I grew up in Ontario. Ontario is large. And far more socially stratified than Prince Edward Island.
I grew up in a left-leaning household. Socially progressive. Open-minded. My grandmother was a scrutineer for the NDP. I never ever heard my parents grumble about paying taxes. We were thankful.
And it was easy to demonize, or at least marginalize, those who thought otherwise. Like our anti-metric MP Geoff Scott. Or the inexplicable Tory leader Frank Miller. Or the whacked out fast-talking candidate for some fringe party who wanted to install particle-beam weapons in the neighbourhood.
Growing up near Hamilton, and having lots of friends whose parents worked for Big Steel, it was easy to see the political world as black and white: you either supported the workers, or you supported their corporate bosses. Later, when I worked in a union newspaper, echoes of the same: you were one of us, or one of them.
I’m not suggesting this was a positive thing, at least not completely. When the teams are so clearly defined, it’s not hard to just join the regular team by default, which doesn’t inspire a lot of thinking. On either side. Nonetheless, if you’re going to end up on a team by default, I think I ended up, generally, on the right one.
Segue to Prince Edward Island.
Politics here, to someone who didn’t grow up in the midst of it, is incomprehensible. Black is white and white is black. Conservative and Liberal don’t mean here what they do in Ontario, partly because the lack of big corporate patrons forces them to be more grounded. And because big labour on PEI is more white collar than blue collar, the sensibilities of the NDP are somewhat foreign as well.
Suffice to say that every time I think I understand Island politics, I get knocked on my ear, and realize it will take another 12 or 13 years before I even get an inkling of what’s going on. Is it any wonder that I’ve choosen to concern myself with understanding the apparatus of politics rather than its substance?
Which brings me to my current quandry.
I’m faced with a slate of candidates here in the Charlottetown district each of whom I either know directly, or at least through friends.
When I headed up the Victoria Row Business Owners Association (long story) a decade ago, I worked closely with Shawn Murphy, who owns property on Richmond Street. He was a smart, capable, generous colleague.
The second Christmas we spent on the Island, Catherine Hennessey invited us for Christmas dinner with her, David Weale, Reg Porter and Darren Peters. Although that is the sum total of my personal time with Darren, he has nonetheless said hello to me absolutely every time we’ve passed each other on the street in the years since. Many people I’ve come to know and respect on the Island also know and respect Darren. It’s rare to hear an unkind work spoken of him.
Dodi Crane is an occassional regular at Eddie’s Lunch (aka Viva’s, aka the MarinaGrill). She’s married to a friend of mine. Her office used to be next door, and we shared the same recycling bin for six months. In a province where NDP candidates are sometimes described as “knuckleheads,” Dodi has always stood slightly above the fray, and seems respected even by people who don’t agree with the substance of what she espouses.
Will McFadden lives across the street from my brother Johnny. He parked his van in their driveway last week. A friend whose opinion I respect says Will is a smart, intuitive, crackerjack thinker.
So if I set aside the swirling confusion of the national campaigns — something that is becoming increasingly necessary as things descend into quote-trading and ad hominem attacks —- and see my local decision as one between four well-respected neighbours, all of a sudden things start to get really difficult.
I have a friend who was once courted to run provincially. He was invited into the office of the Premier of the day and shown the results of polling in his district with his name in the fray. He told me it was an eerie experience to see his character judged in such a clear-cut numerical way by his friends and neighbours, to have an actual percentage attached to the question “on a scale of one to ten, how honest do you think I am?”
But, when the decision is concrete — “who’s the best neighbour to send up to Ottawa” — and not abstract (and specious) — like “who will put more billions into healthcare” — then the campaign crystallizes into something more akin to a public job interview process than a pointless pep rally. And so questions like “who is more honest?” or “who’s the better manager?” become really important.
And so for perhaps the first time in my life, with the bedrock of “left = good, right = bad” removed from play, no deal-breaking issues to cleave off superfluous candidates, I’m forced to think really, really hard about my vote. I’m going to have to work at this. And I only have 32 days.
Good citizenship, of course, demands nothing less.