A Tale of Two Elections—Redux

One September 2021 election down, one to go. Some thoughts about where we are, where we’re going, and the candidates who might take us there.

This article was initially sent to subscribers as a donors-only ‘letter from the editor of The Independent’ on 26 September 2021 (#55). For more like this delivered directly to your inbox every week, support The Indy here.

We are finally in the home stretch. The great NL election hat-trick of 2021 will wrap up on Tuesday, September 28, as voters across the province elect their new municipal councils. Barring another early meltdown in Canada’s latest minority Parliament, this week will bring us to the longest possible time before more elections. Democracy is to be cherished, of course, but there’s only so many times you can exercise your franchise in a short period before you risk spraining a ligament.

It’s been a busy week here at The Indy. Last Monday was the federal election, where I joined my colleagues at Canadaland’s The Backbench for a Twitter Spaces event—which is sort of like an interactive podcast, hosted on the world’s worst website. Later, we recorded a post-election Backbench episode at 3:45 AM local time, which turned out to be surprisingly coherent. (I credit this to a serene 2:00 AM walk through the streets of St. John’s in the light of the harvest moon.) Then I slept it off for a few hours before joining Hope Jamieson and Elizabeth Whitten to record a special St. John’s election episode of The Indy Podcast and hash out our thoughts on the campaign in the wake of interviewing basically everyone running for council. On Thursday night, superstar local journalist Leila Beaudoin and I co-hosted a CBS Mayoral Candidate Forum on Facebook Live with Darrin Bent, Steve Tessier, and Brad Suter—a good bit of fun that showcased all the interesting issues at stake in the province’s second-largest municipality. (It was a successful experiment in video livestreaming for The Indy, too—expect way more of this sort of thing in the future.) Finally, the better part of Friday night (lolsob) was spent putting together Gillian Pearson’s interviews with the city council candidates in Mount Pearl—another illuminating adventure outside the City of St. John’s. (Do not ask about the time or conditions during which this newsletter was written.)

Anyways—all told, it’s been hard to find the time to do much deep reflection (or reading) about the federal election that just occurred, or the municipal election(s) about to occur this coming week. But I do want to make a few notes on each before everything wraps up.

As far as the federal election goes, there weren’t many overall changes to the numbers in the House of Commons, but the political landscape in Newfoundland and Labrador has definitely changed. The Liberals played hard for St. John’s East and Joanne Thompson took it from the NDP by a sizable margin. I’m still inclined to say Mary Shortall had the edge in terms of political experience as president of the NL Federation of Labour, but all things being equal, she and Thompson were otherwise evenly matched in terms of public profile and “community engagement” as far as their relative strengths as candidates go. This suggests the outcome of the race hinged on the relative strength of each party’s national campaign and the logistics they were each able to muster for their major target ridings. Clearly the Liberals wound up with the advantage here. The NDP were stalemated across much of the country in this election and that was no different here in one of their erstwhile ‘stronghold’ seats. The party needs to seriously reevaluate their strategies and tactics moving forward. They were well-positioned to win this riding and their failure to secure it should prompt a bit of soul-searching on how the party operates. (Or, to quote great American philosopher Kevin Barnes in “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”: “Things could be different/but they’re not.”)

The Liberals have a lot of synergy between the provincial and federal parties in NL and most of that power is concentrated in St. John’s. You can see how their political power wanes as ridings move westward from the capital city. Ken Macdonald won by a comfortable margin in Avalon, but Churence Rogers in Bonavista-Burin-Trinity held on with a slimmer lead over CPC challenger Sharon Vokey—if you remove the 1200 odd votes that went to the People’s Party of Canada, only about 400 votes separate them. Similarly, Long Range Mountains was also secured by a small margin, and were it not for the PPC playing a spoiler role only about 200 votes separated Tory Carole Anstey from Liberal Gudie Hutchings. Compare this with the upset in Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, where there was no PPC spoiler: Tory Clifford Small edged out longtime Liberal incumbent Scott Simms by less than 300 votes. (Full disclosure: Scott was first elected when I was still attending highschool in Grand Falls-Windsor, and he personally—and very graciously—encouraged my early interest and involvement in politics. In no small part, I can thank [or blame] him for the fact that I’m sitting here writing this today.)

The Liberals are losing the grip on rural Newfoundland they have been taking for granted some 13 years. ‘Anything But Conservative’ is officially dead and buried as conventional political wisdom. The Tories’ psychological barrier is finally broken and a beachhead is established on the island. They will have to reckon with the PPC demographic siphoning away sympathetic voters—at the risk of wildly speculating, I’d chalk it up to hardcore evangelical voters protesting liberalism in general and pandemic measures in particular—but the Conservatives are absolutely in play again. Depending on whether or not the party descends into bloody internecine post-election feuding—they call it ‘Tory Syndrome’ for a reason—they are well positioned for whenever the next federal election happens. (Give or take 18 months?)

Heady stuff—and I’m looking forward to digging into the new political landscape a bit more when I can catch my breath. In the meantime, let’s turn our attention back to the capital city.

Federal politics in Newfoundland and Labrador can often feel like a thing that ‘happens to you’ more than something ‘you make happen’—probably a function of our 7 out of 338 seats in the Commons. But when it comes to municipal politics, the impact is much more direct. You’re much closer to influencing your council representatives, and the decisions they make much more closely affect you. As mentioned on this week’s Indy Podcast (seriously! check it out!), the federal and provincial governments could disappear tomorrow and it would take you a few days, or even weeks, to notice—but if your municipal government disappeared, you’d notice right away when there was no water coming out of your tap. It has a direct impact on the place you live and how you live in it—it is the level of government that implements most of those lofty promises made in the federal election. It determines whether the neighbourhood you live in is a functional thriving area fit for human life—or a soulless asphalt wasteland full of closed-down vape stores.

Every municipality in this province is approaching a major crossroads. Communities everywhere have to balance delivering good services through quality infrastructure at affordable tax rates against antiquated provincial legislation, a looming demographic crisis, a seemingly never-ending pandemic, and a climate emergency. The 21st century is going to be set on Hard Mode, and what our governments do at this critical historical juncture will set us up for success—or failure—in the decades to come. This is no mean feat, and—frankly—everybody putting themselves forward in the Year of Our Lord 2021 to take on a role in local government should be commended for their bravery. (Here we pray following Margaret Laurence: “God’s grace on fools.”)

If you live in Mount Pearl or CBS, I encourage you to pay close attention to your options—and I hope The Independent’s coverage helps in some small way. (And if you live in Witless Bay, for God’s sake, vote for Lorna Yard.) But I live in St. John’s, and I am immersed in St. John’s, and I am going to be voting in St. John’s this Tuesday—so I’m going to talk a bit here about the potential I see for St. John’s in the 2021 election.

St. John’s is such a strange fucking place. There is nowhere else like it. Coming from rural Newfoundland—if we can count GFW as “rural Newfoundland”—this city can often feel like Babylon, or Sodom and Gomorrah, or Imperial Rome at the height of its arrogance. But it is also, unmistakably, The Newfoundlanders’ City—our Florence, our Mecca, our Jerusalem. St. John’s is simultaneously a colonial backwater and bustling metropolis; I remember first moving here in 2005, in awe that I could ride a bus through a town big enough to get lost in—like a real city in the movies. It is probably inevitable that concentrating so many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians into a single place would produce this kind of city—a rollicking accretion of microcosmic neighbourhoods, full of life, and art, and alcohol, shaped by the vicissitudes of feast and famine, riven by the faultlines of poverty and plenty. Somewhere between John Waters’ Baltimore and Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans and Sally Rooney’s Dublin—yet still, distinctly, itself. At risk of grievous blasphemy, I am tempted to cite Ray Guy here: “A person might live to the end of his days and never cease to marvel and wonder, one way or another. There is no place else.”

This city could be really good. We have the opportunity, right now, to set it up for success over the next four years—and beyond. There are so many forward-thinking, astute, engaged, and conscientious people running for office all across the city. Despite the coming challenges, it is possible to imagine—maybe for the first time—a “dream council” for the City of St. John’s. (I said on the podcast that I was wary of issuing any endorsements. Again, I defer to Laurence: “God’s mercy on reluctant jesters.”)

What follows is my personal opinion, based on following the election closely for a few months and editing 100,000 words of candidate responses—in no way to be confused for “what I think is going to happen.” Dreams don’t always come true.

I live in Ward 2, so this is the race I have given the most thought. There are a number of good candidates, but I’m going to be voting for Ophelia Ravencroft—partly because her platform resonates the most with me, and partly because, selfishly, I need Goth representation on council. (This is the closest I can get to having Robert Smith run my life.) It is harder for me to come down firmly in some of the other races, and I’m glad I don’t have to agonize over most of them. Between Jill Bruce, Jenn Deon, and Mark Nichols, Ward 1 has several excellent choices—I’d be hard-pressed to choose, though if it was me, I would end up voting for Mark, largely because (Papists don’t read this) as the grandson of a Canon I feel preternaturally compelled to elect Anglican priests to public office. In Ward 3, I’d be flipping a coin between Walter Harding and Greg Noseworthy—but probably pulling the lever for Greg. As for Ward 5, although both Donnie Earle and Carl Ridgeley seem filled with the spirit of Wally Collins, I’d be casting my vote for Scott Fitzgerald—not only because he shares a name with one of my favourite authors, but because he had the most expansive and circumspect answers to our questionnaire.

The At-Large race is a different beast. Ward councillors are more tied to directly handling constituent issues, while At-Large councillors are freed up to consider the big-picture stuff that shapes the broader character and development of the city. So it’s important to elect people who have a real holistic grasp on where St. John’s currently stands—and where it needs to go. Here, too, it’s not an easy choice. But—contrary to what some people have apparently been hearing at the doors!—you can vote for up to four At-Large councillors. Which is good, because there are a lot of great candidates who have excellent synergy.

There are four in particular who stand out to me. It’s safe to say that Maggie Burton is one of the most sophisticated politicians in the province right now, at any level—and seasoned enough to shepherd any insurgent progressives through the trials and tribulations of actually having to govern. Meghan Hollett has an incredible resume of community activism, municipal engagement, and genuine human kindness—plus experience orchestrating an excellent municipal campaign. Jess Puddister is one of the sharpest people I have ever met, and she’s got a clear and sweeping vision for how the city could be (re)built for human beings in a climate emergency—put her and Mount Pearl’s Jim Locke in a regional infrastructure meeting together and you will revolutionize the Northeast Avalon. And Anne Malone is the moral force necessary to reframe everything the city does; as her campaign slogan puts it, “I can’t see much, but I’ve got vision”—and it’s one that puts universal accessibility, human rights, and equity at the heart of public life. If we elect these four women as At-Large councillors, we will unlock the full potential of St. John’s.

We are two decades into the 21st century. The horizons of what is considered politically possible—and necessary—are constantly in flux. In Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city right now, we have the chance to grasp Tom Paine’s challenge: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” This may seem a bit grandiose for a city council election on the Atlantic fringe of Canada, but it’s true. The choices we make today in this election will open (or circumscribe) the choices available to us tomorrow—four, ten, fifteen years down the line. The situation is changing drastically. We can either elect representatives in tune with the generational seachange at hand, or we can persist stubbornly in fantasies of a world that is already disappearing.

Each of us must ask ourselves what kind of city we want to live in. I know my answer. How about you? Voting concludes at 8 PM on Tuesday, September 28. We’ll find out then if St. John’s is ready to step into the future that awaits it.

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