Prolonged N.L. election draining candidates' bank accounts and energy

·4 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Sheila Fitzgerald, a single mother of two teenage boys, had some money put aside when she was denied an unpaid leave of absence from her government job to run in the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election.

"I had to quit in order to put my name on the ballot," Fitzgerald said in an interview Monday. "I'm living on credit. I mean, I saved up a few pennies to get me through four weeks."

But it's been nearly 10 weeks. The Progressive Conservative candidate in St. Barbe-L’Anse aux Meadows riding on Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula now expects to be in debt when the dust settles.

Fitzgerald said she officially left her job on Jan. 16, the day after Liberal Leader Andrew Furey called the election for Feb. 13. But a COVID-19 outbreak involving the contagious B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom swept through the St. John's region in mid-February, and on Feb. 12, health officials put the province in lockdown. Election officials announced all voting would take place by mail.

Ballots are due this Thursday, which will mark the 70th day of the campaign, making it one of the longest in modern Canadian history, just shy of the 78-day federal campaign in 2015.

It's not clear when the winner will be announced, though an Elections NL spokeswoman said in an email Monday that it could be as early as Saturday.

"It really it takes a toll on your mental health just having no clue what the future holds," said Amy Norman, the NDP candidate in Labrador's Lake Melville district.

Norman is a pharmacy assistant in a busy drugstore in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. She worked part-time for the first two weeks of the campaign and then took two weeks off to dig in even harder. She went back to work on Feb. 15 and has been running her campaign in the off-hours, staying up late to make phone calls and connect with voters online.

"And then I kind of just collapse in sleep for as long as I can," she said.

Lake Melville is a closely watched race — the incumbent, Perry Trimper, is running as an Independent after leaving the Liberals following a political controversy — and Norman said easing off her campaign when she returned to work wasn't an option. "I believe in myself, I believe in my values, and I believe in why I'm running," she said.

A record number of women are running in this election, along with at least two non-binary candidates and at least seven Indigenous candidates. Both Norman and Fitzgerald said they're worried the challenges of the prolonged election, including the burnout and the extended financial challenges, could dissuade people from typically marginalized groups from running in the future.

Back on the Great Northern Peninsula, Krista Lynn Howell is the Liberal candidate running against Fitzgerald. Their race, too, is one to watch: the district has been a Liberal stronghold with Chris Mitchelmore winning 89 per cent of the vote in 2015, but he was caught up in scandal and is not running again.

Howell, a registered nurse, said she was able to take a leave of absence from her position as a nursing instructor. "I don't know how that would have panned out had I been working as a front-line nurse at this time," she said.

Howell and Fitzgerald are also mayors of their towns — St. Anthony and Roddickton-Bide Arm, respectively — and they've had to step away from those roles as they run in the provincial election.

Howell agrees it's been tough, but she said her team of volunteers has been working hard to keep morale high, even when the door-to-door campaigning had to stop because of the lockdown. "I've had a very positive experience, I must say," she said.

Fitzgerald said she'd like to see the government put better legislation in place so that people from different backgrounds can take a leave from their jobs and run for office. She'd also like to see the government introduce caps on election spending and campaign lengths.

"We need people in the (legislature) that will be a voice who knows what it means to live from paycheque to paycheque," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2021.

The Canadian Press