Jack Knox: Housing, COVID highlight tight race in Nanaimo-Ladysmith

Jack Knox is dropping in on Vancouver Island’s seven federal ridings, looking at them through the lens of issues readers say are important in this election.

Weekday afternoon, just after lunch. Nine or 10 mostly young people have queued up outside the walk-in vaccination clinic in Nanaimo’s Beban Park.

Why get a shot now?

“My work says I have to,” says one guy. Also, he wants to go to Mexico with his buds. Getting a vaccine just didn’t seem like a priority before.

Coming out of the clinic, a mother says something similar. “We’ve been wanting to go to Disney World for the past two years.” She didn’t get a shot earlier because she’s a bit leery of the vaccine and, working from home, it didn’t feel necessary.

Their acquiescence to B.C.’s new proof-of-vaccine measures probably won’t please whoever sprayed the “Say no to vaxxine passports! Fight for freedom” message on the wall of a building on Front Street.

On the other hand, the idea that it took the threat of consequences — no job, no travel — to goad the slow-to-get-vaccinated into getting jabbed was perplexing to the four-member prayer group sitting at a nearby picnic table. Whatever happened to patriotism, acting for the greater good? “We care about all of us getting through this together,” says Glenn Dawson when asked what issues matter most in this federal election campaign.

Yes, COVID is a big election issue — not just the question of vaccine requirements but the whole package of what’s needed to see Canadians through to the other side and how we’re going to pay for it all when we get there.

Will it be the game-breaker in Nanaimo-Ladysmith? Dunno, but in a race as tight as this one appears to be, a few votes could make all the difference.

This is the most hotly contested race on Vancouver Island. The 338canada.com polling site sees it as a three-way toss-up in which any of the Green, Conservative or New Democratic candidates could win.

The incumbent is Paul Manly, who won the seat in a spring 2019 byelection and then in the general election that fall, but whose Green Party has been battered by a leadership controversy this year. Challenging him are school trustee Lisa Marie Barron, whose New Democrats have been eager to regain the seat ever since Manly ousted them, and Conservative Tamara Kronis. The latter, a lawyer who went into the jewelry business, is a newcomer to Nanaimo from Toronto (Premier Doug Ford appointed her vice-chair of Ontario’s human rights tribunal last year) who could benefit from a rising O’Toole tide in a constituency where the Conservatives placed second in the last election.

Also on the ballot are Michelle Corfield, representing the Liberals for the third consecutive time, and Stephen Welton of the People’s Party of Canada. (More on the candidates can be found here.)

How tight and important is this race? Note that Nanaimo-Ladysmith is the only riding on Vancouver Island where NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative leader Erin O’Toole have appeared in person. Former Green leader Elizabeth May, whose name resonates more strongly than that of current leader Annamie Paul, was at Manly’s campaign launch.

As for that COVID issue, the Liberals argue they should get credit for securing Canada all the vaccine it needs, and for introducing the CERB payments and wage subsidies that kept the economy from going into the ditch after the pandemic hit. The other parties in Parliament say, hey, they collaborated, too.

There’s a degree of overlap between platforms. Government COVID relief programs are winding down but the Liberals promise to extend until March 31 one that subsidizes the wages of newly hired employees by up to 50 per cent. They also vow to prop up tourism businesses with wage and rent support of up to 75 per cent to carry them through the winter. The Conservatives also promise to pay up to half the wages of new employees for six months, and propose partially forgivable loans of up to $200,000 for small tourism, retail and hospitality businesses and tax credits for people who invest in them. The NDP would continue wage and rent subsidies for small businesses until they can reopen fully. Greens would also extend wage and rent subsidies.

The Liberals want a national proof-of-vaccine document and would require all federal employees to be vaccinated. Same goes for federally regulated travellers, those going by commercial plane, ship or inter-provincial train. Conservatives don’t want to go that far, requiring instead that unvaccinated passengers pass a recent COVID test and federal workers pass daily rapid tests. The New Democrats want a national passport and mandatory vaccines for all federal workers.

Also, the Liberals and NDP require their candidates to be vaccinated, but the Conservatives and Greens do not. Meanwhile, the People’s Party opposes vaccine restrictions, period. (Leader Maxime Bernier is proudly unvaccinated and has been charged with ignoring Manitoba COVID measures.)

What’s less talked about by the parties is the debt being run up to fight COVID. You hear about it on the street, though. Encountered in downtown Ladysmith, Alexandra Castro says her friends fret about the ultimate bill for all the spending. And are COVID benefits contributing to the labour shortage? “I had to pound the pavement for a job when I was in my 20s,” says Castro, 43. Now, employers are so desperate they’ll hire you without checking references.

COVID isn’t the only issue, of course. As is the case elsewhere on the Island, ask people what’s on their mind and the subject of housing inevitably pops up. The benchmark price for a single-family home in Nanaimo was $741,900 in August, up from $572,300 a year ago.

“I need to get into the market, so I’m kind of nervous,” says Tamara Rooke, stopped while walking downtown. Stories of houses going for over asking price with no conditions make the 35-year-old gulp.

She is echoed by trucker Jasmeet Kahlon, dropping off a load of lumber at Duke Point: “Housing is unaffordable.” Kahlon owned a house in Winnipeg before moving to Nanaimo a couple of months ago, but can’t get afford to do so here. Instead, he’s paying $2,100 to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

Another trucker, 30-year resident John Keyser, says the issue that bothers him most is the spread of dysfunction on Nanaimo streets. It’s no longer just a downtown thing. Twice in two weeks he had a catalytic converter stolen by metal thieves. “It’s not a happy place.”

Ken Jones, tending his taco truck, says something similar. “Mental health, homelessness, addiction, it’s all one problem.” But what to do about it? Can’t just let crime go unchecked, but can’t treat sick people like criminals, either.

Its population having topped 100,000, Nanaimo has not just COVID but big-city problems to wrestle with, too.

THE RIDING

This is a relatively new riding, created with a rejigging of old boundaries ahead of the 2015 election. It contains areas that used to be part of Nanaimo-Cowichan and Nanaimo-Alberni, and puts the city of Nanaimo into a single riding. It also includes Ladysmith, Lantzville and parts of the Cowichan Valley.

Size:1,753 square kilometres

Population: 122,710

Registered voters: 106,999

THE CANDIDATES

• Paul Manly, Greens

The incumbent since 2019

Website: paulmanly.ca

Twitter: @paulmanly

Facebook: @VoteforPaulManly

Instagram: @paulmanly

• Lisa Marie Barron, NDP

School trustee

Website: lisamariebarron@ndp.ca

Twitter: @LisaMarieBarron

Facebook: @ElectLisaMarieBarron

• Michelle Corfield, Liberals

This is her third straight attempt.

Website: michellecorfield@liberal.ca

Facebook: @DrCorfield

Instagram: @michelle_corfield

• Tamara Kronis, Conservatives

A former Toronto lawyer who turned to the jewelry trade.

Website: tamarakronis.ca

Twitter: @nlconservatives

Facebook: @tamarakroniscpc

• Stephen Welton, People’s Party

Owner of contracting company

Website: peoplespartyofcanada.ca

Facebook: @stephenweltonppc

jknox@timescolonist.com

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