Poor Andrew Scheer.
He was poised to be Prime Minister only two years after winning the federal Conservative leadership, as the Trudeau Liberal brand went south once the SNC-Lavalin scandal broke in February.
Then the Liberals rebounded in the polls. Trudeau was 10 points back of Scheer in April; today’s neck-and-neck support levels now give the Grits an outside chance of winning a second majority government.
For an encore, Scheer gets to explain to Central Nova voters why, over a 24-hour period, their Conservative candidate – a local mayor who beat two other challengers in July – was replaced on the ballot by a country singer who’s spent most of the past two decades as an Alberta rancher.
Now, before I go any further, I’ll make it clear: I like George Canyon. I’ve interviewed him for The Reporter. Cathy and I own two of his albums and we know he can deliver a killer live show. I’ve been impressed with how he’s made his Christian faith a staple of his musical journey, even doing entire gospel-music tours in churches across Canada. And even after his second-place finish on CMT’s Nashville Star launched his fame in 2004, the former Fred Lays maintained the humility that I imagine he learned as a young man growing up in Foxbrook, Pictou County.
I was backstage as a freelance journalist at Sydney’s Centre 200 when Canyon hosted the East Coast Music Awards in 2005. Far from being the self-promoting superstar found liberally around the country charts these days, he seemed astonished and genuinely touched by all the attention. And all six-foot-everything of Canyon took on the look of a child meeting Santa Claus when he finally got a chance to speak with Rita MacNeil, who picked up the ECMAs’ Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award earlier that evening.
We already knew Canyon was interested in federal politics. He sought the Conservative nomination for an Alberta riding in 2014, only to pull out because of what he described as “a health scare” on his Facebook page. I should point out that my quotation marks do not call the legitimacy of this comment into question.
The legitimacy of Canyon’s current candidacy in Central Nova, however, is another thing entirely. That’s partly because Westville Mayor Roger MacKay was supposed to be the candidate, but then stepped down last week, citing “personal reasons.” MacKay has claimed that this had nothing to do with Canyon, and that he didn’t even find out that the JUNO-winner was interested in running until the night of August 20, mere hours before the new Central Nova candidate was revealed to the world.
Weirdly, parachute candidates land in Pictou County on a regular basis. In 1983, an earlier reconfiguration of the Central Nova riding gave Quebec-born Brian Mulroney his first seat in Parliament when the sitting MP, Elmer MacKay, resigned to allow the newly-minter Progressive Conservative leader to run in a by-election. Re-elected the following year in a Quebec seat, Mulroney thanked MacKay by naming him to his cabinet, but the new Prime Minister rarely set foot in Pictou County for the rest of his tenure.
The MacKay lineage, of course, continued with the 18-year-political career of Elmer’s son Peter in various versions of Central Nova. The younger MacKay got his own challenge from a political interloper in 2008 when Green Party Leader Elizabeth May took him on, hoping the high-profile race would get her some much-needed publicity. Unfortunately, May’s Margaree Harbour roots could only take her so far, and she finished second to MacKay. Mind you, that would be the last election in which May didn’t win a seat in Parliament.
So, George Canyon’s home-from-away candidacy isn’t an anomaly. And he’s hardly the first musician to run politically in Nova Scotia. We’ll know by October whether his decision launches a career with the lofty heights of ex-Premier Rodney MacDonald, or if he’s more like fiddler Howie MacDonald and “The Island” singer-songwriter Kenzie MacNeil, who each fell short on two federal runs for the Conservatives in Cape Breton during the early 2000s.
Hey, Canyon isn’t even the only musician running in Central Nova this time. The NDP chose multi-talented singer and guitarist Betsy MacDonald as its candidate; I’m told that Liberal MP Sean Fraser has a great singing voice and is equally talented on the guitar and bagpipes, while Green candidate Barry Randle is a drummer. (I insist that the candidates’ debates be set to music.)
Above all else, it’s going to be a fascinating race as certain Pictou County residents haul out those “This Is Canyon Country” signs that popped up like wildflowers after the Nashville Star days. I just wonder if they’re setting themselves up for a fall – and if Scheer and Canyon alike haven’t made a country-sized lapse in judgement.