Saint John – Candidates and residents of Saint John East are intent on debating hot button local issues such as energy, the environment and Saint John’s struggling economy in the weeks leading up to the November 17 byelection date.
These issues will doubtlessly be further discussed by the four candidates who have stepped forward, including NDP leader Dominic Cardy, who announced his candidacy on Tuesday, Oct. 21st. Representing the Liberal ticket is Shelley Rinehart, Deputy-Mayor of Saint John, who was appointed as the party’s candidate on Monday, Oct. 20th.
Returning as candidates from the September provincial election are Sharon Murphy for the Green Party and Glen Savoie, the Progressive Conservative incumbent candidate who lost his seat by a mere 9 votes.
All this comes in the wake of Liberal MLA-elect Gary Keating’s surprise resignation — due to family and health reasons — just three weeks after the provincial election, where Keating was narrowly elected in the Saint John East riding.
Following Keating’s resignation, Premier Brian Gallant promptly called a November 17th byelection in the Saint John riding.
As candidates make their pitches to voters, many Saint John East residents are putting forward local issues of importance to them.
“Environmental issues in general are very important to the people of Saint John, especially those affected by the refinery and the high density of train traffic along Bayside Drive,” says Megan Colwell, a Saint John East resident.
“My house is in close proximity to both [refinery and train traffic], and I would like to know that the trains especially are being properly regulated as far as safety, both physical and environmental, are concerned,” she continues.
Fellow Saint John East resident and retired family doctor Paula Tippett is worried about the negative impacts of air pollution on local public health. “I am very worried about the future of Saint John, especially East Saint John, with the multiplication of hazards to public health and safety.”
On a related note, the candidates also appear to be wading back into the energy debate on shale gas development, which was arguably the most contentious issue in the recent provincial election campaign.
Rinehart has stated in interview that, if elected as MLA, “energy policy” would be among her top priorities.
On energy policy, Murphy says, “Shelley Rinehart, for that matter…as far as we all know, she was a [Progressive] Conservative. She has been trying to push the university [UNB] to support ‘fracking’…and now she turns up to be a Liberal.”
In response, Rinehart asserted her position of shale gas development: “I joined my fellow [Saint John] councillors to vote in favour of shale gas exploration. Brian Gallant has said he wants to make sure any method of extraction that is proposed is safe before development is allowed to proceed and I respect that.”
Rinehart continues, “I have spoken directly with the Premier and am comfortable that he recognizes the importance of the energy sector to the economy of our Province and, in particular, to Saint John.”
Murphy and the Green Party have been publicly opposed to shale gas development, calling for a ban on shale gas development, and the cancelation of existing licences and leases pertaining to shale gas exploration.
Cardy, for his part, reiterated the NDP’s campaign position on shale has, explaining: “My party’s position has been pretty clear. We don’t think that we should go ahead with projects that are not provably safe, or provably profitable for the province.”
Cardy also confirmed that he continues to stand by his party’s “two test one vote” evaluation system for all proposed industrial projects, including shale gas development and Energy East.
PC Candidate Glen Savoie was unavailable for comment. During the 2014 provincial election campaign, the Progressive Conservative party ran on a platform of full support for shale gas development.
Also looming over the energy debate is the proposed Energy East pipeline, which would run cross-country, and end at the Saint John refinery and terminal. In the 2014 provincial election, all provincial parties – with the exception of the Green party – campaigned in favour of the proposed Energy East pipeline project.
“We’re much more optimistic about Energy East. We’ve been supportive of that project, with a list of caveats that would have to be addressed before it starts,” says Cardy.
Economic development is another important local issue for Saint John East residents. “On a personal note, I would like to see a candidate who will fight to bring business and new opportunity to Saint John, as currently we seem to be stuck in a rut,” says Colwell.
Colwell went on to describe some of the tensions felt by residents of Saint John East who are in desperate need of jobs, but are also weary of the environmental risks associated with further development of the energy sector.
“Saint John being a blue collar town, the allure of high paying jobs that will bring loved ones home from ‘out west’ is too great to even consider environmental issues that may or may not happen years from now.”
Murphy – who extoled the benefits of green job creation – doubts how much support energy-based economic development would receive amongst residents of Saint John East. “We were always told to be quiet, because that [emissions] was the smell of money. You don’t hear that anymore.”
Tippett reiterated these frustrations, saying, “I can’t think of another community where the people have sacrificed so much of their health and quality of life for so little benefit.”
Cardy appears to be taking a more municipally-focused stance on economic development. “We need to give the municipalities more power. I think New Brunswick’s views on economic development are really stuck in the 1960s, where everything is run by large, central government bureaucracies.”
“You have people in Fredericton who have no connection to Saint John, Saint John East… and they’re making decisions about what they think the best industries are to go there. It doesn’t work,” continues Cardy on government decentralization and the empowerment of municipalities.
While Keating’s resignation and the emergence of Cardy and Rinehart as candidates has been anything but predictable, further debate on local issues such as the environment, energy, and economic development can be counted on in Saint John East, as residents prepare to go to the polls once again on November 17.
Shawn Martin is a social work student at St. Thomas University interning with the NB Media Co-op.