MacLauchlan telling the story any way other than the way he told it.
The contrast between PC Leader Dennis King and Bevan-Baker is less clear. On Election Day, King will have been PC leader for exactly two months and two weeks. His party has been through six leaders in as many years, with King being the fourth to hold the job since the last election. What he lacks in time on the job, he makes up for in enthusiasm. His performance in debates like these will be many voters’ first and last impression of him as Tory leader before they go to the polls.
King rarely offers his take on an issue without first acknowledging some common ground he shares with at least one of the other leaders. The biography on his website highlights his background as a journalist, communications consultant, storyteller, collaborator and conflict resolver. It’s the latter roles that are most obvious in his performance in the leadership debates. He’s happy on stage, often smiling, or seemingly looking for a reason to. If Islanders are searching for a politician that models the Island’s friendly and polite reputation, King fits the bill.
It remains to be seen what kind of politician he will be after the election. This is King’s first election as Tory leader, but also his first election as a candidate for MLA. King is not a traditional conservative. He is pro-choice, more enthusiastically so than MacLauchlan. He tells the debate audience he voted ‘yes’ for the mixed member proportional system on the referendum ballot. Then, at the debate on agriculture (yes, there is a leaders debate on agriculture) he gets excited about what the growing vegan economy means for Island farmers.
He is like other conservative party leaders in his opposition to the carbon tax. At this point in the debate, he takes a break from agreeing with the other leaders. After Bevan-Baker clumsily explains how money collected through the carbon tax should be returned directly to Islanders, King asks him, “Well why don’t you leave it in their pocket in the first place?”
If no party wins a majority of seats at the polls on Tuesday, the PC party may be the primary beneficiary of the Green Party’s not-yet-field-tested political machinery. If King doesn’t end up wearing the crown of Premier himself, he’ll likely decide who does.
Lastly, there is NDP Leader, Joe Byrne. The NDP’s role in the present state of affairs has been largely unappreciated. He is exactly what you would expect an NDP leader to be in a province that has only ever elected a single NDP MLA. He’s the most forceful critic of the status quo, and has the least of the political machines behind him. He fills a role close to the one traditionally filled by Green leaders where the party hasn’t elected members. When you strip away the personalities involved, Bevan-Baker’s policies more closely align with Byrne’s. But when you consider the personalities, Byrne makes Bevan-Baker look moderate. That probably doesn’t help the NDP, but it might help the Greens.
In the 2015 election, Greens and New Democrats collectively earned 22% of the popular vote, which each party claiming about half of that amount. Bevan-Baker was the only candidate from either party to win a seat. Now, the NDP is registering just 3% of voters’ support in the last pre-election polling. It’s difficult to imagine any but the most dedicated of New Democrats sticking with their own party, rather than giving the more popular and more organized Greens a chance at power in this election.
Election day is today, April 23rd, the Tuesday following the Easter long weekend. Early Saturday morning, Islanders and those watching from afar learned of the tragic death of Green Party Candidate, Josh Underhay, and his six year old young son, Oliver. The two died in a canoe accident on the the Hillsborough River on Friday. The 35 year old husband and father of two worked as a middle school teacher, was an active cyclist, and musician. Everything came to a stop.
The response of Islanders, and most notably Island politicians, in the face of this tragedy has only strengthened the Island’s status as a unique political place. All parties suspended campaign activities on Saturday and pulled advertising. Campaign teams in District 9, where Underhay was a candidate, pulled most of their signs down early Saturday morning out of respect for Underhay. A GoFundMe page was setup to support Underhay’s wife and three year old son, and candidates from all parties shared and donated. A $500 goal was set by the organizer. By Tuesday, over $80,000 has been raised.
Late Sunday night, Bevan-Baker issued a statement noting that Greens wouldn’t be actively campaigning for the remainder of the campaign period, aside from answering voters’ questions and offering transportation to the polls. Some candidates from other parties chose to take the same approach.
Section 45 of the Prince Edward Island Election Act requires a district election to be rescheduled when one of the candidates dies. The last time this happened was during the provincial election in May of 1966, when Liberal candidate William Acorn died mid-campaign. There were 31 seats in the legislative assembly at that time. On election night, the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties each won 15. It’s all written about in the 2014 book, Alex B. Campbell: The Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked the Cradle. The author of that book? Wade MacLauchlan. (Hat tip to Canadian Press Reporter, Teresa Wright, for noting this).
When the by-election was held in July of 1966, the Liberal candidate won. That victory sent Liberal Leader, Adam Campbell to the Premier’s chair. On this, MacLauchlan observed, “for both sides there were essential lessons, often vainly ignored about PEI politics: (a) you can’t buy votes, and (b) when the tide turns, there’s no stopping it.”
Lessons for Canada in the Prince Edward Island Election
The Prince Edward Island election may be an anomaly in the Canadian political landscape. Or, it may be a lesson waiting to be learned for citizens, civic leaders, and anyone who holds or wishes for political power. Because politics is paradoxical, it’s probably both of those things.
For those working for change from outside of the system, there is a lesson about playing the long game, whether you realize you’re playing it or not; whether you’re playing it for yourself, or not.
For those who presently hold power, who do so under the banners of traditional parties, and obtained it using the traditional political strategies, there is another lesson. This lesson is about staying alert enough to realize not just when the goalposts have shifted, but when the game itself has changed, and when the traditional playbook no longer applies.
For all of us, there is a lesson about living one’s values. That when you don’t understand your values, own them, and invite others to share in them, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along who will. And if they’re the right kind of leader, they’ll make it easy for those around them to do the same. On Prince Edward Island, that someone is Peter Bevan-Baker, but elsewhere in Canada and the parts of the western democratic world, it’s a far-right, populist figure. If any of us put off clarifying or activating our own values until one of these figures arrives, it’ll might be too late to make much use of them.
The hardest, most painful lesson from this election comes from loss. Democracy is a tool we wield collectively to shape a world that more closely resembles the one most of us want to live in. Democracy is slow moving, less perfect in practice than in theory, and at times you can feel like it’s working against you. But it’s powerless against stopping from happening the kind of tragedy that took Josh and Oliver Underhay. And, while democracy can’t stop tragedy, democratic principles and the surrounding political culture can influence how we respond when it strikes. Islanders have shown the rest of Canada what it looks like when the emotional needs of a community are put ahead of partisan politics, even at a time when so much is at stake for so many.
The rest of us could ask ourselves, ”Would my community respond to a tragedy like this as Islanders have?” I’m convinced most communities would. We ought to push ourselves further. We ought to ask, “Without waiting for tragedy, how can my activism, candidacy, or involvement in my community demonstrate as deep a commitment to human well-being?”
After Election Day
There are so many variables at play in this election. The likelihood of Greens translating the support shown to them in polling into cast ballots on election day is nearly impossible to predict. Further, the polls continue to show a splintered electorate. Thanks to the unpredictability of the First-Past-The-Post voting system, the PCs, Liberals or Greens each still have a chance at forming government, minority or majority. Nearby, in New Brunswick, similarly close election results from last year meant that first the Liberal leader, and then the Progressive Conservative leader had to take a shot at forming government before the members of their legislature saw one the majority of them could support.
Should Bevan-Baker and the party he leads form any kind of government in the months ahead, their so-far-so-good ability to satisfy the dueling masters of dreaming and doing will be put to the ultimate test. The electorate will no doubt be patient for a time as Greens learn their way around the halls of power and the realities of holding it. Sooner than is likely reasonable, Islanders will expect to see evidence that the party’s promise of change was a meaningful one, that life on PEI under the Greens is better than life under the reds and blues, and that their lack of experience in elected office has been a feature of Green government, rather than a bug.
If that happens, Islanders won’t be the only ones watching. Bevan-Baker’s Greens will be responsible for calibrating the Canadian electorate’s judgement of how Green platform promises measure up against Green government programs and policies. Also up for examination will be how the Green way of doing politics shifts when Greens move from opposition to government benches. Will they be able to collaborate constructively with other parties? How does a minister in a Green government respond to tough questions on the floor of the legislature? And if they are able to successfully maintain the civility of their politics in government, will they also be able to make the kind of changes that so many have been lead to expect?
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