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Vaccine Politics: Will COVID-19 affect the outcome of the federal election in B.C.?

Week 3 of federal election analysis by columnist Bruce Cameron focuses on the effects of COVID-19

When Justin Trudeau called the election in August, the Liberals had a healthy lead over the Conservatives and most Canadians expected them to win another term as government.

But polling numbers have been shifting in favour of the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, the fourth wave of COVID-19 is raging in many parts of the country, particularly western Canada. In British Columbia, despite vaccination rates rising, COVID-19 (and the Delta variant) remain a major health challenge and a vexing political football.

Vaccine politics has been a particularly divisive issue within conservative ranks in 2021.

The assumption that vaccines would become a CPC wedge issue, like many assumptions made before the writ was dropped, has not played out as the Liberals envisioned.

Vaccine skeptics (about 15-20 per cent of the population in B.C.), are much more likely than the vaccinated population to vote Conservative. The noisy, hostile crowds disrupting Trudeau rallies are the most visible example of how anti-vaccine politics and hatred of Trudeau have coalesced.

But will those rather un-Canadian displays of vitriol and anger work for or against the Liberals in the final weeks of the campaign?

As the Angus Reid Institute showed in an August survey, three quarters of Canadians have little sympathy for the plight of the unvaccinated if they happen to contract COVID-19. By extension, there is probably even less sympathy for the raucous crowds who assembled outside hospitals in late August, yelling and waving placards about “freedom” in the faces of front-line health care workers who have risked their lives and sanity fighting the pandemic.

Ironically, most COVID-19 hospitalizations in Canada today (in the range of 80-90%) are unvaccinated patients.

Will those anti-vaccine outbursts have an impact on the federal election? Judging by the polling numbers the answer should be yes.

Most British Columbians support the vaccine passport idea, and they also give good marks to the Trudeau Liberals for effectively fighting the pandemic since March of 2020.

Despite that broad base of support for Liberal vaccine policy, they have yet to capitalize on that perception, partially because the CPC campaign has refused to be painted as anti-science and anti-vaccine.

Perhaps that is the key role the People’s Party of Canada is playing: giving a safe home on the far-right fringe for people who embrace COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

Several close races in ridings within the Fraser Health region, which was B.C.’s COVID-19 hot spot for much of 2021, offer clues as to how the pandemic may yet impact the election.

Fear of contracting COVID-19 may reduce turnout for people who are more concerned about getting the disease, and since Liberal and NDP supporters display much higher concern than CPC supporters, that could make a huge difference in ridings like Cloverdale-Langley City. That’s where former Liberal MP John Aldag is attempting to win back the seat that CPC incumbent MP Tamara Jansen won in 2019 by about 1400 votes.

Whoever gets their voters out (or wins over more of the disaffected 3,500 Green voters in 2019) will win.

Turnout will also be a factor in another Fraser Valley riding, Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon, where incumbent Conservative MP Brad Vis must be feeling optimistic given the recent CPC surge.

Although the Liberals won this riding by 1,038 votes in 2015, the new Liberal candidate Geet Grewal only captured the nomination on August 19th. This fight pits a candidate from the more urban southern portion of the riding (Grewal) against a rural candidate (Vis) from a farming community in the north.

Another close contest in the Fraser Valley Health authority region that could be decided by turnout rates is South Surrey White Rock, where Liberal Gordie Hogg, who held the riding from 2015-2019, is once again facing Conservative MP Kerry Lynne Findlay, who won by less than 1,000 votes in 2019.

If the CPC can maintain its slow steady rise in momentum through the final two weeks of the campaign, then other ridings in the region once considered safe for the Liberals might be at risk of falling, including Delta, represented by Liberal cabinet minister Carla Qualtrough.

She held a key Covid-impacted portfolio: employment, workforce development and disability inclusion. If Qualtrough, who won by over 4,300 votes in 2019, is in a close race on election night, Justin Trudeau will have more than the Delta variant to worry about.

Black Press Media’s election analyst Bruce Cameron has been a pollster for over 35 years, working initially for Gallup Polls, Decima Research and the Angus Reid Group before founding his own company, Return On Insight. He is a frequent media commentator on CBC and CTV.

Canada Election 2021federal election