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Elections on Prince Edward Island tend to be as predictable as the tides.
In the 146 years since the province’s first election after Confederation, just two parties have traded power. No party other than the Liberals and Conservatives has ever won more than a single seat in a general election.
There’s no doubt that was about to change in the 66th general election on April 23.
For months, the scuttlebutt around the Island has been that the Green Party could form government. The Greens held two of the 27 seats in the legislative assembly when it was dissolved for the vote, having won a byelection in 2017. This time, they seem poised to win many more. After nearly a century-and-a-half of the same ol’ boys, the Island started to consider its options.
Eavesdropping in Tim Horton's probably could have told you that the Greens were ascendant. Pollsters only confirmed it.
Suddenly, it seemed P.E.I. was set to elect the first Green government in Canada. What’s more, a concurrent vote on electoral reform seemed set to make P.E.I. the first province to ditch its first-past-the-post voting system.
But as Tuesday approached, anticipation gave way to sorrow.
On Friday evening, an accident claimed the life of a young teacher, Josh Underhay, and his young son. He was a Green candidate. The shock hit islanders within a matter of hours. Whether they knew him directly, as many did, or had never met him, the entire province was shaken.
Yet the election still has to go on, caught between a desire for change and an immense feeling of grief.
It’s a story about the particular type of community that exist on the Island, yes. But it’s also a parable about how a nicer, more meaningful politics is possible. It may also be a sign that elections can still be a meaningful way to fix pressing issues facing the country.
Exciting prospects but boring campaign
When I arrived in Charlottetown on Friday, I started hearing the conventional wisdom nearly right away.
Despite being the most high-stakes election P.E.I. had seen in more than a century, it was surprisingly boring. The first poll showing the Green Party leading was published in January 2018, and all but one poll in 2019 confirmed that.
It’s the sort of change that should have had the entire Island buzzing.
In a leaders’ debate earlier in April, The Guardian reported that the Green leader was in attack mode over the government's handling of the immigration file — telling the crowd that the premier had “not done a terribly good job.”
Apart from that rather tame invective, the debates were largely collegial. The leaders agreed on the issues, but politely differed on solutions.
The rather muted election campaign was confirmed by my own personal polling. As I drove across the Island, election signs on residents’ front lawns were few and far between.
I had to check with Teresa Wright, a Canadian Press reporter on Parliament Hill who worked for years as The Guardian’s chief political reporter. “I’ve been surprised at how few there are actually,” she told me.
But I learned quickly that a lack of electricity doesn’t mean there wasn’t enthusiasm.
Bevan-Baker stirred an appetite for change
My plan for the weekend had been to shadow Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker as he hit the doorsteps. The Scottish-born politician has been a longtime activist and ran a dental practice in the rural community of Hampton.
A big part of the appetite for change came from Bevan-Baker. He had made his first run for the legislature in 2007, picking up just 221 votes. Next time, he did a little better. Then, in 2015, he romped to victory in the riding, picking up over 2,000 votes. In P.E.I.’s infamously small ridings, that’s half the vote.
Islanders seem to genuinely like him. He even looks a bit different than the typical politician. Nearly every picture of Bevan-Baker either has him locked in a dissatisfied scowl, or flashing a toothy grin.
I was slated to join Bevan-Baker on the campaign trail Saturday afternoon. On Friday night, I went out to grab beers with Wright, who still lives in Charlottetown, at a hip craft beer bar in Charlottetown. Craft brews have become a bit of an economic wind chime for all the Atlantic provinces. Just a few years ago, the urban centres on the East Coast were largely stagnant. Then a few microbreweries popped up. And then a few more. Soon, you couldn’t throw a rock in Halifax, Moncton, or St. John’s without hitting a locally-brewed beer. It was proof of concept that local businesses could actually thrive out East.
The province wasn’t feeling terribly charitable to the Liberals, Wright explained. A senior Island Liberal had told her that they hadn’t even asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the Island. It’s a far cry from a few years ago when Trudeau was welcomed with fanfare and excitement not long after becoming prime minister.
The Progressive Conservatives, meanwhile, who normally benefit from the flagging Liberals, have been in tumult. They’ve gone through five leaders in five years. Two of them were interim leaders. The New Democratic Party, which polled well in the past but was unable to win a seat in the last election, would be lucky to win a seat this time around.
So that leaves the Greens.
As we chat, Wright looks at her phone. Her hand rises to her face and covers her mouth.
The news had just begun circulating in a Facebook group of Charlottetown moms, even before police released the details. There had been an accident.
Josh Underhay, running for the Greens in Charlottetown, had taken his son canoeing in the Hillsborough River. While it’s hard to know what happened next, their boat tipped. Emergency crews found their bodies, both still wearing life jackets, in the water near their capsized canoe. Underhay was 35. His son was six.
I suspect many across the province did exactly what Wright did, as the news spread across the Island. Stared at their phone in disbelief.
P.E.I. is an island of just over 150,000. While it’s not quite true that everyone knows everyone else, it is almost certainly true that there’s only ever about two degrees of separation between islanders.
Such an accident would be an unbearable tragedy anywhere. In PEI, it was devastating.
One phrase keeps getting repeated. “This is going to change everything.”
His death sent out shockwaves. He wasn’t just a candidate, some esoteric name on a ballot — he was a teacher, a community activist, and a friend of many. It felt like, over the next day, nearly every conversation began with: “Terrible about Josh, eh?” Or with a hushed acknowledgement of his death. “Such a shame,” people said, shaking their heads.
The messages of condolences that came from other parties weren’t perfunctory or merely sympathetic; they knew Underhay, personally.
Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green Party and a long-time friend, tossed and turned on Friday night. She was set to get married on Monday, but honestly contemplating cancelling it.
A GoFundMe was set up to raise money for the family, with a $500 goal.
I drove around the Island, trying to spot campaign offices. Every single one I found was shut, the lights off. On the door of one Conservative candidate’s storefront was a note: The campaign wrap up party tonight has been cancelled.
It seemed to happen organically. Nobody needed to be told that campaigning after the deaths would be distasteful. They just knew. The response was uncommonly decent. Party leaders cancelled their events. The election, effectively, froze. It put the whole race in a sadder, introspective light.
The election in Underhay’s riding was cancelled. A new vote will be rescheduled for a future date. But in the rest of the province, the vote will still go on. While the pageantry of a campaign felt pointless and uncomfortable in light of his passing, the importance of the election took on new significance. Underhay, after all, was running for office — particularly, to do something different.
Thank you. So many mixed emotions after our tragic Friday. Much love to all grieving the loss of Josh. And - of course- the best wedding present will be a Green government in PEI! https://t.co/KXy9zq7hnq— Elizabeth May (@ElizabethMay) April 22, 2019
A village with the power of a province
P.E.I. is, really, a village with the power of a province. And folks from P.E.I. won’t let you forget that — they have four MPs, four Senators, and a seat among the 13 premiers.
Make all the jokes you want about P.E.I. and its tiny size, it is a small Island that matters. And just because their elections don’t have quite the same cut-and-thrust of campaigns elsewhere, doesn’t mean that they don’t take voting seriously. They have the highest voter turnout in the country, at nearly 75 per cent, and a grasp on policy and issues that puts other provinces to shame.
In a Tim Hortons in Montague, on the east end of the Island, an employee is mopping the floor. She looks up at two men sitting at the table in front of her.
“You boys vote yet?”
They both nod. “Voted last week! What about you?”
She shakes her head. “I’ll vote on the 23rd.”
One of the men scoffs. “Why didn’t ya vote yet?”
Busy with work, she shrugs. “Can’t believe the Greens are going to win,” she says.
She moves on with the mop, but the two men keep talking. “I watched the debate the other night,” one says. They agree the Greens have some good ideas. They start trading thoughts on what the parties will do with the roads. With the hospital. They dive so deep into the specifics that I get lost and stop eavesdropping.
Green Party breakthroughs unheralded
You would be forgiven for missing the fact that there’s a green revolution going on right now.
For all the unprecedented success of Green politicians in recent years, there has been precious little attention paid to the environmentalists’ breakthrough.
In Canada, the Greens hold the balance of power in the British Columbia legislature. They hold three seats in New Brunswick. They were the first new party elected to the Ontario legislature in a half century. The party has been represented in the House of Commons for the past eight years.
It's modest, but it's growth.
In Europe, Greens have been picking up steam. While they have long done well in Germany, Greens there are polling second now The Dutch Greens, helmed by a young leader who looks freakishly like Trudeau, are polling third. Other Green parties have performed well at the state and local levels in recent years, signalling that the ecologists are gaining traction everywhere.
It makes sense. At a time when partisanship and division has reached a fever pitch, the Greens are refreshingly post-partisan.
Electoral reform shelved in the past
As I drive across the Island, I keep spotting hideously-designed signs. There’s a hand dropping a piece of paper into a ballot box.
“KNOW THE FACTS, VOTE NO,” they read in big red block letters.
Elections in P.E.I. tend to be lopsided. In 2000, Conservative Premier Pat Binns won 58 per cent of the vote, but all except one seat. It led to conversations about electoral reform on the Island, but a 2005 referendum saw voters side with the status quo.
The province held a second referendum in 2016, and voters narrowly opted for mixed-member proportional representation. However, turnout was so abysmal the results were shelved.
Voters will have another chance at change when they visit the ballot box Tuesday.
Those ugly signs, urging voters to vote no, might do more to sway the results than the yes campaign itself.
“Undecided? Don’t know? MMP is confusing and complicated,” read some of the signs. Others simply proclaim: “Don’t know? Vote no.” Still others call the proposed reform an “attack on democracy.”
Voters I spoke with called the signs divisive and condescending. Polls show that voters tend to agree. It seems the province will elect Canada’s first Green government, and be the first to switch to a new electoral system.
Few conversations don't turn to politics
While in Montague, I drive past a local brewery. My day with Bevan-Baker has been, understandably, cancelled. So I turn around — on a residential road voted “best street, 2012,” a sign tells me — and head over to the pub. The bartender offers me a taster as he chats with some other patrons.
“I voted advance,” a young guy tells the bartender. He’s cagey about who he voted for. But he went to a local all-candidates debate, even after he cast his ballot. “I changed my mind,” he confessed, looking almost guilty.
I stare at the bartender’s face after the others leave.
“You’re a candidate, aren’t you?” I ask.
He nods. He’s the Green candidate John Allen MacLean. As soon as I drove into town, I started seeing his face everywhere. (“I barely recognized you without the moustache,” one patron tells him. He confesses that he had a bit more stubble when they took his headshot for the signs.)
For a few hours that afternoon, locals come to the bar to talk. Almost every conversation has two beats: First, about Underhay. “Do they know what happened?” Everyone asks. “No,” MacLean says, shaking his head.
Second, about the upcoming election. “Think you’ll win?” MacLean gives a modest answer.
It seems the only conversations that don’t turn to politics, one way or another, are ones that include the phrase “we’re not from here.”
While I sit there, I turn my phone to show MacLean the fundraiser for Underhay’s family. “It hit $50,000!” I tell him.
We talk for awhile after his shift ends. Every few minutes we’re interrupted by a revolving door of locals who slap MacLean on the back on their way out. “Good luck on Tuesday!” they each say. Most are retirement age, which strikes me. At one point, MacLean echoes something Bevan-Baker says on the campaign trail: “We need to stop voting the way our grandparents voted, and start voting for our grandkids.”
“It looks like you’ve got the grandparent vote locked up, though,” I tell him.
He says he hears it on the door steps, too. Elderly islanders who say they've voted either red-or-blue for as long as they've voted. Now they're going Green.
My phone rings.
I step outside into the cold Atlantic rain. “It’s Elizabeth May!” The voice crackles on the other line. Just after she warns me that her reception is spotty, as she’s driving along the coast in British Columbia, her line cuts out. She calls back a few minutes later.
“I’m so broken over losing Josh, if we have to talk about that, I’m going to cry,” she tells me, her voice already breaking.
May had known Underhay for years. (She knew MacLean, too, making me wonder if the green movement is about as inter-connected as P.E.I. itself.)
I tell her that we don’t need to talk about Underhay. We turn to policy instead. She starts to sound enthusiastic, immediately pointing out that much of the P.E.I. Greens’ policies are also found in the federal Green campaign book.
And they’re not traditional Green policies — or not, at least, what we think of when we talk about the Greens. Adapting to the job displacement caused by artificial intelligence and automation, promoting midwifery, a guaranteed minimum income plan. It’s big stuff, she admits. Unlike the other parties, she intones, who find themselves on the “cutting edge of the status quo.”
Before I wish her well for her wedding on Monday and we say our goodbyes, May offers her own insight on the cross-generational appeal of the Greens.
“Maybe this is a moment where the grandparents and the grandkids, together, make sure we clean up politics,” she says.
Liberal claim on the economy backfired
It might be easy to write off P.E.I. as unique. So small, so collegial, not like the rest of our country.
And yet, looking at the campaign, so many concerns are identical to elsewhere.
The Guardian and Narrative Research conducted a poll in the middle of the campaign, asking voters top priorities. Number one, at 38 per cent, was hardly surprising: Healthcare. But the rest of the poll proved interesting. The number two concern was housing. Then, accountability in government, climate change, and education. Only five per cent said the economy was their main focus.
There’s not much to be concerned about. The economy has been booming, and private economists put P.E.I. near the top, if not at the top, of GDP growth forecasts for 2019.
It put swagger in the step of Premier Wade MacLauchlan and his Liberals. “PEI IS WORKING,” read the party campaign signs.
But the bragging has, seemingly, backfired. Signs from the NDP have sprung up below the Liberal red. “Working for who?” they ask.
On the west end of the Island, at the end of a muddy road that, at times, looks ready to swallow my rental car whole, there's another brewery. MacLean recommended it to me. It's about 20 minutes past a town called Harmony, off the highway, through a few twists in the road, to a town called Freeland. Apparently this spot is hard to find — lots of people get halfway down the unpaved red soil road, see the ocean, and turn right back around.
Inside I strike up a chat with the bartender. She knew Underhay, too. She grins, but her eyes look sad. “He was so enthusiastic,” she says.
“Did you see? The fundraiser is at $70,000,” I tell her.
Her eyes widen a bit. “Yesterday it was $50,000,” she says. That will do a lot for his widow, she adds.
We chat for a while. She's hoping the Greens get in, but even if they don't, it's changed everything, she says.
She had been looking at taking a job in Charlottetown — “a real, adult job,” she says — but she did the math. Rents were so high that she would end up taking a loss.
She fired off a statistic I've heard a bunch from the locals: “The vacancy rate hit zero per cent,” she says. (It was 0.3 per cent in 2018 for the entire Island, and 0.2 per cent for Charlottetown, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, but everyone rounds down.)
The high demand is driving prices up.
Average rent in Charlottetown is higher than Moncton and Montreal, and is quickly approaching that of Halifax. The growth is actually driven by population growth, largely fuelled by immigration — a necessity for an aging population. But both private developers and the government have failed to address the rising demand, leaving residents in the lurch.
It’s funny how similar those concerns are to downtown Toronto or Vancouver.
It’s not just housing.
While climate activists around the country have worked to encourage governments to bring on new green energy projects, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and begin preparing for the negative effects of climate change — those concerns are much more immediate, here. Rising sea levels threaten to swallow parts of coastal communities in the next century, including Charlottetown. Those rising tides bring with them the threat of more violent and damaging storm surges.
And then there’s healthcare. The Island has, along with the other Atlantic provinces, the highest proportion of seniors in the country. How the province will manage that demographic pressure is still an open question.
P.E.I. is, in so many ways, a microcosm for the rest of Canada.
One concern that doesn’t appear to be particularly pressing? Immigration.
While the federal Conservatives, and Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, have made much hay over the national immigration levels, P.E.I. seems quite at ease. The province took in 250 Syrian refugees in recent years — a small number, but more, per capita, than most other provinces.
It would be tough to find any sort of consistent or organized anti-immigration sentiment on the Island if you tried.
Town halls held to gather Green platform ideas
Even if the issues facing the province seem quite manageable, the Greens are offering a rather expansive set of solutions.
When Bevan-Baker and the P.E.I Greens set out to write their platform, they took a particularly grassroots approach, holding a series of town halls across the province to solicit ideas.
That's a far cry from the pageantry of how most parties in Canada set policy — in a convention hall, in a tightly-scripted affair, with those who have paid to fly in and buy a ticket to help shape the party's ideas. Even then, too often, the parties cast aside their own member's views and set policy anyway. (The Liberals have ignored their members’ wishes on decriminalizing hard drugs; the NDP on decriminalizing sex work.)
The Island Greens have pledged to bring in a guaranteed minimum income pilot, with an eye to expanding it, if all goes well — something that’s been approvingly cited by young people I spoke with who worry about making ends meet, with housing prices what they are.
They’re also pledging to raise the minimum wage to $15-an-hour, establish a nation-to-nation relationship with the Indigenous peoples of the Island, provide meals for all students, lower the voting age to 16, and expand the rental housing stock.
For all the big promises, the Green platform claims to keep a budget balanced into the foreseeable future.
Plenty of those promises sound like mainstays of the NDP platform, I tell May. She retorts: “All these things are in our federal platform — and have been.”
And she thinks those policies are going to gin up similar enthusiasm on the national level.
“I think we’re in a very good position federally to elect a whole lot more MPs, I don’t begin to guess how many,” she says.
Rumours of the Greens’ ascent have been greatly exaggerated before. May's entry to the House of Commons was supposed to have ushered in the green dawn. And yet, that day just never seemed to come. Until recently.
It's hard to pinpoint why now.
Greens offer a soft partisan zeal
It could be that the Greens have finally sanded off much of their rough edges.
References to homeopathy and alternative medicine in the federal party platform are largely gone. Gaffes and missteps by May, like inviting a 9/11 truther movement into Parliament and endorsing a “two-child policy” are largely distant memories (although the Greens’ official policy on population limits remains.)
With those quirks largely gone, what is left is a centre-left party that preaches fiscal prudence but promises some rather expansive technocratic solutions.
That, of course, isn't enough. Canada already has two perfectly palatable centre-left parties. Where the Greens have had success provincially, it has been thanks to its leaders — Andrew Weaver in B.C, a world-renowned climate scientist; David Coon in New Brunswick, a biologist and activist; Mike Schreiner, in Ontario, who built a business around delivering local and sustainable food.
In a political field so often dominated by lawyers and partisan lifers, scientists and locavores feel a welcome change.
The Greens also offer a refreshingly soft partisan zeal — an anti-zeal, maybe. Where the traditional parties trade tired barbs at each other, each feeling more worn than the last, the Greens have shown that politics can exist outside a two-or-three-or-maybe-two-and-a-half party paradigm, and can do so without building the same religiosity around the party's central committee.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in Canada’s most collegial and amenable province.
“You’ve got Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, Scott Moe,” May says. She contrasts them with the Island Green leader. “We’ve never needed a premier at a first ministers conference as much as Canada needs Peter Bevan-Baker at that table. It will be a tonic in terms of trying to sort out the federation.”
Underhay's death brought the purpose of politics into sharp focus
A federal election is just months away. If recent months are any indication, it will be the angriest, most bitter race in recent memory.
Whoever wins the vote in P.E.I. Tuesday, the race has shown that the current tone and timbre of politics on the mainland isn’t only unnecessary, but toxic. The parties have spoken to the voters like adults, and voters are responding in kind.
May brings it up in our interview. She says that, while she has wanted to pass the leadership torch to the next generation in her party, she thinks her status as the oldest party leader — and the only woman — will work to her advantage.
“Sometimes I feel that I may be the only grownup in the room,” she says.
The generational divide has only been highlighted in the days after Underhay’s death.
Friends and colleagues of Underhay espoused his many virtues to the local news. He was a tireless advocate for education. An activist to promote cycling. A teacher who highlighted to his students the history of the LGBTQ community.
His death has brought into sharp focus what politics is supposed to be about.
By Monday afternoon, the fundraiser to support his family passed $80,000.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 4:14 p.m. ET on April 23, 2019 to correct that Peter Bevan-Baker ran a dental clinic in Hampton, P.E.I. and not one in Charlottetown.