For 45 years, the federal riding of Kelowna-Lake Country and its previous incarnations were considered virtual safe seats for right-of-centre candidates.
But that changed Oct. 19 when Liberal Stephen Fuhr not only toppled the popular long-time Tory incumbent Ron Cannan, he also wrestled away a riding that had sent Conservative, Reform and Canadian Alliance MPs to Ottawa in every election since 1968.
That was the last time a federal Liberal won here, largely on the strength of what was known then as “Trudeaumania,” a national love affair with then Liberal leader Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
In October, the country experienced a more subdued, modern version of Trudeaumania, as his son Justin, following in his famous father’s footsteps, led the Liberals back to the political promised land after 10 years in the wilderness, much of it languishing as the third-place party in Parliament.
Locally, Tory blue was replaced with Liberal red as voters here joined the rolling “red tide” that swept across Canada on election night as voters made their marks.
But the local campaign that resulted in Fuhr’s historic win was not confined to the mammoth 11-week period between when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper made his short walk to Rideau Hall from his Sussex Drive home in Ottawa to have the governor-general drop the election writ and election night.
For Fuhr, a divorced 46-year-old father of a 16-year-old son and a decorated, retired RCAF fighter pilot, the bid to win a seat in Canada’s Parliament stretched back a lot farther.
He was one of the first Liberal nominated candidates across the country. That was in June 2014, nearly a year and a half before the election.
“I knew people would not be thinking about the election that far out, so I set out to develop relationships within the party first,” said Fuhr.
As the new MP sees it, politics, like so much in life, is based on relationships with others.
It was a strategy that has already paid off in the early days of his new job, getting him in the door to meet with the men and women of his party who are now cabinet ministers.
When he was a member of the Canadian Air Force, Fuhr admits he supported the Conservatives, based largely on his view then that the Tories were the best option for supporting the military and its members.
But he grew increasingly disillusioned with that party over issues such as the government’s ill-fated plan to replace the RCAF’s CF-18 fighter planes and its treatment of veterans.
Fuhr said while he knew from his own experience that the plane chosen to replace the CF-18 was not the right one, he was astonished to see Harper’s Conservative government stubbornly refuse to reconsider the plan.
“If they could get this so wrong, what else could they get wrong?” he asked himself.
That issue, along with the deteriorating relationship with Canadian veterans over the government’s treatment of former members of the Armed Forces pushed him towards a run for political office and a bid for the Liberal nomination here.
Since his retirement from the RCAF, he had worked as a private pilot for a wealthy Egyptian businessman and ran an Okanagan-based business that made aviation equipment.
With the Liberal nomination in hand, Fuhr tabbed well-known local political rainmaker Wayne Pierce as his campaign manager.
Pierce had just come off managing rookie Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran’s successful civic election campaign and he also helped get former Kelowna mayor Walter Gray elected for his “comeback” term in 2011.
But when Fuhr first asked Pierce to come on board, Pierce was reluctant. In their first meeting, Pierce was blunt in his assessment of Fuhr’s chances.
“He pulled out his binder, leafed through the pages and told me I couldn’t beat (inclubent Conservative) Ron (Cannan),” remembered Fuhr.
Cannan, a likeable guy with a lengthy history in the riding, was considered a popular, hard-working constituency MP running for a party with a lock on the riding.
A 10-year MP, he preceded his time in Ottawa by serving several terms as a Kelowna city councillor. If the Conservatives were popular here, Cannan was even more so.
But Fuhr won Pierce over.
His new campaign manager, however, had one condition—the target of the Liberal campaign would be Harper, not Cannan.
The strategy worked.
But as Pierce put it later, for the plan to succeed Cannan had to go to.
Tapping into the anti-Harper sentiment sweeping across the country while also fending off at times the growing popularity of the NDP, Fuhr raised a few eyebrows at the last all-candidates meeting when he bluntly told the audience the NDP would not form the next federal government, despite leading in the polls at times during the campaign. On election night, Fuhr won the riding by 4,000 votes.
But while quick to acknowledge the advantage the anti-Harper sentiment gave his campaign, he also believes the win was not solely a protest vote.
“There are 99 ridings across the country where Conservatives were elected or re-elected, and that’s a good sized Opposition,” he said. “So there is still support out there.”
But in his mind, going forward Kelowna-Lake Country is both Tory blue and Liberal Red.
He sees his win as a change for the riding, a change where there will likely be a real choice for voters in future.
And that, he added, will likely only get stronger as the the riding’s demographics continue to change with more new people arriving and the area continuing to grow.
Once in office, Fuhr, like his predecessors, had to set up an office—two, in fact—and do so quickly.
One in Ottawa and one here. And like his predecessors, he found the budget to do that needed to be stretched as far as it would go.
He has now opened an office at 1420 St. Paul St. in downtown Kelowna but is still waiting for telephone and Internet service.
For the time being, he can be reached through his parliamentary e-mail address: email@example.com.
That address is being monitored by his staff at the Ottawa office who will forward inquiries.
Fuhr has hired the two people who ran Cannan’s Kelowna and Ottawa offices to do the same jobs for him in both cities, saying their knowledge, continuity, expertise and non-partisan approach are invaluable.
Fuhr was passed over for a cabinet post as there was plenty of competition for the obvious military-related portfolios he may have been considered for with a former general and a much-decorated “war hero” (Canada’s new defence minister) also elected as new Liberal MPs.
While Fuhr has made no secret of the fact he would like to have ministerial duties one day, for now he sees his role as a back-bench MP as an advantage to focusing all his attention on the riding and the constituents he now represents.
After being sworn in in early November, Fuhr hit the ground running, immediately meeting with the new veterans affairs minister to discuss the re-opening of a veterans affairs office here.
He said he plans to follow the same schedule as his predecessor, while Parliament is in session, flying east to Ottawa on Sunday and returning Thursday so he can meet with constituents.
“I recognize that as the MP, I represent everyone in Kelowna-Lake Country, whether they voted for me or not,”Fuhr said.
“It’s an enormous responsibility. But one I take very seriously.”