OTTAWA — The People’s Party of Canada gained some of its highest nationwide support in the pockets of southern Manitoba struggling with COVID-19 vaccine uptake, according to a Free Press analysis.
Preliminary data from the 364 regular polling stations in Portage—Lisgar and Provencher show the right-wing party swept small communities in those ridings, but was rejected in most cities, as well as Winnipeg bedroom communities.
"This might be a flash in the pan, but none the less, it does show there are significant pockets within the population that still are anti-vax or have concerns or fears," said Brandon University political scientist Kelly Saunders.
The two Manitoba ridings were the only ones in Canada where the People’s Party gained more than 15 per cent of votes in last month’s election.
Elections Canada reports data by polling area, and separately tabulates those received in advanced and mail-in voting, as well as mobile polls. The polling district results provide a rough picture of voting trends on a local level, but not the full picture since mailed and advanced ballots aren't sorted by neighbourhood.
In Portage—Lisgar, the PPC gained more than 50 per cent of votes cast in the small towns of Hochfeld, Schanzenfeld, Blumenfeld and Gnadenthal, all of which are historically Mennonite communities.
Three of those towns are within the Rural Municipality of Stanley, which has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in Manitoba, with less than 25 per cent having their first shot, as of this week. The seven polling stations in Stanley voted 50 per cent for the PPC, compared with 45 per cent for Conservative incumbent Candice Bergen.
In the village of Hochfeld, 59 per cent of voters opted for the PPC, the highest among all polling stations.
"That's almost two-thirds of everyone in that area; that's quite a shocking number," Saunders said.
“This might be a flash in the pan, but none the less, it does show there are significant pockets within the population that still are anti-vax or have concerns or fears.” ‐ Kelly Saunders, Brandon University political scientist
"I don't want to target an entire faith-based community with this, but we know there seemed to be more support in the Mennonite community, compared with other faith-based communities or really any other communities, for those sentiments."
The PPC candidate for the riding, Solomon Wiebe, argued he got support by hustling around the riding, and for a platform that touched on everything from housing policy to removing incentives and restrictions from vaccine rollouts.
"Demographically speaking, this area has Christian roots and I believe they are more keen on their own choice. They will look around to see what parties will represent them, and they won't vote just based on a colour or what their parents voted," Wiebe said.
"They take their political responsibility to a higher level than most people, because they do their research and decide: this person is the best to represent me."
In Winkler, 54 per cent of votes were cast for the Conservatives, and 28 went per cent to the PPC. The city’s vaccine uptake was just under 42 per cent this week.
In the city of Portage la Prairie, just nine per cent of voters opted for the PPC, led by Maxime Bernier.
Overall, Bergen took 52.5 per cent of votes, while her riding cast 21.6 per cent of its ballots for the PPC. Bergen’s drop in support nearly aligns with the rise of the People’s Party, In 2019, it got just 2.6 per cent of the vote, when Bergen won with 70.8 per cent support.
In the neighbouring Provencher riding, Conservative incumbent Ted Falk got 48.7 per cent of votes overall, while the PPC earned 16.5 per cent. That’s compared with the 2019 vote, in which Falk earned 65.9 per cent of votes, and the PPC got just 2.2 per cent support.
However, in Provencher, the PPC didn’t gain a majority of votes at any single polling station.
Its strongest support could be found in pockets of the RMs of La Broquerie and Hanover, both of which have low vaccine uptake, such as the small towns of Pansy, Marchand and Sarto.
In the seven polling stations within La Broquerie, 27 per cent of votes went to the PPC, compared with 42 per cent support for Falk. The area has just over 65 per cent vaccine uptake.
Similarly, the 23 polls within Hanover had 23 per cent of eligible ballots going to the PPC, and 59 per cent for the Tories. As of last week, that area had just above 50 per cent vaccine uptake.
In Steinbach, just 17 per cent of votes went to the PPC, compared to 51 per cent for the Tories.
Saunders noted the PPC had much lower support in an election just two years prior, and said it’s clear the PPC got its strength from pushback towards public health messaging around COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions.
"That is not getting through to some of these communities; we cannot logic our way out of this issue, it looks like, and that's troubling to me when we're clearly in a fourth wave here in Manitoba."
To her, it suggests both Tory incumbents need to reach out to those communities, and it shows a challenge for the ongoing provincial PC leadership race.
"Whoever's going to be their new leader really has to find a way to galvanize those divisions, which have always been there within the (PC) party, but I think are deeper than ever, as our politics gets more polarized on every issue."
Falk, who was re-elected last month, struck the same tone, telling Steinbach Online he felt pushback against vaccine mandates drove up PPC support, along with wariness of the pandemic in general. "They are frustrated, they are tired, they are angry," he said.
Neither Bergen nor Falk’s office responded to interview requests Friday.
Falk apologized during the campaign for peddling misinformation about vaccines, and remains the only MP among Manitoba's 14 to not say whether he's been vaccinated.
The analysis is based on preliminary numbers Elections Canada tallied a week after the Sept. 20 election, though the agency will release its official results in a few months.