Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Colchester North is a rural riding that stretches north from Truro to the village of Tatamagouche (home to TataBrew and electric cars) and  west through the Cobequid hills to include the communities of Debert (regional headquarters of Tim Hortons) and Great Village (antiques and writers) down to  Five Islands.

Next Tuesday night Nova Scotians will be watching to see if Karen Casey — the former Education Minister during the Province’s first-ever teacher’s strike — will go down to defeat or be re-elected for a fourth consecutive time.

In Tatamagouche, where a commitment by the Liberal government to fast-track the building of a new school drew criticism from the auditor general for by-passing communities higher on the priority list, there’s a sign war raging.

“Re-elect Casey” signs pepper the roadsides but there is no photograph of the candidate, a former Elementary School principal who became a lightning rod for criticism during the province’s handling of a bitter and lengthy battle with 9,300 teachers.

The smiling face on competing election signs belongs to Rebecca Taylor, the Progressive Conservative (PC) candidate.

In the village, there is no discernable signage for James Finnie, the NDP candidate who is president of the Scots Society of Colchester and a volunteer with Ground Search and Rescue.

Taylor, then, is the rookie challenger who just might topple Karen Casey’s grip on the riding Casey has held since 2006.

Casey was twice elected as a Progressive Conservative MLA after chairing the Colchester-East Hants Health Board. She served in the Rodney MacDonald government as both Health and Education Minister and ran for the leadership of the party. After losing to Jamie Baillie, Casey crossed the floor to join the McNeil Liberals and was re-elected as a Liberal in 2011 and 2013, the last time with 60 per cent of the popular vote.

By comparison, Rebecca Taylor looks politically virginal… think Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm meets the Wicked Witch of the West, as Casey has often been cast by many members of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. Taylor, a former Girl Guide leader, moved to Londonderry (population 200) with her husband Dan and two daughters from Ontario 10 years ago.

Taylor credits “Providence” or serendipity for later discovering she had landed in the same place where her great-grandfather Sam Rushton made and sold moonshine a century earlier, when Londonderry was a thriving mining town. Rushton’s children (including Rebecca’s grandfather) were put up for adoption.

Eight years ago, Taylor founded the Pearl & Daisy Natural Soap company and named it after her great grandmother and aunt. Taylor’s small business has won several innovation awards (despite ongoing frustrations such as the hum on the land line and spotty highspeed Internet). Selling soap has been scaled back to just two fulltime employees while Taylor takes a run at selling herself to get elected.

“I felt a call to put my name forward because much as a I love living here and wouldn’t want to raise my family anywhere else, I think a much more dynamic approach needs to be taken to represent our area so it is a better place to grow businesses and our population,” said Taylor. “I don’t like being told we just have to accept our lot in life. As I’ve been campaigning, it’s been heartbreaking to see in tangible ways how many families have given up.”

That rural decay includes thousands of acres of abandoned farmland and few young people, since most have left for jobs out west. Knocking on doors, Taylor says she is often reminded of the David Francey folk song “Torn Screen Door.”

“People are struggling.,” she says. “The cost of living is much too high, there aren’t as many opportunities to make a living as there should be. People want to be able to keep their homes up but if it’s a choice between food on the table or paint for your house, you go with the food. We can’t ignore that and we need to take action”.

Taylor has volunteered with the Along the Shore Community Health Board and the West Colchester Community Development group (promoting business) as well as an after-school recreation program.

She says that struggling rural families could use more accessible programs, but instead, an Early Literacy program that provided extra help for Primary to Grade 3 students at West Colchester Elementary is being axed next fall. Taylor says as Education Minister, Karen Casey had the power to overrule that school board decision but did not. It’s another reason Taylor believes she has a fighting chance to unseat the long-time MLA.

“I voted for Karen myself,” admits Taylor. “She is a nice lady. I think community groups appreciate she shows up to events. I think people had high hopes that Karen was the girl from Bass River who was going to go in and make the changes we need, especially in Education because she was an educator. But I think people are disappointed. I’m hearing at the door that she has not delivered on what she has promised to our people and it’s not enough to show up at community functions and to hand over government grant cheques and smile for a photo opp. What they want is real change. Someone to fight for the same programs at school that kids get in town. I think, respectfully, that much as she is well-liked, voters are looking for someone who is a bit more dynamic.”

Karen Casey did not respond to a request for comment on how she views the campaign in Colchester North.

If elected, Taylor is promising to work harder with the Department of Tourism and TIANS (Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia) to establish a presence and a strategy to bring in visitors to “forgotten and overlooked places” such as Five Islands, Great Village, and Tatamagouche.

Roads are also “a top priority,”  she says, offering as an example the fact residents are now taking it upon themselves to shovel gravel into the potholes on a busy paved road between Debert and Belmont.  Taylor claims that Staples Brook Road has heaved and degraded so badly that a constituent recently lost the front fender off a new car. The Department of Transportation has scheduled Staples Brook Road for chip-sealing this summer but Taylor rejects that as a band-aid  on a badly deteriorated road.

The PCs are promising to establish a billion dollar infrastructure fund called Rebuild Nova Scotia to fix backroads, twin highways, and replace the Victoria General Hospital in partnership with another billion dollars of matching federal funds. Federal money is available through the Provincial and Territorial Infrastructure Component Fund set up by the Trudeau government. Applications close in 2018 but Stephen McNeil has told Nova Scotians the hospital replacement project will not qualify.

Rebecca Taylor says she chose to run the for Progressive Conservatives because she likes the fact “the party is socially progressive and fiscally conservative.” Perhaps wisely, she offered no opinion of leader Jamie Baillie. She and everyone else knows if the Tories lose this time, he’s out and a new chief will come in.

Tonight though, its Casey vs Taylor and Finnie at the one and only Colchester North Candidates  debate. It’s  taking place at the Marigold Theatre in Truro, 6 pm,  piggybacking on other political debates for two neighbouring Colchester ridings.  On May 30, election night, all Nova Scotians will be interested to see whether it’s newcomer Rebecca Taylor or veteran Education Minister  Karen Casey who stays in the ring.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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