How Conservative is the Fraser Valley?

The 2021 federal election may not have held many surprises for the Fraser Valley, but small changes in local votes show that the future isn't set in stone.

By Grace Kennedy | June 13, 2022 |5:00 am

The Fraser Valley isn’t as Conservative as it used to be.

Although the 2021 federal election provided few surprises in the Fraser Valley, a little digging shows that although the Conservatives held onto their Fraser Valley strongholds, the overwhelming support for that party is beginning to erode.

That wasn’t the case federally. Across the country, Conservatives ran a campaign that saw the party slightly increase their share of the national vote. But in the Fraser Valley, four of the five federal candidates actually garnered fewer votes than just two years before.

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*A note on the terminology: In an election, “wins” in individual polling stations do not determine the winner for the riding; only the total votes do that. However, in this article we refer to individual polling station “wins” as a stand-in for how neighbourhoods wanted the election to go. A party “wins” a polling station by having a higher percentage of the vote than its competitors. In rare cases, two parties are tied.

The Conservative decline

The most-Conservative areas in the Fraser Valley are still in the region’s farmland: eastern Chilliwack, Sumas Prairie, Matsqui Prairie, and the Township of Langley. 📸 Grace Kennedy

Across the Fraser Valley, the Conservative vote has been declining since at least the mid-2000s, when 60% of voters cast their ballot for the Tories. In 2021, only 44% of the vote went to the Conservatives. (In 2019, nearly 46% of the vote went to the Conservatives.)

Hamish Telford, a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, spoke about the change during The Current’s Changing Valley panel in March.

“I thought 2015 was going to be something of an anomaly, a Trudeau wave. But it hasn’t really bounced back,” he said. “The Conservatives aren’t going to lose these ridings any time soon, but I think we are witnessing a fairly Conservative community… [becoming] much less so.”

Although the valley may be less blue, certain areas were still guaranteed wins for the Conservatives in 2021. Farming areas in Chilliwack, Langley, and Abbotsford’s Matsqui and Sumas prairies remained the most Conservative out of anywhere in the Fraser Valley, as they were in 2019. But Conservative votes declined even in those blue havens.

In the 20 most Conservative polling stations in the valley, the Conservatives saw their share of the vote decrease. Those voters went to both the left and the right. The People’s Party of Canada saw the most significant increase proportionally—going from an average of 2% of the vote to 7% of the vote. But both the NDP and the Liberals made inroads in those areas as well.

The trend wasn’t just happening in the Tory strongholds. Across the valley, polling stations just weren’t as blue as they were before. Telford noted that was likely due to demographic changes: an increasing number of new residents who had moved from areas with what he called “progressive urban values,” along with more young voters who are less conservative than their elders.

Across the valley in 2021, the Conservatives won fewer polling stations than two years prior. After garnering the most votes at 90% of polling stations in 2019, the party won “just” 78% of sites in 2021. Most of the losses headed to the Liberals instead.

The Liberal switch

The Liberals took over much of Abbotsford’s city areas, as well as Cloverdale and significant portions of Langley City. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The Fraser Valley is not easily turned red. In the 2019 election, the Liberals claimed the most votes at only 6% of the Fraser Valley’s polling stations. In 2021, that amount nearly doubled, despite the party struggling to make ground elsewhere in the country.

Many of those flips occurred in Cloverdale-Langley City, where polling stations that had given the most votes to Conservative candidate Tamara Jansen in 2019 switched to support Liberal John Aldag. Jansen was the centre of controversy prior to the campaign, after using a bible quote to oppose a ban on conversion therapy and using the phrase “lesbian activity” in the same speech.

The Conservatives lost 10 previously held polling stations to the Liberals in the Langley part of the riding. (They also took three polling stations that had formerly been Liberal wins.) Some polling stations in rapidly growing parts of the neighbouring Langley-Aldergrove riding also flipped to the Liberals. Having a well-known candidate (long-time township councillor Kim Ritcher) likely played a role in that switch but demographics and migration from Vancouver, as well as the fraught campaign one riding over, may also have had an impact.

More central Abbotsford polling stations also went Liberal—largely in the western portion of the city. The area was already a relatively strong Liberal fortress, with roughly half of residents casting votes for Liberals in 2019. But in 2021, it only became more so, with Liberal votes exceeding 55% of the total in many places.

Those areas have a significant South Asian population, and Telford has noted the strength of Liberal brand among those communities. In Abbotsford, the Conservatives lost 14 polling stations they had previously won in 2019.

The Liberals weren’t the only party to dig into former Conservative votes. The NDP also increased their Fraser Valley vote share in 2021—and nowhere was that more obvious than in Chilliwack-Hope.

A tale of two Chilliwacks

Many parts of Chilliwack turned orange in the 2021 election, including downtown Chilliwack and parts of Sardis and Cultus Lake. 📸 Grace Kennedy

A Conservative rallying ground—but also a place of burgeoning NDP support.

That’s the new reality in Chilliwack-Hope, where the NDP made significant inroads in a riding that had once been a sea of blue.

Chilliwack-Hope still has Mark Strahl as its member of Parliament, but tides are clearly shifting in the electoral district. More than two dozen formerly Conservative polling stations switched to NDP for the 2021 election, and Strahl’s share of the vote went down too, to 46% of the vote from 50%.

Most of the new NDP polling stations centred in the city’s core, a few Vedder-area neighbourhoods, in the Yarrow and Cultus Lake areas. There was even one in Hope. Part of the switch could be due to the strength of the NDP’s candidate in 2021.

In 2019, when the NDP ran parachute candidate Heather McQuillan in the riding, the NDP only garnered the most votes at four polling stations: two in the city’s downtown core, one in the Garrison area, and another in Cultus Lake. In 2021, there were 33.

Unlike in 2019, NDP candidate DJ Pohl was a Chilliwack resident who received vocal support from local businesspeople. The drift to the left also continues a trend that The Current identified in the 2019 election, where areas with lower incomes (downtown Chilliwack) or more newcomers (Garrison) were more likely to vote Liberal or NDP.

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The future

Despite vote tallies that seemed to stay more or less the same on the surface, the Fraser Valley saw significant changes in particular neighbourhoods. How exactly that translates into future elections remains to be seen—but it’s worth considering the potential implications.

Chilliwack’s NDP swing wasn’t new—areas that had an orange wave in 2021 also had a fair number of NDP supporters in 2019. But as more newcomers arrive in the region from left-leaning communities in Metro Vancouver, the shift could become more pronounced. As The Current has reported in the past, these interprovincial migrants are already changing the face of the valley, and will likely continue to have impacts on future elections.

The candidates for each party matter too, as Chilliwack’s NDP run showed. Conservative incumbents have strong name recognition in the valley, and it’s not easy to shake them from office. Local ties and aggressive campaigns, however, can make an impact. Chilliwack’s NDP success was not just from newcomers, but also from DJ Pohl’s locally-rooted campaign that pulled in Chilliwack business owners and other well-known residents.

These factors are not a guarantee for a win. Abbotsford’s Liberal candidate Navreen Gill may have won western Abbotsford’s suburbs, but she failed to take much of the riding’s farmland or the city’s core. Similarly, Pohl secured large swaths of the Chilliwack’s urban areas, but little of its extensive farming communities.

The strong name recognition of Conservative incumbents only lasts as long as those politicians (or, occasionally, their progeny) remain in office. In Abbotsford, Conservative Ed Fast has served as MP for more than 15 years. It’s hard to predict how the riding would vote in his absence—a question of particular relevance given that he has recently criticized Pierre Poilevre, a frontrunner in the race for the leadership of his party.

The electoral fate of Cloverdale-Langley City’s Tamara Jansen also shows that a lot can happen between elections—even if the space between them was only two years. Her politically divisive comments likely helped to split the riding between Liberals and Conservatives, potentially polarizing some voters that may have otherwise considered other candidates.

And of course, there’s the question of how strong the Conservatives’ right-wing base will remain. Some voters were clearly pulled to the left, but others went to the right, voting for the People’s Party of Canada rather than the Conservatives or the Greens. With no PPC members of Parliament anywhere in the country, it’s unclear how much this will affect the Conservative vote in the next election—but the shift does show that vote splitting on the right could be a real concern for the future Conservative candidates.

Look through the interactive map below to see how each neighbourhood voted in the 2021 federal election. You can see what the Fraser Valley looked like in 2019 here.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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