Candidates vie for rural Manitoba votes

RIVERS, Man. — It was the midway point of the federal election campaign, and Robert Sopuck had already travelled 9,000 kilometres in his riding.

The incumbent Conservative candidate is taking nothing for granted in his third campaign, and 55,000 sq. kilometres to cover means he has to stay on the road.

He said he was among the five MPs who logged the most mileage in the last term.

“That’s a stat I’m proud of, actually,” he said.

Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa is a large riding in western Manitoba. It encompasses what was Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette and portions of Brandon-Souris and Portage-Lisgar.

It is also tremendously diverse, with agriculture, forestry, commercial fishing, manufacturing, a dozen First Nations and Riding Mountain National Park.

Sopuck, a fisheries biologist by training, says he has participated in the entire range of the riding’s economy. He has farmed, had an outfitting business, was the provincial fisheries specialist and developed the province’s sustainable environment initiative.

He describes himself as a right-wing environmentalist.

“I’m very much not afraid to defend what we in rural communities do,” he said.

Sopuck handily won the 2011 election with 63 percent of the vote. The NDP was second with 26 percent.

Current projections show Sopuck with 46.5 percent, followed by the NDP’s Laverne Lewycky, who held the seat from 1980 to 1984, with 21.6, and the Liberals’ Ray Piche, a former RCMP officer and small business owner, at 12.3 percent. Green party candidate and farmer Kate Storey had 6.1 percent.

However, some might be surprised that Inky Mark, another former MP for the area who is a member of the Green party but is running as an independent candidate, could take 13.5 percent of the vote.

Mark was elected in 1997 under the Reform banner, re-elected as a Canadian Alliance member and later as a Conservative. However, he was never a fan of party leader Stephen Harper and became an outspoken critic.

More than four years after retiring, he’s back on the road, too. He and his team spent 80 hours putting up recycled election signs.

“I love this country too much,” said the man who came to Canada in 1955 as a six-year-old.

Mark said he didn’t want to simply hand Sopuck this election win, so he came out of political retirement.

“It feels like I never left the job,” he said.

The Conservatives held 11 of 14 Manitoba ridings at dissolution of Parliament. Two seats belonged to the NDP and one to the Liberals.

However, polls suggest the Liberals are gaining ground, particularly in Winnipeg where the party hopes to pick up seats.

A Probe poll done for the Winnipeg Free Press found the Conservatives and Liberals had support of 39 percent of decided voters and the NDP had 18 percent. Liberal support had jumped 10 points since June while NDP support dropped five percentage points.

Conservatives have 49 percent support in rural areas and the Liberals 33 percent. Overall, 17 percent of voters are still undecided.

The poll surveyed 1,000 people by telephone in mid-September.

Long-time Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said support has been growing steadily and pointed to two byelection results.

“We came within a whisper in Brandon,” he said of the 2013 byelection in which the Conservatives’ Larry Maguire took 44.16 percent of the vote and the Liberal candidate 42.75 percent.

Just two years earlier, the split was 64 percent to 25 percent for the Conservative and Liberal candidates, respectively.

Goodale also said the Liberals improved in the Provencher byelection.

“There are gains to be made,” he said.

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