Meet Zack Siezmagraff. “That’s Z-a-c-k, not Z-a-c-h,” he spells out carefully, in order to prevent the same kind of mistake Liberal headquarters made when they made him a website. The party spelled it wrong and it took weeks to get fixed. The 27-year-old management consultant from Edmonton may seem like an unlikely candidate for the Liberal party. Then again, he’s running in Yellowhead, an Alberta riding that voted 72 per cent in favour of Tory Robert Merrifield in 2008. The Liberals got 4 per cent of the vote.
Kirk Oates, the NDP candidate for Calgary South knows what it’s like to run against the Tories in Alberta. He’s fighting Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who won the riding with 74 per cent of the vote. He’s doing it on a very tight budget. “I would have liked to have had more signs,” jokes the Canadian Union of Public Employees national representative. NDP central allotted him none.
Taylor Train, the Conservative candidate for Parkdale-High Park has more support. He’s got 250 signs, a campaign office wedged between a Subway and a Pizza Pizza and several experienced volunteers. Like Siezmagraff and Oates, he too is fighting the Green Party for third place. The Tory candidate who ran in the same Toronto riding in 2008 got a third as many votes as the NDP candidate, who in turn lost to the Liberal, Gerard Kennedy.
“In this riding, it’s not how much you hate Stephen Harper,” jokes Train. “It’s how much you really hate Stephen Harper.” It’s hard to picture incumbents like Kenney or Kennedy making that kind of crack about their own leader in the last week of the campaign. So little attention is paid to these underdog candidates by their own parties, they can speak their minds a bit more freely. They are, arguably, Canada’s most honest politicians.
One might think that the prestige of a career in Parliament would incite a battle for every nomination. “But in areas where the party hasn’t done that well in the past, the nomination isn’t worth much,” says Wilfrid Laurier political scientist Barry Kay. “Typically, you’re just beating the bushes to get someone—anyone with a pulse.”
For Siezmagraff it’s been a tough slog through the backroads of northern Alberta. “It started off with euphoria,” he says, recounting the day Parliament fell, which was when he got a phone call from Senator Grant Mitchell asking him to run. “But then it hits you. I got discouraged at the beginning when I had a lot of negative people at the door. Part of me felt really angry because I thought, ‘How often do you have a politician show up at your door and ask and what concerns you?’,” he says. He still hasn’t heard any Conservative voters say they’ve changed their mind. “But I’ve definitely heard ‘I was undecided and now I’m leaning to you’,” he says.
The experience is a new one for Siezmagraff, who spent the 2008 election working on Bob Rae’s campaign. “In Toronto Centre there were thousands of people on his volunteer list. Just coordinating the people who wanted to volunteer for Bob occupied several people’s time,” he says. “Here, I’m the candidate, I do the media, the coordinating, the signs — I’m a one-man band.” Advice from Rae helps to get him through the bad days. “He’d always say ‘treat every day as if you’re a few points behind. It’s safe to say I’m a few points behind, so I run my campaign the exact same way.”
Oates is even more self-deprecating. “Campaign? I don’t have a campaign,” he chuckles. “I just have me.”
He’s being modest. At the end of his work day with the union, Oates joins the exodus of cars out of Calgary and toward the suburban riding he’s competing to take from Kenney. “The most common response is ‘you don’t have a chance’,” he says. That doesn’t hurt him, although an e-mail making fun of his low-budget efforts certainly did. “It came as a little bit of a shock to someone who has not been inoculated to the political process. I’m fine now. I understand now. But when I first read it, I took it very personally,” he says. Still, he continues to knock on doors every night. “I believe in this stuff,” he says.
Taylor Train believes in this stuff too. “This country’s given me a lot, but I’m concerned, so I decided that rather than yell at the TV each day, I’d get up and do something about it,” says the former military man and current Seneca College teacher. “I’m concerned that Canada’s recovery is going to be jeopardized.”
From there, he veers off the Tory script. “My message is that there’s a new kind of Conservative in town—an old kind of Conservative really—a red Tory,” he says. “I’m a progressive Conservative,” he says, emphasizing the word progressive. “I made the decision that, for now, at this point and time, the Conservative party is the best party for Canada,” he says. “For now,” he repeats.
He’s not the only one going off message. Siezmagraff identifies his biggest challenge as Albertans’ undying hatred for Pierre Trudeau. “I’ve heard about the National Energy Program many times,” he says.
Oates is similarly upfront about his party’s weaknesses in the province. He shrugs at the fact that Layton’s cross-country tour skipped Calgary. “If you have an opportunity to make a push somewhere where that little nudge will make actually difference, that’s where the leader should go,” he says.
The honesty is odd, but refreshing. So is each man’s tales of small victories. One of Siezmagraff’s best days on the campaign trail came when he made his opponent sweat in the local debate and was then rewarded with a cheque from a stranger in the audience. Similarly, Oates counts receiving a $35 cheque from a retired custodian as the high point of his campaign. Train says his goal is simply to make the Conservatives in his riding proud. None of them expect to win.
But stranger things have happened. “When there are surprises, those hopeless throw-away candidates sometimes win,” says Kay, the political scientist. “My favorite example is the gas station attendant who beat [former Saskatchewan premier] Roy Romanow,” he says, referring to then-22-year-old Jo-Ann Zazelenchuk. “People will just vote for the party, without giving a whole lot of thought to the candidate,” he says. That may not help out any of these men, but there are a few NDP candidates in Quebec who started the race as sacrificial lambs and may end it with a new job in Ottawa.