As veteran Liberal Scott Simms bows out, here's what his election loss says about a shift in rural politics

·6 min read
Liberal candidate Scott Simms represented central Newfoundland from 2004 until losing to Conservative Clifford Small last week. (Scott Simms/Facebook - image credit)
Liberal candidate Scott Simms represented central Newfoundland from 2004 until losing to Conservative Clifford Small last week. (Scott Simms/Facebook - image credit)
Scott Simms/Facebook
Scott Simms/Facebook

Being a private citizen will take some getting used to for Scott Simms.

"It's a whole different experience at this point, after 17 years of being in public life," the former MP for Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame said.

Second place isn't familiar either; for those 17 years, Simms won every federal election he ran in, a streak the envy of any political career.

But that came to an end officially on Friday, when Conservative Clifford Small was declared the riding's winner by 264 votes after days of mail-in ballot counting. Simms saw the writing on the wall election night Tuesday, and had spent the days between preparing for a new life and reflecting on the loss.

"People wanted change," he told CBC News in his first interview since being ousted, in which he congratulated Small for the work he put into his successful campaign.

People wanted change, and they too were changing, Simms said, noticing a difference in his door-knocking since his first time around in 2004.

"The anger level and the anxiety level was higher than in past campaigns," he said.

The pandemic, from concern about businesses closing to Liberal policies to deal with it, played a role, he said, pointing particularly to measures like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, which says was met with local backlash.

"A lot of businesses cannot find workers, as a result of some of the benefits that we did. That was a bigger issue," Simms said.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

The boss matters

Simms has long enjoyed personal popularity within his riding, and one veteran Conservative supporter said the defeat has less to do with Simms himself, and more with who he works for.

"I think it was more anti-Trudeau," said Rex Barnes.

Barnes helped with Small's campaign and was himself the MP for central Newfoundland before being ousted by Simms in 2004.

"People like Scott Simms, and they still do. But what we heard at the doorsteps when I went around with [Small] was, Trudeau has to go, he's not good for the country. We want him gone," he said.

"And if we have to vote against Scott Simms to do it, well we're gonna have to do it."

19 times out of 20, voters are casting ballots for the party or leader over the candidate, political scientist Alex Marland said. But knowing that statistic didn't stop Marland from being caught off guard in the Coast of Bays outcome.

"I was shocked, and frankly more than that, I was disappointed," Marland said.

"Not anything about the Conservatives winning it — I think we need somebody like Scott Simms in Parliament, because he's one of very few MPs who would stand up to the party leader, stand up to the party."

Garrett Barry/CBC
Garrett Barry/CBC

Simms was known for his rebel streak that often saw him choose local interests over toeing the Liberal line — he once rode a snowmobile into Terra Nova National Park as part of a protest around Parks Canada's snowmobile rules.

Sometimes those moves would cost him politically. He lost a job as chair of the federal fisheries committee after voting with the Conservatives on a motion about student summer jobs programs and abortion rights, with Simms saying at the time some churches in his area were being asked to violate their beliefs.

Simms said he has regrets about his time in Ottawa, but not about his choices to represent his riding's interests.

"You have to come to terms with, who gave you the job, right? Who's your boss, when you become a politician? Your boss is the people who gave you the job and can take it from you, as I've just discovered," he said.

A swell of Conservative support

Simms' loss is coupled with big Conservative strides elsewhere in rural Newfoundland. Liberals Gudie Hutchings and Churence Rogers managed to get re-elected in their respective ridings of Long Range Mountains and Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, but by slim margins against strong Conservative candidates.

Terry Hedderson voted Conservative in Long Range Mountains, and said many people around him questioned the Liberal's handling of the pandemic.

"I think it's starting to bother people, and people are starting to think, what the heck, why all the spending?" Hedderson, who lives in St. Lunaire-Griquet, told CBC Radio's The St. John's Morning Show.

Heddersen said Trudeau's actions didn't encourage any indecisive voters at rural Newfoundland ballot boxes.

"Calling an election like that during a pandemic, I think that worked against him in a lot of ridings and people didn't feel that it was the right thing to do at this time in our lives," he said.

While the right-wing People's Party of Canada garnered not insignificant vote shares in the 2021 election in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, Marland said much of it is probably a protest vote around pandemic policies as opposed to a siphoning-off of conservative votes.

Adrian Wyld/Pool/Getty Images
Adrian Wyld/Pool/Getty Images

But the swell of Conservative support in rural Newfoundland and Labrador is "part of a bigger trend" with the rest of Canada, said Marland, as a divide between rural and urban gapes wider. Part of this, Marland said, is due to not seeing a reflection of rural concerns in an urban-dominated media.

"You're in a rural area and you're thinking about drinking water, you're thinking about local jobs, you're thinking about fixing the wharf ... you're not seeing your issues represented quite as much, and that creates a sense of alienation," he said.

The blue team's boost grows more apparent in Newfoundland and Labrador, he said, as Danny Williams' 2007 crusade against the federal Conservatives with his Anything But Conservative voting campaign fades into history.

Barnes agrees the ABC influence has waned, but says while current leader Erin O'Toole has decent appeal, the spectre of Stephen Harper continues to linger.

"Newfoundlanders are gonna take a long time to get over the Stephen Harper era, because they didn't trust the man. And I think the same thing is happening with Trudeau," Barnes said.

"They don't trust the man, and when you lose trust in politicians, it's some hard to get back."

Simms echoed that sentiment, as he looks back on his career with a bid for more honesty and humanity for others who might wade into an ever more divisive political world.

"We have to stop pretending to be perfect, because what ends up happening is people get angrier. They don't trust politicians anymore. And politicians complain that people don't trust them," Simms said.

People's anger with their politicians is then getting more personal, Simms said, which is "a dangerous place to go."

Marland predicts Newfoundland and Labrador will continue to have strong Liberal support in the near future, particularly with the provincial party in power and fairly popular.

As for where Simms himself is going next — he may not know for sure, but is optimistic he'll roll with the new change of life he's been handed.

"I woke up yesterday. You know, I looked out as I normally do, and there was the blue sky. And not only was it blue, this time, it was also limitless."

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