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The Rise of the Independents in Cape Breton

- Belle DeMont
- Belle DeMont

Rumblings of a revolution have been making waves in Cape Breton for a few years now.

People are upset. Health care, to many, is in a crisis with long wait times for procedures, doctors shortages and closed emergency rooms. The population numbers are dropping and the economy isn’t where many believe it could be. Teachers and nurses being forced back to work during strikes is also a sore spot for many Caper Bretoners and there’s many questions about the federal government’s equalization payments and the province’s control of it.

Lately, these rumblings have become more than the usual “this government sucks, gotta change our vote next election” complaining over beer with friends or supper with the family. The rumblings of distaste for party politics is turning into a movement to get independents, who have never run for a party, into elected seats. And the Cape Breton United Association (CBUA) is behind it.

In the recent provincial byelection, called after MLAs Alfie MacLeod (Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg) and Eddie Orrell (Northside-Westmount) threw their names in the hat for the Oct. 21 federal election, Andrew Doyle and Russ Green decided to run as independents and the CBUA helped with their campaigns.

Founded in 2018, the CBUA came into fruition after years of conversations between the two co-founders. Nigel Kearns and Christian Murphy shared concerns about where Cape Breton is going, how to keep people on the island and how to build the economy. They also shared a dissatisfaction for current Canadian party politics and they knew a lot of other people who shared their views.

Last April, Murphy decided it was time for action and started a CBUA Facebook group, which quickly grew to 3,000 followers.

Murphy explains on the Facebook page that CBUA is inspired by Senator Dan Christmas who “had the courage to confirm that our island is dying and we require fundamental governance change if we are going to survive,” and it didn’t take long before a few thousand people joined their movement.

“Cape Breton United Association was conceived, unbeknownst to us who created it, 30 years ago – in the sense of like minded people talking, complaining, saying what if we had different options when voting, what if we didn’t have to vote for the same parties. We just decided to make the talk a reality,” said Kearns.

“The message is, Cape Breton United Association is non-partisan. We’ve been stuck in this merry-go-round of just voting people out, never voting people in. I see the same words used to criticize this government that I’ve seen used to criticize past governments. It’s time for change.”

Doyle, Green, their door-to-door canvassing teams and CBUA campaigned for two weeks and Kearns said although they didn’t win, everyone is happy with the results.

Green came third out of five, beating out the Green and NDP candidates. With 977 votes, Green was behind Liberal Marc Botte (2,277) and PC Brian Cormier (3, 172). Seven candidates ran in Doyle’s riding, where he came in fourth, beating the Green and Atlantica Party of Nova Scotia candidates, with 837 votes.

“Nine-hundred votes is a lot of votes for an independent in a provincial election,” said Jim Bickerton, a political science professor at St. Francis Xavier University who researches Canadian party and electoral politics.

“But it is easier for an independent in a by-election … It is tougher in a general election when people are picking a government. People have to ask themselves why vote for an independent rather than the chance to pick the government who can illicit change.”

According to Bickerton, constituents who chose the independent candidate usually do so as a “protest vote” — a way of telling the current political parties they’re not happy with how things are going. Bickerton isn’t sure having independent representation provincially or federally will do more than that.

“You’re voting for a lonely figure in the back of the room … with no party support to move issues forward,” he said. “Not sure there’s much benefit to someone to vote for an independent in our political system. Life as an independent on the hill can be very difficult.”

But Kearns and the CBUA believe independent representation is more about being able to present bills. It’s about presenting another option to the party system, being able to do exactly what constituents want instead of abiding by party platforms and being able to vote the way they think is best instead of how the party dictates.

“The party system is an epic fail and it has truly lost its sense of direction. You can’t help but think it’s killing democracy,” Kearns said.

“An independent’s power, their true power, is they can go in and communicate directly with their constituents… They can say clearly, with complete transparency, what happened in the Legislative Assembly… From the mouth of the constituent to the ear of the representative then back from the mouth of the representative to the ear of the constituent, an independent can do exactly what they think is best for their riding.”

In Canada, there have been and currently are independents in political and federal seats. However, most (if not all) were members of parties before becoming independent — either removed for disciplinary reasons or they’ve left because they no longer support that party’s political agenda.

Since the Liberals and the Conservatives solidified themselves as Canada’s two main political parties, between 1900 – 1920, it seems there hasn’t been one seat in Atlantic Canada (provincially or federally) held by an independent who wasn’t previously a party member.

Both Bickerton and Mount Allison University professor Dr. Mario Levesque say this has a lot to do with how challenging it is to run as an independent.

“It’s really hard because you’re trying to get name recognition. With the major parties, you have name recognition, people know the bigger parties, they know what they stand for,” said Levesque who specializes in public policy and public administration. “And the ridings are so big, too. You may be well-known in your area, but not others.”

Levesque noted there are other challenges facing a politician running independently, such as financing the campaign and finding enough volunteers to help with things like canvassing.

Kearns admitted their two-week campaign trail was more challenging than they expected but they are happy with the results and ready for their next campaign this month.

At publication time, paperwork was being completed for two other CBUA members to run in the upcoming federal election — songwriter Kenzie MacNeil who is running in Sydney-Victoria, and Michelle Dockrill who’s running in Canso–Cape Breton. And Kearns said they don’t care if they win or lose, each campaign they get known more and they aren’t giving up until they win a seat independently, without ever being affiliated with a party or becoming one.

“We’ve engaged a group of people, like the Capers 4 Healthcare and Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness, all these other groups of people trying to seek justice for our area,” said Kearns. “If our membership shakes the political system and makes them pull up their socks and do their jobs as they are supposed to, aren’t we winning?”

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