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As if a vacuum cleaner salesman

Candidates peddle governance, door-to-door in Squamish
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Blair Wilson

It seems against all notions of privacy and many of decency, but you can sell just about anything at your customer’s front door. Cookies, vacuums, knife sets, watches. Even salvation. It’s a numbers game, has been since the ’20s, when suit-and-tie cannons were first fired down neighbourhood streets in carpet formation — a tactic that helped companies stay buoyant in times of recession.

For their part, politicians have been rapping their knuckles raw probably since the dawn of power. As in sales, especially in an era of media saturation, door-to-door canvassing gives the comforting impression of life whittled down to the local. Gone are the filters of print, television and radio. And yet, people tend to be more passionate about their worldview than they are a box of grody cookies. Plus, it’s easy to hate a politician, and easy to say so, no doubt a bummer for campaigners everywhere. On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to hate journalists, and just as easy to say so. No doubt, most people are happy to subtract media from the equation.

The pitch doesn’t stop at the door, though. It unravels on main streets and in debates. It makes front pages and leads newscasts. It goes on and on, escalating in volume and sometimes in tension until it suddenly stands down, sometimes for four years, sometimes for a few months. It takes a strange person to commit to that.

Blair Wilson: He’s got a manual

There are naturals for this kind of thing, and Blair Wilson is one of them. Elected in 2006, he was West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country’s man in the red suit — until he was felled by scandal and banished to the lonely perch of the independent MP. Having since brushed that nastiness from off his high shoulders, in the process accepting overtures from Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Wilson takes to the campaign trail with grins a-go-go. Quick with both wit and script, handy, even, with the occasional insight, Wilson is an apostle of his own doctrine. A political science undergrad, he wrote himself a 120-page manual on the finer points of campaigning.

A lot of that is establishing commonality. He strides up the front steps of Yolanda Destradi’s Squamish dwelling, readies a pamphlet, and knocks on the door. Dressed in a grey jogging suit, her salt and pepper hair standing tall, Destradi answers the door and says the lighting is a bother on account of an eye issue.

“My mother has that problem right now,” says Wilson, and the motion light goes out, but only for a second because he flicks his wrist in front of the sensor. “Can I count on your support this election?”

“I’ll sure try. I sure don’t want that ex-mayor here. He wrecked this town.”

It’s jobs, says Destradi. They’re going the way of the Mexican grizzly bear. Oh, says, Wilson, well the Green Party is all about job creation. Hang up that blue collar for something more vibrant.

And when an off duty cop answers the door, Wilson says how he’s been pushing for an expanded RCMP base in Squamish for a good while, because why wait until the Olympics? And when the cop’s wife says she’s a chef, Wilson relates his own experience as a cook at the Keg, and did you know the Green Party is in favour of a shorter workweek, an increased minimum wage and income splitting?

John Weston: Three years on

John Weston has been at it for over three years. He’s a bit like the political ghost of John Reynolds, the conservative stalwart that held this riding for nearly a decade before Wilson showed up. But Weston lacks that aura of senior statesmanship Reynolds so easily embodied. Just the same, up in the tangled streets of Garibaldi Highlands, Weston is by no means without a fan base.

“I’ve voted Conservative since day one,” says one man.

“You can count on my support,” assures another.

And, when the spectre of Stephen Harper looms large and ominous, Weston has at the ready a rather interesting tact. He relates a story about his candidacy interview, in which a member of the Conservative brass said he seemed a better fit for the NDP, what with all his socially minded pursuits, his aid work and legal agenda, that type of thing.

“Two hours later, I had his support,” says Weston, noting that while he may be fiscally conservative, he’s also socially progressive.

That line doesn’t work on everyone. When it doesn’t, Weston pulls out another stop, asking people if they vote based on party, leader or candidate. In the case of the leader, he elevates Harper at the expense of Stéphane Dion.

“I was recently in Quebec, and they can’t understand him.”

And if they say party, he dives into some policy, highlighting the $100 a month for childcare, arctic sovereignty and the Pacific Gateway. And let’s not forget the economy: Stay the course and forget about carbon taxation; this is not the time for experiments. If that doesn’t work, he pulls out another favoured tact.

“If Harper forms a government, which people are saying is likely, it would be nice to have an MP who belongs to the governing party.”

Bill Forst: Your NDP candidate

Campaigning is tough from the start, harder still when you take to the trail nearly halfway through the race. But Bill Forst is making the best of it, which today has him main streeting in the rain just hours before the Squamish all candidates debate. And the streets, like the weather, are less than kind.

“I’m Bill Forst,” he says, “your NDP candidate.”

Most people just keep on slogging, heads down and shoulders squared. That’s the go of it, says one of his team: Odds are, only one of a dozen people will humour your pitch.

Forst finds an open ear in a Greek restaurant on Cleveland. Helen Nocente is working the till, and she quickly locks into a talk with Forst.

“I know a lot of people who are just out of treatment centres,” she says, all business in a pink sweater. “And a lot of them have slipped back into using because they’re on waiting lists for housing.”

Ah, says Forst, well the NDP plans to repeal $50 billion in corporate tax cuts, a measure that would see funding reallocated to such measures as affordable housing — a plan that would produce 15,000 placements in B.C. alone.

Back out on the street, Forst sees some women holding babies. Perhaps taking a page from Wilson’s manual, he strolls right up to them and pledges thousands and thousands of childcare spaces in the event of an NDP government. The women take his pamphlet, then return to their conversation.

But it’s not all so callous. Two teen girls, members of a demographic so often fashionably socialist, stroll by and accept pamphlets.

“Thanks, Bill,” says one.

“She knows my name,” he enthuses. “That’s great.”

Ian Sutherland: Post-debate glad-handing

In Squamish, Ian Sutherland has the dubious distinction of a polarizing figure. There’s not much in the way of tepid opinion for the outgoing mayor and Liberal candidate. It may be easier, then, to shore up support after a debate, when faces are familiar and the potential for front door assaults is smaller.

And so, after the Squamish all-candidates debate, in which Sutherland performed both frankly and smoothly, he takes to the dispersing crowd to see how his performance went over.

“I was very, very impressed,” says Larry Murray, erstwhile board chair of the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation. “I liked your ending, the way you talked about balance — just look at the math.”

He’s talking about Sutherland’s warning about vote splitting, an oft sung Liberal hymn in this campaign and others.

Next to Murray is a man who claims never to attend these things. This, he says, was his first, and he took some issue with the Liberal position on decriminalizing weed. “I’ve seen far too many places where the marijuana is the start. It’s a progression, one I’ve fought my whole life.”

And, finally, there’s Graham Fuller, an expert on international affairs, who liked Sutherland’s comments on Afghanistan. “I don’t think the Conservatives have been forthright at all,” he says.

Sutherland nods. Tomorrow, he’ll be door-knocking in a different municipality, a prospect no doubt more appealing than the idea of doing it here.




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