How the New Brunswick Green leader made his ‘historic’ win

23 09 2014

JANE TABER

New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon knocked on doors for months, made endless speeches and shook thousands of hands – but it wasn’t until Saturday, two days before election day, that he felt his fortunes finally turn.

Canvassing the homes in the provincial riding of Fredericton South, Mr. Coon said to his aide: “Holy crap, it looks like we might take this.”

There was a different tone and more engagement at the doors, he said. Elderly people were coming up to him on street corners and speaking to him about issues; on school campuses in the riding, students were intrigued by his message.

Mr. Coon, 57, made history in the New Brunswick election, becoming the first Green Party member ever to sit in the provincial legislature – and the fourth Green member in the country. Federal leader Elizabeth May represents a British Columbia riding in the House of Commons and Bruce Hyer is an Ontario MP; Andrew Weaver is a Green MLA in B.C.

“It’s historic,” he told The Globe and Mail Tuesday in an interview, noting that his Fredericton South riding has only “ever been red or blue.” In addition, this was only the second election in New Brunswick for the Green Party.

For the first time in many years, the legislature will also no longer be just occupied by Grits and Tories – “so that’s going to make a huge change to the body politic in New Brunswick,” he said.

Mr. Coon and his wife, Janice Harvey, who teaches at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, are friends with Ms. May. He joined the federal party when she won the leadership.

“With David’s historic win, we now have Green MLAs on both coasts and Green MPs in Ottawa,” Ms. May wrote in an e-mail. “The Green Party’s growth is now beyond doubt, but yesterday’s win is David’s triumph.”

Mr. Coon said he can provide that independent voice, which is not constrained by party whips telling MLAs what to say and how to vote.

“This will force a change in way the legislature functions,” he said, hoping to make the committee system more accessible to citizens.

He also said he will work “across party lines” – and “be a bit of a conscience for New Brunswickers.”

It was a hard-fought election Monday – one that was nearly hijacked by a glitch in the voting tabulation system – but saw the Liberals eke out a majority government, defeating the incumbent Progressive Conservatives.

In Mr. Coon’s riding – a diverse riding that includes well-heeled Frederictonians, university and college students, professors, and even some artists – it was a four-way fight that was almost too close to call.

In the end, Mr. Coon won with 30 per cent of the vote – beating the incumbent Progressive Conservative energy minister, Craig Leonard.

It was a fight with stark choices, given that Mr. Leonard’s cabinet job was to push his government’s pro-hydraulic fracturing policy – which was the centrepiece of the PCs’ job creation platform.

Mr. Coon, who worked for 28 years with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, an environmental advocacy organization, before getting into politics, had a much different position – if he formed government he would pass a bill cancelling exploration licenses and get rid of the leases to extract shale gas.

But there was more. At the doors in his riding – and he has been canvassing since last year after winning the provincial leadership in September 2012 – he detected “tremendous discontent” with the traditional parties.

“That was the common thread with the two old parties … the feeling that people have been erased from the picture,” he said. “They thought it was time for a breath of fresh air in the legislative assembly.”

There is a large student population in the riding, and he said the support of young people was key. But he also heard from retired public servants, who were concerned with changes the PC government made to their pensions.

The forestry deal, in which the Progressive Conservative government increased by 20 per cent the amount of softwood the industry could take from Crown land, was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Mr. Coon said that it amounted to giving away a “huge chunk of our forest for 25 years to J.D. Irving.”

“I think people felt they [the PC government] had gone too far,” he said.

As a former environmental advocate, Mr. Coon was no stranger to taking on the powerful Irving family, which owns and controls most of the industry in the province, including pulp and paper, and energy.

He says he simply spoke “honestly” about the issues and was not burdened by the “fear that so many people have about addressing issues as you see them.”

“We have had a string of governments who have been unwilling to stand up to the Irving group of companies …” he says. “That’s got us down a road that’s not been beneficial to the interests of New Brunswickers.”

Follow  on Twitter: @janetaber1

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