In Kings–Hants, Scott Brison’s Exit Opens The Playing Field In Rural Nova Scotia

SUMMERVILLE, N.S. — Scott Brison is hungry. 

We’re seated at a farm-to-table restaurant an hour before it opens to the public. Brison is a regular here; it’s down the street from his home. The coffee grinder is whirring in the background. It’s 10:30 a.m. and the former Nova Scotia MP is recovering from an arduous morning workout kayaking in the Minas Basin on an empty stomach.

“It’s a time in my life when I can really pursue new things, and that’s exactly what I’m doing,” the former Treasury Board president says. “I’m no longer a member of Parliament and this is the first time in eight elections that I’ve not been a candidate.”

Brison resigned in January after serving the rural riding of Kings–Hants as its MP for 22 years. He accepted a senior banking job a month later. His decision to step away triggered a chain of events that culminated in the SNC-Lavalin affair after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled his cabinet to fill Brison’s role.

“If Scott Brison had not stepped down from cabinet, Jody Wilson-Raybould would still be minister of justice and attorney general,” Trudeau repeated regularly in the weeks following the Globe and Mail’s bombshell story about his office’s alleged political interference. 

At the time of this August meeting with Brison, this incident is more than seven months old. His decision to leave politics in an election year, amid scrutiny over his ties to Irving Shipbuilding and revelation he was lobbied by SNC-Lavalin himself, has opened the race in Kings–Hants with no Liberal incumbent on the ballot.

Brison has held the riding since being elected to the House of Commons as a Progressive Conservative in 1997. When he crossed the floor to join the Liberals in 2003, he said he could not be a member of the then newly established Conservative Party of Canada.

And a majority of voters have stuck by Brison since then, electing him as a Liberal candidate. He won Kings–Hants by a landslide in 2015, capturing more than 70 per cent of the vote, buoyed by the Liberals’ promise for change after nearly a decade of Conservative government. Bear in mind, it hasn’t always been a cake walk for the veteran politician. 

In 2011, he won the riding by fewer than a thousand votes. The large rural ridings around him were won by Conservatives. 

With the Liberals down another veteran incumbent in Atlantic Canada, Brison’s resignation has levelled the playing field in Kings–Hants. The two main contenders are new to the federal stage, although the Liberal candidate enters the ring with the benefit of leveraging Brison’s connections in the community. The Conservative candidate has decades of experience and is well-known in Tory circles. 

Brison says he loved public service, despite the job’s being one where you work seven days a week. It’s hard to leave when things are going well, he explains. 

“That’s why a lot of politicians, they don’t necessarily have the opportunity to leave the field on their own steam. They’re airlifted off the field or they’re taken off in a body bag.”

Politicians who leave public office without an air of scandal pushing them have the best odds to start a new life, he says. 

“And at 52, I’m at the stage where I can really pursue new things with a level of energy and excitement that I feel very fortunate to have.”

Now, he’s really excited about his coffee. 

* * *

Kings–Hants is a large rural riding an hour north of Halifax, home to just under 84,500 people. The fertile hills roll into one another. The Annapolis Valley’s reputation for growing apples is evolving to include grapes, and a burgeoning wine industry is bringing more tourists to the area. Two decades ago, there were two vineyards. Today, there are 24.

Large detached houses are the norm. There are 36,000 doorsteps in the riding. And here, issues that exist on a national level, such as gas prices, internet connectivity, and access to health care are magnified.

An overwhelming number of people drive to get around this part of the province, so a carbon tax is on people’s minds. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 87 per cent of Kings–Hants residents commute by car, truck, or van. Only 110 people commute by bike. There isn’t a robust public transit or rail system to rely on. At least, not anymore. In downtown Wolfville, the old train station is a library.

Ron Martin is a small business owner who drives an average of 300 kilometres a day for work. He’s a plumber, an electrician, and a heating expert. He considers himself a true-blue Conservative and voted that way in the last election. Talking about politics doesn’t come naturally to him. He’s a soft-spoken man who says he and his friends usually try to avoid talking about politics at all.

“I don’t believe in [talking about politics], because I’m in business and I may go to someone’s house, it might be a Liberal, it might be an NDP, or a Green, and all that does is stir up a bit of hot water, so I don’t discuss politics with work.”

Martin has lived in the riding all his life. He runs his business out of a small shop in Kentville, inset from another business selling monuments and tombstones off the main drag where car dealerships are the first thing that greet you when you peel off the highway.

He has a small staff and a fleet of six vehicles — four vans and two trucks. Filling up is a regular activity.

Under the province’s federally approved cap-and-trade system, Nova Scotians are currently paying an additional one cent a litre at the pumps and for home heating oil. 

That cost is expected to rise to 1.2 cents a litre by 2022 — which is 1/10th what the cost would be if Ottawa imposed its own federal carbon pricing system in Nova Scotia. But because the province is following its own plan without steep increases as other provinces, Nova Scotians aren’t eligible for federal rebates that the environment minister has repeatedly stated “put money back into the pockets of Canadians.”

We’re driving about in his truck in and around Kentville, the riding’s largest urban centre with 6,500 people. 

Residents here are left to swallow the costs, and that has left a bad taste in Martin’s mouth. He’s noticed that prices are going up from his supplies and freight coming into the shop. His costs are being passed onto the customer. And, he says, they’re noticing.

“So they come back and say, why is this being charged extra? And you have to explain to them. So if you’re doing 500 customers, you have to tell them 500 times. So it is a burden,” he says. “I’m in business to make money, not lose money. And the more the Liberal government picks your pockets, the less you have.”  

He says it’s hard to compare his monthly gas bills to what they were four or five years ago because prices fluctuate. Despite Nova Scotians paying a fraction of what residents in other provinces are in terms of a carbon price, the idea of tax-inflated prices doesn’t land with some voters. The provincial gas regulator can also make dramatic changes to prices.

Today, for example, the price dropped six cents overnight. “That’s a huge savings,” Martin says.

* * *

The Liberals swept Atlantic Canada four years ago, picking up all 32 seats in the region. This year, Conservatives see openings in two Nova Scotia ridings, Cape Breton–Canso and Sydney–Victoria.

The Liberal incumbents there, who’ve represented those ridings for nearly two decades are, like Brison, calling it quits. In turn, two provincial MLAs have stepped up to carry the federal Conservative banner.

The region is a historically conservative stronghold. That trend changed when Brison, elected to the House of Commons as a Progressive Conservative, crossed the floor in 2003 to join Paul Martin’s Liberal government.

With Brison out of the race, the political calculus has changed for this election. The Liberal nomination went to West Hants native Kody Blois, a young lawyer with a background in competitive sport. Conservatives nominated Martha MacQuarrie, a longtime volunteer with two decades of experience with the provincial and federal parties.  

I meet MacQuarrie at the Kentville Fire Hall, where her late husband Brian was a volunteer firefighter for 30 years. He died of cancer in 2015. We walk to the fire hall bay where there’s a truck dedicated to him, featuring a customized decal designed in his memory.

“Twenty-two was his number, and ‘Bones’ was his nickname.” MacQuarrie reaches out to give the firetruck a pat. “This is where he would jump up and leave me to go save the world.” The location is sentimental for another reason: They held their wedding reception here. 

MacQuarrie moved to Kentville two decades ago so her son could attend a school for kids with learning differences. He’s an electrician now who runs his own business, she says proudly. 

She’s originally from Truro, where her family has a small business that’s set to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. She and her late husband ran another company specializing in security alarms. Most recently, she was a constituency assistant for a member of the province’s legislative assembly. MacQuarrie has been knocking on doors since the fall and has made it to approximately 9,000 houses, she tells me, adding that people here are “really fed up with the Liberal government and [its] empty promises.”

“It’s funny, last night I was driving out to canvass  and a guy drove in, saw my car, drove up beside me, called me over and just said, ‘Where do I make a donation?’ out of the blue. He used to be a Liberal, and now he’s ready for change.” I ask MacQuarrie if the disenchanted Liberal voter gave an explanation for why he wanted to support her campaign.

“He hates the carbon tax,” she says. “We shouldn’t be taxed for living in this beautiful piece of the world. It’s gorgeous here.”

The Conservatives want to woo rural voters and have pledged to remove the GST on home heating and energy bills. The change would save homeowners an average of $107 annually. MacQuarrie says people are responding favourably to that particular promise. 

Another issue that’s regularly on the lips of those vying for office in rural areas is internet connectivity. Laying high-speed fibre optic is costly and isn’t ubiquitous here. Dial-up or satellite connections are more common.

“So we get people who want to live out by the bay, out by the water, and they can’t promote and sell their business online because it’s such a poor internet system.”

With the tourism and wine industry booming, small business owners have been frustrated with inadequate internet infrastructure to help develop and grow their companies.

Small business owner calls unreliable internet ‘biggest issue’

Last year, the federal government announced $26.4 million in mostly federal funding to bring high-speed internet to 64 rural and remote Nova Scotia communities.

Chris Velden knows that first-hand. He’s the chef-owner of the Flying Apron Inn in Summerville, where I met Brison for breakfast. He has a succinct way to describe the internet situation in rural Nova Scotia. 

It’s “really bad.” He finally has faster internet, but for a while the poor connection had a measurable impact on his business. 

“At 5 o’clock everything shuts down, because everybody comes home at 5 o’clock and therefore I couldn’t run my debit machines, couldn’t play any music, because it was a total overload of the internet.”

Velden, a German immigrant who relocated to the area about 12 years ago, says it’s the “biggest issue” in this part of the country. A close second is the inability to staff his restaurant to meet growing tourism in the area.

“I can’t find anybody,” he says. “And everybody else is in the same position.”

 * * *

Like other parts of rural Canada, Kings–Hants has experienced a rural to urban population shift in the past three decades. This trend has been felt since the early 1990s, according to a State of Rural Canada report. “The further the distance away from the provincial capital and central region of the province, the greater the population loss.”

But there’s a new trend in recent years that’s bucking the narrative of the province’s population decline: immigrants are coming and staying in Nova Scotia. 

Census data indicate that Nova Scotia’s population is the second oldest in Canada. And in rural communities such as Kings–Hants, the ages of residents skew older. This demographic trend exacerbates issues such as health care, raising problems to another level because of geography.

Eric Gillis is in his 30s and has lived in Wolfville his whole life. He says health care is the ballot box issue he’s paying attention to this election. 

“I know so many people that don’t have doctors that are on waiting lists to get health care. … There’s a lot of people who need that care that aren’t getting it.”

There were 55,000 people on the waiting list to see a family doctor last year, according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority. In the Annapolis Valley, the heart of Kings–Hants, the number of people in need of a family doctor is expected to rise from 19,822 in August to 20,565 in September

A recent Canadian Institute for Health Information report stated there were nearly 90,000 doctors in 2018, a 3.8 per cent increase from the previous year. But even though 19 per cent of Canadians live in rural areas, only eight per cent of doctors are located in the same communities. 

The issues related to emergency services is also different in a rural riding such as Kings–Hants. David Benedict died in Soldier’s Memorial Hospital in Middleton while waiting three hours for an ambulance to transfer him to a Kentville hospital. 

Federal parties are attuned to concerns about access to health care in smaller communities, but details remain thin on how they will work with the provinces and territories to connect remote rural residents with a family doctor.

 * * *

West Coast transplant Stephen Schneider is carrying the NDP’s banner for the federal race. The criminologist has lived in Nova Scotia since 2003 after falling in love with the province during a business trip.

The former provincial NDP candidate wanted to go federal because, well, he lost one election in 2017 and sees climate as a major issue. He also thinks the party has returned to its progressive roots.

“My biggest [issue] is the lack of progress we’ve made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he tells me. “And the longer we wait, the more pressing and more dramatic the measures we’re going to [have to] take.”

He makes a passing mention of “green criminology” as an area he’s interested in. It’s the study of, as he explains, “when an environmental harm becomes an environmental crime.”

The NDP hasn’t taken more than 25 per cent of the vote in Kings–Hants since 1980. But Schneider is optimistic that more visibility for federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will do some good for his local campaign.

“We have a leader that’s still fairly unknown, and I’m hopeful that once the campaign starts in earnest, he gets a little more press and publicity and people will, you know, start to gravitate towards him because he has a very positive message,” he says. 

The Greens also have a candidate in the race. Brogan Anderson works at the Annapolis Valley Regional Library and is campaigning on a need to transition into a green-energy economy. Matthew Southall, a self-described “disenfranchised” former Liberal supporter, is the People’s Party of Canada candidate for the riding.

 * * *

Liberal candidate Kody Blois is at the farmers market wearing a crisp white shirt. The former major junior hockey draft pick of the Halifax Mooseheads is taking a crack at politics after he was swayed by Trudeau’s appeal to help Canada’s middle class four years ago.

Blois has a working class background. His father was a truck driver and his mother was an administrative assistant at the local elementary school. He was never into current affairs until his early 20s when he started watching less TSN and more CPAC. 

The young lawyer has been hitting doorsteps and is often confronted by Brison’s shadow. Not his actual shadow, but the one a 22-year legacy casts on a rookie on the campaign trail. Blois says people regularly tell him that he has big shoes to fill.

“There’s no filling his shoes. I need to create my own. And that’s going to be true for whoever comes forward,” he says.

The top four issues he says he’s hearing at people’s doorsteps are affordability, rural internet connectivity, agriculture, and the environment.

He sees his youth as an advantage that he can leverage.

“I want to get more young people engaged in democracy, in taking an interest in their community,” he says. It sounds nice and idealistic, but frankly I’m too distracted by the midges landing on me while we’re seated at a picnic table by the water.

“Downside of rural Nova Scotia: the bugs,” he jokes.

I ask if he anticipates another Liberal wave come Oct. 21 when Canadians head to the polls. He hedges. “You know, any time you win all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada, that’s tough to replicate, regardless of how good your government has been.” He’s aware of the region’s history.

“There is a legacy of progressive Conservative politicians before Scott, so I don’t take anything for granted,” he says.

Blois joins me when I meet Brison the next day. After our coffee, the former cabinet minister, in a display of East Coast hospitality — or a shameless play to cajole a reporter writing about a federal race left wide open after his resignation — invites us over to his waterfront house down the street. 

Gravel crunches below my feet as I walk up to the large airy home Brison shares with his husband, Max, and their five-year-old twin daughters, Claire and Rose. We take our shoes off and seat ourselves in a closed white veranda with two bright turquoise-painted tables joined into a harvest table. Leading out toward the water are Honeycrisp apple trees that dot the property.

Brison and Blois are seated next to each other. The former Liberal minister says there are parallels between him and his successor: They both grew up in rural Hants county and got involved in federal politics about the same age (Blois is 28). 

I ask if Brison has any advice to pass on, and he turns to Blois with a stern reminder to never forget that his home is in Kings–Hants and that he’d be remiss to let that slip his mind.

Brison, who called on Parliament in his resignation speech to “reverse the full humourectomy that has fallen on the House of Commons,” wraps this veranda moment with levity. Humour, he told me earlier, was the key to his decades of survival in high-pressure political environments.

“You’re quite an athlete,” he told Blois. “You’re an excellent washer-toss guy, and hockey player and all that stuff. I really recommend you that you keep up the pumpkin-paddling tradition for the people of Kings–Hants.”

Every year, participants get their hands on massive pumpkins, scoop out the pulp and fashion it into a squash kayak of sorts. Contestants strap on life jackets and paddle their way across Lake Pisiquid. The date is usually set days before an election, so for someone running for office, the optics of failing in the great gourd regatta isn’t good public exposure. 

But it turns out Blois won’t have to worry about the physics of pumpkin paddling before this year’s election. Windsor–West Hants Pumpkin Festival organizers had to cancel this year’s regatta for the first time in 21 years, citing a poor season for growing.

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.

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