BURNABY, B.C. — “I call them the Trojan horse government.”
John Clarke is upset with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government. Livid might be a better description.
“They snuck in, hidden, under false pretences. They got elected, and once they were in, then we found their true colours.”
I am standing at the end of a march protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. I’ve joined about 40 concerned residents and nearby environmentalists taking part in what was advertised as a “tour” of Kinder Morgan’s tank farm. In reality, we walk along an electric fence separating the site from a pedestrian path, guided by a Tsleil-Waututh Watch House camp elder.
The local Liberal MP, Terry Beech, is with me. Unafraid to wade into the line of fire, the 38-year-old is handing out two-page statements to anyone who will listen, explaining the work he’s done to mitigate a decision his government made, one his community opposes, and one which threatens to snuff out his political career.
It’s early July and this is the riding of Burnaby North–Seymour, ground zero in the fight against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
For many, the election contest here is a story about the pipeline and the Liberals’ decision to support it — something that some, like Clarke, view as a betrayal. For others, this is a story about the Liberals’ commitment towards Indigenous rights. For still others, a David and Goliath story, pitting Beech, a hard-working rookie Grit MP, against a formidable and controversial challenger. Former longtime NDP MP, Svend Robinson, is seeking a political comeback and a chance to possibly rewrite his political legacy.
Perhaps this is a contest that will serve as a barometer of Green support, or even the People’s Party of Canada’s potential. Perhaps, this will be a story about progressives uniting to defeat an anti-abortion, pro-pipeline Conservative candidate — or electing her, by splitting the centre-left vote. Whatever the storyline, it’s a fascinating race.
And, for those who live here, many feel it is an existential one as well.
* * *
“This government has allowed the people of North Burnaby and around here to become a sacrifice zone in the case of an incident up in the tank farm,” Clarke says.
The 74-year old has lived on Burnaby Mountain since 1971. Pointing northwest into the distance, the retired educator and businessman says his home is 365 metres downhill from the tank farm.
“I built my own house; I have my life invested in it.”
Now, Clarke worries about seeing all that it contains go up in flames should a catastrophe occur in his backyard. All it would take is a leak and an ignition source, he points out. His daughter and granddaughters used to live next door, but they sold the property and moved away “for their own safety.”
Clarke has boxes full of reports about the dangers of living next to the tank farm. Sensitive documents he gets from whistleblowers are kept somewhere else. It’s not a trivial matter to him. “My life is in danger.”
Top among the concerns are the 12 storage tanks built in the early 1950s to outdated standards. The risk that the old tanks might not hold up during an earthquake was highlighted earlier this year by a Simon Fraser University geoscientist and a retired structural engineering.
The threat of a big earthquake has been played down by some, but the possibility does exist. The Vancouver-area is near theboundary of two tectonic plates andhome to thousands of small earthquakes each year. Two days before I visited,Northern Vancouver Island was hit with a 6.2-magnitude earthquake.
Afire this January, which came within 250 metres of the nearest tank, also suggested to nearby residents that they’re living next to the equivalent of a ticking time bomb.
The farm is scheduled to expand by another 14 tanks, bringing them closer to each other and raising the level of risk, according to a 2014 report from Chris Bowcock, the deputy fire chief. A fire in one tank could easily ignite fires in the adjacent tanks, the report said, and those fires could be “inextinguishable due to a lack of safe firefighting positions.”
While Kinder Morgan notes that no incidents have occurred in their 65-year history and stresses that safety measures are in place, folks like Clarke hold little faith in a company that they believe misled city officials aboutpast leaks at the storage facility.
“You can’t trust them at all,” says Clarke.
A fire in the tank farm could cut off Simon Fraser University and its UniverCity condo development, which is located higher up the mountain, from rescue efforts. Residents who live below the tanks could find themselves surrounded by fire.
“It flows down all these streams,” Clarke says, pointing in front of us. “Down through the golf course, and Silver Creek, and a couple of the creeks flow down the mountain, and go into Burnaby Lake … and the materials that are up there could catch on fire and we could literally have a river of fire.”
Clarke says the fire department has warned that it would take about 17 minutes for the fire to spread down the mountain. Seventeen minutes.
Watch: Trudeau defends approving Trans Mountain expansion project
Clarke voted for Beech in 2015. “He was going to stop the pipeline.” He hasn’t spoken to the local MP in three years — since Trudeau’s government first approved the pipeline project. Beech has called him, Clarke says. Sent hand-written notes. He has ignored the effort.
The Liberal government promised to change the entire process by which approvals would be made, he says.
“That was the major reason that government got elected,” Clarke says. “It’s absolutely the reason Terry Beech got elected, because, he said, he was very opposed to it and was going to do something about it.”
The 2015 Liberal platform noted that “while governments grant permits for resource development, only communities can grant permission.” Trudeau repeatedly spoke about pipeline projects not going through without asocial licence.
“They have not been given licence… We are going to fight it to the end.”
Clarke plans to vote for Robinson, the NDP candidate. “Stand-up guy, calls it the way it is.”
Thomas Davies, a young man from Climate Convergence, one of the three groups organizing this walk with Mountain Protectors and Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan, doesn’t know who is going to win this election. But he offers without any hesitation: “Oh, not that guy that was just here.”
* * *
Beech was 17 when he first ran for office and 18 when he won. He was living in a small shed on his father’s property, watching Nanaimo city councillors on TV as an exercise for his high school debate club when he decided he was doing a better job preparing for their meetings, so he might as well join them.
Using money his grandfather lent him, recycled signs from Robins Donuts where he worked at the time, Beech threw himself into the project. He read 20 years worth of microfiche newspaper articles in the local library, he says, to educate himself on the issues.
The victory was an impressive feat for any young man, but perhaps more so for Beech, whose childhood was rocked by divorce, cross-country moves, and a stint on a Manitoba farm, bailing hay and feeding chickens when he was 13 while his twin brother lived in foster care. He doesn’t want to talk much about it, only to say his mother had a hard time taking care of three kids on her own.
Beech served one term on council while attending classes at Capilano University. He then moved to Burnaby to attend Simon Fraser University, where he met his wife, Ravi. After graduation, he worked in real estate development, later earning an MBA at the University of Oxford and starting a string of successful startups.
After Trudeau won the Liberal leadership and came out in favour of legalizing marijuana, Beech says he started thinking about getting back into politics.
He was impressed by Trudeau’s support for legalizing marijuana, a controversial policy that might cost him votes. “[He] could be convinced based on what the evidence says,” Beech says, over sushi in his campaign office. “That’s the type of person I wanted to work with.”
Ravi took more convincing. “There are so many downsides to this career,” she says, as she rocks eight-month-old Nova. “It doesn’t make financial sense, it’s hard on a couple, it’s hard on a family. It’s a huge sacrifice.” The daughter of Punjabi immigrants who worked long hours to give their children a better chance in life acquiesced in the end.
“I need to make sure good people take care of our country.”
Beech loves his job. He’s ambitious and, although he doesn’t come right out and say it, he clearly would like his career to expand beyond three stints as a parliamentary secretary to various cabinet ministers.
Trudeau, however, has made his life difficult. Burnaby North–Seymour wasn’t a landslide win in 2015. Beech won it in a three-way race, receiving 36 per cent of ballots cast, compared with the NDP at 29.6 per cent, and the Conservatives at 27.8 per cent.
While Beech hasn’t stopped the pipeline project, he argues he has done what his constituents expected him to — express their concerns and consistently offer possible solutions to problems that are raised.
In this election, he says, “I’m going to stand with my head held high about how I represented this community.”
Watch: Liberal MP Terry Beech brings baby into climate debate
He may not have been arrested protesting the pipeline, he says, but he has “been incredibly active.”
Beech notes he was the only MP to attend all the ministerial panel hearings in Burnaby. He presented at the hearings in North Vancouver, and went to other meetings in Vancouver and in the interior of B.C..
Svend Robinson, he says, never came to his office in the past four years to tell him what more he should do on Trans Mountain. “He didn’t show up at any of the hearings.”
Nor did Amita Kuttner, the Green candidate, ever come to talk to him about ways they could stop climate change together, he adds.
“I was the one doing this work. So it’s easy for people to come in, you know a couple of months before an election, and saying: ‘If only it was me, your entire life would have been different.’ That’s not entirely rational.”
Beech says his constituents are primarily concerned about three things:
“If you take it out of the Burrard Inlet, then two million people don’t get the increased tanker traffic in some of the most valuable real estate in all of North America.”
And Beech should know. His house is the third closest to the Westridge Marine Terminal, the docking point for the tankers, and the existing pipeline goes through his front yard.
* * *
As we drive through the riding, Beech calls Burnaby North–Seymour the prettiest constituency in Canada. Many members of Parliament say the same thing about their corner of the country, but sitting on the rocks in Deep Cove, watching the kayakers in the bay as the fog rolls in, it’s hard to feel that you’re not somewhere special.
Beech wants to show me some of the infrastructure dollars he’s brought to the riding and the jobs he’s helped create. We pass Stemcell, a biotech company that was going to move out of the riding but instead expanded and now employs 4,000 people — the riding’s largest jobs announcement. We stop by the Second Narrows Bridge to view the federal contributions to traffic projects to ease congestion, and at Cates Park where the government announced its $1.5-billion ocean’s protection plan.
In all, Beech provides me with a detailed list of more than 37 projects he says he’s had a hand in.
And twice, we visit the tank farm. In the afternoon, Beech is warmly greeted by Jim Leyden, the Tsleil-Waututh Watch House camp elder, and a group of about seven men sitting under a tarp.
“We are watching them. They are causing ridiculous destruction,” 69-year-old Bodhi Noh tells me. “We have one world, and if we don’t take care of it, we will all die.”
Beech says he’s attended every protest that has occured in his riding, on both sides of the issue, when he hasn’t been in Ottawa.
* * *
It’s late Friday afternoon when we hit the doors in Burnaby Heights. Few people are home.
At one house, a woman answers the door, a young child at her feet. Sahara wears a long Disney nightgown. Beech asks how old she is. “Five,” she answers. “It’s very important for you to know, even though you’re not old enough to vote yet, you’re technically my boss,” he says, handing her his card.
If there is anything she wants to know, any problems she wants fixed, she should just call his office, and “we’ll try to fix it for ya,” he says. She nods her head and smiles.
Her mother, Harman Sidhu, says there is nothing really on her mind. And then, adds, “well, the one thing we talk about is the pricing of the houses.”
For about 10 minutes Sidhu and Beech discuss the Liberals’ efforts to correct the market. “We can’t even dream of buying another house in Burnaby,” she says. “We are a working couple, we are working full time, with good financial conditions, we still can’t afford it.”
She feels there are more job opportunities, but says salaries have not kept up with inflation. “You can never make enough money to make a good living.”
Sidhu supported Trudeau in the last election but feels more affinity towards the NDP. Beech tells her that, in the riding’s 152-year history, if the votes are transposed on the current boundaries, the riding has always elected a Conservative or Liberal. “I’m trying to keep the Conservatives out of power,” he tells her.
He gives her his personal cellphone number and casually mentions he wonParliamentarian of the Year last year. (He actually won for best civic outreach.)
“I’m only in my rookie season. I want to see what I can do in my sophomore season,” he adds.
“Good luck,” she responds.
At another home, Harjit Bahia says he voted Liberal last time but this time, he’s unsure. He has concerns about the prime minister’s handling of foreign affairs. “It’s tricky with Trump,” he says. “It’s easy to say we should have gotten a better deal.”
Bahia is concerned about China, and the two Canadians who are still detained, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. He also seems unsure about Trudeau himself.
“India was a prime example… Is that really him? Or is it all just a photo op and he’s saying the right things? I don’t know.”
Beech offers to send him a note about the Liberals’ accomplishments internationally. Bahia is non-committal.
As we walk away, Beech says his No. 1 goal is to build friendly, trusting relationships.
Then he turns towards me.
“Nobody talked about Trans Mountain today, did you see that?” he says.
* * *
The pipeline is all people want to talk about when I visit Robinson’s official campaign launch.
A Tsleil-Waututh elder, Carleen Thomas, speaks first.
“This inlet is our birth place,” she tells the packed crowd of about 120. “I was told that our first grandmother was created by the sediment in Burrard Inlet.”
She says it’s so important to have Robinson, with all his experience, pick up the “mantle” for her people’s fight.
“Those back east do not listen to us. They don’t! And being an Indigenous person, we know first hand how it is to be ignored. How it is to be swept under the rug, how it is to be shoved in the corner of Canadian society.
For nearly an hour, half a dozen elected New Democrats from Burnaby, Vancouver North, and Seymour join in praising the man who represented parts of the riding from 1979 to 2004, before leaving politics after a pocketing an expensive diamond ring — something he said at the time was due to stress but now attributes to mental illness.
NDP Burnaby North MLA Janet Rutledge says she is “inspired” by Robinson’s return. Burnaby–Lougheed MLA Katrina Chen calls him a “fighter.”
“Our current MP is friendly,” she says, “but is he fighting for our community? He is not.”
Burnaby–Edmonds MLA Raj Chouhan says that for the past four years, residents in the riding have been ill-served. “You didn’t have a representative. Nobody heard about Burnaby North-Seymour,” he says.
North Vancouver Councillor Jim Hansen, a Seymour resident, praises “Svend’s return to politics” as if it were the second coming of Christ.
“They campaigned telling us they were going to bring climate leadership. But instead, in Seymour, we are getting a pipeline.”
When Robinson takes the microphone, he calls the Trans Mountain expansion, the main issue in the riding.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the project will be so huge that Canada can’t possibly meet its Paris targets, he says. He talks about the old tanks with floating lids posing “potentially a grave risk” and the fire department’s assessment of the danger.
“That alone should mean the end of this project — of the Trans Mountain expansion — that alone,” he tells them.
But there is more. The Westridge terminal where tankers will dock has seen about 30 tankers a year for the past two or three years, Robinson says. “That number will go up to over 400 tankers, over 400 tankers every year, imagine that? The consequences of just one spill… would be absolutely catastrophic.”
Robinson tells the crowd that the National Energy Board has noted the significant risk to the endangered orca population but judged that the economic benefits outweighed the cost.
“I say ‘shame!’.”
“Shame!” the crowd says after him.
“It’s time we had a government that put people and the planet ahead of corporate profits,” Robinson says.
“[I’m] up for this fight as I’ve never been up for a fight before.”
* * *
As people mingle over coffee, crudités, cold cuts, store-bought cookies, and homemade dessert squares, Port Coquitlam resident Pete Smith tells me this isn’t just a contest for Burnaby North–Seymour.
”Svend is important for the party, a fresh perspective on a lot of things, and I think that he would be good as a leader — at some point in the future.”
Over an almond milkshake at Cozmos Cafe, a few doors down from the old bicycle shop that serves as his campaign headquarters, Robinson doesn’t pour cold water on the idea of leadership, but neither is he eager to talk about it.
“I’m running to be elected as a member of Parliament for Burnaby North–Seymour,” he twice responds.
Robinson took NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to task earlier this year after the party lost a seat to the Greens on Vancouver Island. The NDP candidate called on Singh to “step up” on the environment and noted his inconsistent stand in supporting B.C.’s $40-billion LNG plant while opposing fracking and fossil-fuel subsidies.
“Connect the dots,” Robinson was quoted saying inThe Province. “There are huge subsidies from the provincial government and the federal government going to LNG Canada. And where does the natural gas come from? It comes from fracking.”
The LNG project is a huge source of GHG emissions from methane and it’s disrespectful of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), he says. “So it’s a non-starter.”
If the federal NDP is serious about climate change, Robinson tells me, it will have to differ with provincial NDP colleagues eventually.
“Suck it,” he says. “I mean Clayoquot Sound was an NDP government in 1993, right? I stood on the line then… and it was not easy,” he says of participating in the protests against clearcutting in the temperate rainforest. “B.C. colleagues almost called for me to be hung from the nearest tree.”
Robinson says he has been assured that the NDP’s promise to stop all fossil fuel subsidies in the party’s platform “includes every penny of subsidy for B.C. LNG.”
But when I ask NDP headquarters in Ottawa for confirmation, spokeswoman Mélanie Richer declines to provide a clear answer.
Robinson says his hope on election night is for the NDP to hold the balance of power.
“Look I can sit here and say, well you know, Jagmeet Singh, prime minister,” he says, acknowledging a candidate’s typical role promoting the party. “But, you know, it may be legal, but I’ve never smoked it,” he says laughing.
He wants as many New Democrats elected as possible, so the party can put electoral reform and the Trans Mountain project on the table.
“You know, minority government… we have that opportunity.”
* * *
Robinson says he got back into politics because he thinks he can make a difference. He’d recently returned to Canada from his post in Geneva as an adviser for parliamentary relations with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. After reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65, Robinson was looking for the next project.
He read the UN’s damning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last November and decided to jump back into the political arena.
“I was a damn good MP, and I was able to to bring issues to the fore from the backbenches that very few MPs could do,” the 67-year-old says. “How many MPs were able to make the kind of difference that I was able to make on issues?”
Robinson, the first openly gay MP, is a trailblazer. He made his mark in the environmental and Indigenous movement by engaging in civil disobedience, blocking logging of old-growth forests at Lyell Island in the Haida Gwaii archipelago in 1985 and later, in 1993, at Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. As a repeat offender, Robinson was sent to jail for nine days for his participation.
“I’m the only MP in Canadian history that’s actually done time for civil disobedience,” he says proudly.
Watch: Svend Robinson explains his comeback bid
The protests drew national and international attention and helped reverse government decisions. “I stood up, and we won both of those battles, along with many other people.”
Robinson has long been a human rights champion, fighting to expand abortion rights, to beef up sexual assault laws, to include sexual orientation in the definition of a hate crime, and, as a vocal ally of Sue Rodriguez, to ensure access to medically assisted dying.
The highlight of his 25-year parliamentary career, Robinson says, was sitting on the committee that helped write Charter rights in the 1980s. “That was pretty amazing.”
Robinson is disappointed with the Liberal government’s medically assisted dying framework — which has already been successfully challenged in court. He says he’ll fight for less restrictive laws if he wins on Oct. 21.
With many NDP veterans not standing again, such as Nathan Cullen and Murray Rankin, Robinson thinks he has an ever bigger chance to make a difference. “Jagmeet himself is new to federal politics. If I can strengthen the bench, isn’t that a good thing?”
The former NDP MP feels the time is right for his return. He tried a comeback before, in 2006, when he ran unsuccessfully against Liberal MP Hedy Fry in Vancouver Centre. “It was the wrong riding,” he tells me.
“That was a kamikaze mission. That was a mistake,” he adds. “It was too soon after the ring, for one thing. ”
Despite bringing it up, Robinson doesn’t want to talk about the “ring” incident that brought his parliamentary career to a crashing halt. “You can Google it,” he offers.
“I was going through some pretty tough mental health issues that I didn’t recognize,” he says. “I still live with mental illness. Yeah, a mild form of it, but yeah.”
The issue doesn’t come up at the doors, he says. He wants to move past it.
Robinson has his sight set on Beech. He dismisses the Greens as a non-factor.
From the opposition benches, he believes he would have been a more forceful opponent against the Trans Mountain expansion project.
Beech broke his word, Robinson says. Although the Liberal incumbent voted against the pipeline on an opposition motion, the NDP candidate thinks the symbolism means nothing.
“It’s bullshit,” Robinson responds. “Did he speak out. Did he utter one word when they bought the bloody thing?”
“I would have at least fought like hell,” he says. He would have spoken out and organized meetings, he says. “Has [Beech] done anything to mobilize the community. Nothing.”
* * *
Amita Kuttnar wants to change the world.
The 28-year-old Green party candidate has never voted in a federal election, but she’s campaigning to be a forward-thinking, less partisan representative.
When she was 14, her mother was killed in a mudslide in this riding. Her family’s home was built in an area of North Vancouver that was prone to mudslides, and a previous homeowner had failed to do mitigating work the city required, Kuttnar says, between bites of her vegetarian quiche at Caffe Divano on Hasting Street.
Hours before her death, her mother had sent her an email describing the huge amount of rain they’d had and the flooding in the basement. At 3:30 the next morning, her dad, who was asleep in the bathtub, heard a noise, got up and survived. “Completely crushed, bleeding out at the bottom of the hill, but my mother was gone. She was in it, underneath, in the bed.”
Kuttnar was off at a boarding school near Santa Cruz, Calif. “If I had not gone, I would be dead, because my bedroom was completely crushed.”
Her mom, Eliza, had survived a mudslide before. In 1972, her family’s apartment building was swept up in a huge mudslide that hit Hong Kong. She and her family members all miraculously survived, although the apartments above their fourth-floor unit were crushed and the ones below buried, Kuttnar recounts.
Kuttnar had an unconventional childhood. She was bullied at a Waldorf school, switched to French immersion and then asked to live in California, at a yoga community where she could attend class with two orphan girls from India. Her favourite teacher was a monk, Baba Hari Dass, who had taken a vow of silence. She was married at 18, after her first year of college, to the only student who was nice to her, she says, after her mother’s death and her father’s hospitalization. (He still lives with brain damage.)
When she was five years old, Kuttnar says, she knew she wanted a PhD. In May, she defended her thesis at the University of Santa Cruz on evaporating wormholes, and, in June, became a doctor of astrophysics.
She was searching for something meaningful to do with her life when she decided she wanted to be an MP. Her goal is to help the world adjust for life under artificial intelligence.
Climate is one of the large issues that needs to be dealt with, she says, “but people know what to do, so it’s about political will and not about coming up with solutions.”
Watch: Green Leader Elizabeth May arrested at Trans Mountain protest
She supports bold change to wean the country off fossil fuels, including scrapping the LNG project and the Trans Mountain expansion.
But with artificial intelligence, she says, no one has come up with a pathway. “No one [is] talking about it, so I made that my goal.”
She moved back home, she says, because Canada’s safety net makes it easier to enact the change she believes needs to be adopted, such as a universal basic income, free education and free job-transition programs. She also wants an expert panel to come up with safety ethics regulation and an international ban on autonomous weapons. “[They] would just destroy us.”
Her proposals have already been adopted in the Greens’ platform.
If Canada can prove it can protect the people whose jobs are being replaced by automation, she says, then perhaps the rest of the world can adopt our model.
At the doors, Kuttnar says, locals are concerned about affordability, stagnating wages, and the Liberals’ broken promise on the pipeline, and they are looking for “honest” politicians.
She’s been pounding the pavement since becoming the Green candidate last fall, and she believes she can win. It wasn’t really her expectation, she says, but in Burnaby North, she expects a three-way race with the NDP and the Liberals, and in Vancouver North, traditionally more conservative territory, she says, she has the upper hand.
“I’m a scientist. Am I sure? Of course not. I could never say that. But right now, I have a very good feeling.”
The Greens’ byelection win on Vancouver Island this spring helped, she says, as did the perception of a Green wave across the country.
And then she adds: “The Conservatives picked a very weak candidate.”
* * *
Conservative candidate Heather Leung declines to be interviewed. A volunteer asks me to email her questions and she will get back to me. When I do, her campaign manager, Travis Trost, responds: “I would need to be persuaded that doing an interview with you at this time would be more expedient for Heather in reaching voters than doorknocking or doing community events.”
On her website, the party writes that the “Conservatives hold a statistical lead in Burnaby North–Seymour and Heather is pulling out all the stops to help assure her victory on October 21.”
Those stops don’t include speaking to the media. She hasn’t done any interviews since winning the Tory nomination in May, according to the local newspaper.
Perhaps Leung is ducking questions about her anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ comments. She has suggested she is opposed to abortion even in cases of rape or incest. She also spoke out against a 2011 Burnaby school board policy designed to protect gay, lesbian, queer students and teachers against descrimination. Leung said the policy was intended to “indoctrinate” children with moral teachings that should best be left to parents.
Weeks after my visit, Leung’s office is flooded with calls after publishing two controversial memes on Facebook. One falsely quoted comedian Rick Mercer encouraging people to “Vote Conservative,” the other showed Trudeau preparing to jump to his death with the Grits’ campaign slogan “Trudeau urging Canadians to move forward….”
The Conservative party in Ottawa said the memes had been posted by an “elderly lady” who was not involved with the local campaign.
In a July email, riding association volunteer George Kovacic told HuffPost that Leung felt the most discussed topic at the doors is the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
“Heather Leung is the only candidate who firmly supports the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion as she wants Canada to have the best and safest infrastructure in the world, reduce train transportation of oil in riding as well as its environmental impact plus provide residents with high paying local jobs,” Kovacic’s email stated.
* * *
I meet Rocky Dong at Starbucks. I asked him to pick a restaurant and he texted me to say: “There is no good Chinese restaurants in our area.”
Dong, whose campaign for the People’s Party of Canada has attracted some media attention for his creative social videos, is awkwardly charming.
Over drip coffee — milk, no sugar — he talks about immigrating to Canada when he was 30 from Tianjin, a port city in northeastern China. The computer scientist came as a skilled worker, and the entire process took less than eight months.
He hesitates to give any identifying details about his family in China, fearing for their safety, or his family in B.C., out of concerns for their privacy. “Rocky Dong” is a name he says he’s been using for the past 10 years. He won’t give me his real name.
In 2003, Dong married a Chinese woman from his hometown. He worked as an educator when he arrived but now runs a consultancy business recruiting foreign students for schools in the lower mainland. His wife stays at home, taking care of their 15-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter.
“My life is OK, right? But I saw something going wrong for the past several years,” he tells me.
He’s upset with the Liberals’ decision to legalize cannabis. As a young man, he says, he learned that one should never touch opium – and he lumps marijuana in the same category.
“If you are an upstanding man, prostitution, you never touch; gambling, never touch; and drugs, you never touch,” he says.
Moreover, he doesn’t like the smell. “It’s no good.”
Dong tells me about 25 per cent of Burnaby North is Chinese, numbers nowhere close to Richmond or even Burnaby South, but a significant enough population, he says. “The Chinese community, most of them don’t like the marijuana.”
Marijuana aside, he says, Canada is on the wrong track. He points to the murder of a 13-year-old girl by a Syrian refugee in 2017. Ibrahim Ali, then 28, had no criminal record, but Dong feels the killing should have spurred a review of refugee policy.
He believes Canada is accepting too many immigrants and that they aren’t being properly vetted. He believes limiting the number of newcomers to 250,000 a year would be a good idea. (People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has since lowered that ceiling to 150,000.)
“Learn the language, integrate into society. Make a contribution to Canada,” he tells me.
“Like you?” I ask.
He expresses concern that some refugees are living off of welfare.
“We need to encourage people to work,” he says. “We also need to show our heart,” he adds, by taking care of the disabled, the young, seniors and the sick.
But the government should not encourage people to “be lazy,” he says. Right now, the tax system discourages people from working harder because the more they work, the more people pay in taxes, he says.
He likes the PPC’s idea of a flat tax. He says he wants to decrease the corporate tax rate and notes that the PPC will eliminate the capital gains tax.
“I came from China. Big government. Socialism,” he says, adding Canada is moving towards socialism. “We have big government.”
“There is no such thing as a free lunch… [everything] that’s free, somebody will pay.”
Dong and I drive to the Real Canadian Superstore in North Vancouver for some canvassing — it might perhaps be better described as some harassing.
As we pull into the parking lot, Dong sees his friend Chris Jin, sitting in his truck. Jin laughs. Dong assures me this is a coincidence.
“I’m a Conservative Party of Canada member,” Jin tells me, “but I really encouraged him to get involved in the election. He is very popular in the Asian community. We are so proud of him, because we need some Asian people to stand up,” he says.
Dong heads towards the front doors of the store. There is a young woman shopping alone looking at garden plants.
“Have you heard about the People’s Party of Canada?” he asks.
“Yeah,” replies the woman, who seems to mind the intrusion but is too polite to say so.
“Oh! Will you support us?” he asks, a smile on his face.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” she says, cringing.
Dong asks her about her concerns. She gives a vague answer about the economy. He gets excited and starts talking about Bernier’s flat tax.
“More like balancing the environment and jobs,” she interrupts. “You know, how do you keep the economy going but keep the planet alive.”
That is Dong’s most fruitful conversation. After a series of swings and misses — people who don’t live in the riding, are here for a visit, don’t speak English or Mandarin or, simply, don’t want to talk to him — we leave.
Dong says he believes in climate change, “but I don’t believe climate change is really because of humans.”
The temperature changes because of the seasons, he tells me. And scientists who publish about climate change do so because they are funded by governments, he adds.
“If the government makes you feel you are guilty…[about] more emission of CO2… it’s easy for them to tax you,” he says.
I ask about the feedback he’s received at the doors.
“If we convey our message clear,” he says he thinks he could get “more than 50 percent support.”
Then he tells me he hasn’t gone door-to-door yet. “I actually haven’t knocked the door, but I go to different events.” He plans to begin door-knocking tomorrow. His pamphlets haven’t been printed yet.
* * *
It’s Saturday evening and I’m in Forest Grove at the Pine Ridge Housing Co-Operative’s annual BBQ — just a short walk away from the Trans Mountain tank farm.
A few dozen families are gathered around tables, kids run around in the yard, a Greek band plays, as people munch on veggie and chicken skewers and potatoes.
A very pregnant Emily Corenblith tells me she moved here from Texas. Her five-year-old, Rigel, will start school at Forest Grove elementary, just 900 metres from the tank farm, in the fall.
Corenblith jokes that she and her husband moved here because they thought Canada would be a safer place to raise their family. Now, she worries about having to leave her neighbourhood.
“The alarming part is that the new tanks that would be coming in are built even closer to the residential [area] and to the school. I mean, you can see it from the school, like from the trail you look to the right and there is the tank farm, you look ahead and there is the school with children.”
What’s most unsettling to her is that decision makers — the National Energy Board, the federal government — seem to treat the people who live here as an afterthought.
“The lack of emergency response plan is very unsettling,” she says. “When you are looking for a neighbourhood to bring up your family and they don’t know how they would handle a fire, and they don’t know how they would handle an evacuation and none of that [knowledge] has been necessitated in any of the steps towards approvals so [that’s concerning] a little bit.”
Corenblith, a dual citizen who is one-day overdue, doesn’t know which way Burnaby North–Seymour residents will vote. “It’s split opinion everywhere.”
She’s interested in the NDP, has yet to look into the Green candidate, and is disappointed with the Liberals.
“I think our current MP, Terry Beech, has done everything he can within the parameters of his party, but that is not a whole lot,” she says.
“I am against this project, and I think everyone else should be too,” she adds. “It’s absurd. I can’t wrap my head around it.”
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.