Taking the leap: Election team captain dishes on her experience

I’ve always loved nature, but in my home of the U.K. we’ve pretty much removed all the wilderness we had, including 90 per cent of the forest and all of the large mammals except deer.

When I moved to B.C. in 2011 to experience the big outdoors on a working holiday visa, I couldn’t believe how much of the map was still pretty much unpopulated (though not untouched) by people. A trip by ferry along the coast to Bella Coola sealed my love for Canada’s West Coast. I began to realize that although many British Columbians might value the coast, they didn’t really know it was at risk.

As I learned more about the planned increase in oil tankers and pipelines, I thought it would be a real tragedy for Canada to lose its wilderness. I also realized it wasn’t what many Canadians wanted, so I decided to take the plunge and get involved in the No Tankers campaign.

For the last few months, I have been involved with the Dogwood Initiative, writing e-mails, attending events and even waving a placard in support of their campaign to protect B.C.’s coast from the threat of oil spills in 2012. As the 2013 provincial election came nearer it was time to take the next step: volunteer to lead a team in my riding of North Vancouver-Lonsdale. Could I actually campaign and encourage others to join me?

Leap without looking

Without giving myself time to think, I clicked “yes” to Dogwood’s election volunteer e-mail invitation and put a pin on their virtual map with my details and a team name (very original: North Van for the coast). I emailed Dogwood HQ with an honest assessment of my skills and experience: great organizer, loves politics, no campaign experience and, as an immigrant, poor networks in the city. I’m not sure how delighted they were, but they sent a very encouraging and informative reply back.

Brainstorming and building networks

My first job was to read Dogwood’s awesome campaign kit: tons of info, planning tools, tips and activity guides. We had three main jobs:

1. Form a team. I found this to be the hardest part. After roping in my other half and some close friends, it was time to reach out to other Dogwood supporters via e-mail.  Lots of people were supportive but were already involved in other volunteer work. Connecting with people by e-mail was hard, but as soon as I met up with them it was much easier to build a relationship and encourage them to take action.

In hindsight, my first step should have been to organize a quick get-together to just meet people without the pressure of asking them to help organize anything.

2. Contact the election candidates and get their positions. A couple of us researched the parties and our candidate’s positions using Dogwood’s tools and then contacted them, tailoring the template and adding our own personal experiences to ask where they stood on the issue of oil tankers. We used their answers as the basis for Step 3.

3. Communicate the candidates’ positions to voters. Our key approach was through door knocking and phoning. In hindsight, I would have organized these events earlier to get people to attend at least one – this would have built momentum and repeat participants – but we managed to get out five times, covering about 1,000 households.

Door-to-door canvassing and phone calling

At the door, most people supported us and those who didn’t were polite and even thanked us for getting out for democracy. We started by asking people to sign the petition against the expansion of oil tanker traffic and then explained their candidates’ positions in a non-partisan way. It was interesting to watch how reactions changed: in Week 1 people were often undecided on who to vote for and by Week 4 (just six days before the election) people were more defensive as they’d been regularly contacted by many of the parties.

Canvassing is definitely not for anyone with a phobia of dogs! One highlight was people thanking us so profusely for being out there. One downside was realizing even a North Face waterproof jacket is no match for a B.C. monsoon…

Phoning was less rewarding: it’s harder to be unkind to a smiley volunteer at your doorstep in the rain and easier to an anonymous voice on the phone. However, one Dogwood supporter was delighted to hear his donation being put to work and it was definitely quicker per household.

What did we achieve?

Our goal was to help bring attention to the issue and encourage British Columbians to vote for candidates who opposed pipeline expansion. In 2011, almost no one was talking about oil pipelines and the project seemed a dead certainty. In contrast, during the 2013 provincial election, it was a top issue as observed in questions to leaders and candidates, as well as the issue garnering lots of print and radio coverage. Hundreds of people volunteered for and donated to Dogwood and other environmental groups during the election and I think these individuals are now more engaged and motivated to keep fighting.

At the end of the summer I’m moving back to London and, although I’ll be very sad to say goodbye to B.C., I’m also looking forward to informing folks in the U.K. about the hugely important role B.C. has to play in the fight against dirty energy and climate change.

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