PARKSVILLE — Like most candidates running for office on Vancouver Island, Byron Horner spends a lot of time talking about the environment. His campaign promises to put a tighter squeeze on heavy polluters, invest in offshore spill response, and implement a national recycling program.
Just one hitch: he’s a Conservative.
For some, the notion of an eco-friendly Tory might present an absurd paradox — especially here on the island, where environmentalism can seem more a religious devotion than simple political preference. But Horner’s riding of Courtenay—Alberni, which divides the island between north and south, overlaps with what has long been a Conservative stronghold.
Conservative MP James Lunney had represented the region for many years since 2004, part of a long list of right-leaning politicians that stretch back to the 80s. North of Courtenay—Alberni, Conservative candidate Shelley Downey is in the running to win the sprawling riding in the northern half of the island, which has long been a tight race between Conservatives and the NDP (the Liberals have not won a seat north of Victoria for decades).
“People here tend to be a little greener than the average Conservative member,” says Horner, who lives in the small city of Parksville along the eastern coast of the island.
Horner himself was executive producer of the Great Bear Rainforest documentary, narrated by Canadian movie star Ryan Reynolds, which sought to raise awareness about extinction threats in the highly sensitive habitat.
The region around Parksville, unlike the urbanized south, has a long history of industrial activity, particularly forestry. Labourers wearing Carhartt jackets drive heavy work trucks. Equipment rental yards and fish bait shops dot the town’s outer limits. A pub near the town’s main road goes by the name Rod & Gun.
“Locals know this, but there is a perception among others that the island is all Green, it’s la-la land, it’s the Left Coast — all of that kind of stuff,” Horner says from his campaign office, across the street from the Georgia Strait.
The campaign by Horner, who claims to be among the “next generation” of Conservatives who make the environment a priority, points to a growing divide within small-c conservative circles over whether the party needs to adopt more stringent policies as a way to win over younger, more eco-minded voters. The party’s opposition to carbon taxes — widely viewed as an inherently conservative policy — has already turned off many voters in the region.
Several Conservative candidates who spoke to the National Post acknowledge that running as a Conservative on Vancouver Island is tough business, particularly amid rising anxieties over climate change.
“Sometimes I get snickers at the door,” says Richard Caron, Conservative candidate in Victoria. He adds, however, that some residents take a more pragmatic view that involves “making sure the economy stays strong in conjunction with the environment.”
Gord Johns, the NDP incumbent in Courtenay—Alberni, scoffs at the notion of Conservative candidates running on environmentally conscious platforms. A majority government under Stephen Harper has left deep distrust of the party in the riding, he says.
“They were invisible when it came to the environment,” says Johns.
The previous Harper government slashed $100 million in funding to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2013, including to the Coast Guard, which helps protect against ecological mishaps. Some voters claim the Conservatives did little to clean up the many abandoned sea vessels moored around the island, which have created safety hazards and blocked fishing routes, straining the patience of locals.
Most of all, Conservative opponents say voters express concern over the party’s climate plan, which has been dismissed by some as not going far enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There is a perception among others that the island is all Green, it’s la-la land, it’s the Left Coast
Johns notes the cuts to the Coast Guard, a failure to address GHG emissions, and the snubbing of First Nations as reasons for the distrust (Horner himself mentions cuts to the Coast Guard unprompted).
“People don’t have amnesia here, they’re being constantly reminded of the failure of the Conservatives to stand up for coastal British Columbians,” Johns says.
The Conservatives under leader Andrew Scheer have been staunchly opposed to the Liberal carbon tax, and have promised to repeal the policy on their first day in office, should they win the election (such a move would have no impact in B.C., where a provincial carbon tax has already been in place for years).
The party has long pushed back against policies that would rapidly reduce GHG emissions in Canada, arguing that other major polluters including the U.S., China, and India would continue to belch out the majority of the world’s emissions regardless. Even under Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s economy-wide carbon tax, Canada is still set to miss its 2030 Paris targets by a sizeable margin.
Still, economists and environmentalists roundly lambasted the Conservative’s climate plan when it was released this summer. Mark Jaccard, a professor at Simon Fraser University, estimated that emissions under the Conservative plan would actually rise.
I think we’ve evolved as a party
The plan involves a slight lowering of the threshold for heavy emitters who pay taxes on carbon emissions, a tax credit for energy friendly home retrofits, and a tax cut on incomes generated from clean energy technologies.
It also includes a $250-million fund that would invest $1 in clean technologies for every $4 invested by the private sector. Conservatives say the fund would differ from the Liberal’s $600-million clean tech fund because it would be managed by the private sector, though few details of the fund are laid out in the plan.
Some conservationist-minded Conservatives claim that opposition parties have wrongly pigeon-holed the party as being anti-environment.
“In politics perception is everything, and the perception of Conservatives as people who don’t care about conservation is something that I don’t understand, and has frustrated me,” said Robert Sopuck, a long-time Conservative MP from Manitoba, who helped author the Conservative environment plan.
Sopuck sat on both the fisheries and environment committees during his time in office, and has won awards from a provincial wildlife federation for his conservation efforts. He is retiring from office this year.
He says that recent concerns over GHG emissions has overshadowed other, more tangible, ecological issues that are of more concern to voters: waning fish stocks, invasive species, rising extinction rates, wetlands losses and declining water quality.
“Climate change killed conservation,” he says. “Almost the entire suite of conservation issues in this country have been forgotten because all we talk about is CO2 emissions.”
Years of decline in the island’s forestry industry could help bolster Conservative candidates, who have taken a more explicitly industry-friendly position than their opponents. Downey, who is running in North Island—Powell River, said GHG emissions are important to her voters, but many are more interested in policies that don’t threaten industry of any kind.
“I’ve heard some people say they will vote Green because that would be the best way to look after the environment, but they’re looking at the issue one way, not at the whole picture,” she says.
Downey is running against NDP incumbent Rachel Blaney, who in 2015 became just the second NDP candidate to win in the riding since 1997.
For Horner and others, convincing outsiders of their environmental credibility is likely to prove an uphill battle. Horner goes as far as to distance the Tories from the former Harper government — a position that is unlikely to receive widespread support within the party.
“We have a leader who never served in the previous government’s Cabinet,” he says of Scheer.
Horner serves as president of Vancouver-based CopperLion Capital, a firm that oversees investments on behalf of Kyle Washington, son of American billionaire Dennis Washington, who owns stakes in Canadian assets including two diamond mines in the North and a barge logistics firm. He is a staunch supporter of the Conservative climate plan, but likens the need to promote a more environment-friendly message to a pragmatic business decision.
“Political parties are selling a product,” he says. “I’m a businessperson—if you don’t adapt to what the marketplace is wanting, your product is not going to sell and you’re going to close your doors,” Horner says.
“I think we’ve learned, and I think we’ve evolved as a party.”