The Trudeau Liberals provided a glimpse this week of their re-election strategy for provinces east of the Ontario border. In Quebec, where they held their annual caucus retreat this week in a riding held by the NDP, they’ll be trying to take advantage of the departure of Thomas Mulcair to grab seats from the New Democrats.

The price of those seats could be high. Quebec’s new premier has laid out a wish list that includes federal funding for transit in Montreal, a third bridge across the St. Lawrence river to Quebec City and more cash to cover the province’s cost of accommodating asylum seekers.

In the Atlantic provinces, they will be looking to fend off Conservative forays against their 32-seat stronghold by going rural. That’s the clear message sent with the appointment of rookie south shore MP Bernadette Jordan as the first ever Minister for Rural Economic Development to replace Scott Brison as Nova Scotia representative in the federal cabinet.

With the NDP’s struggles at the national level and the lingering effects of Harper-phobia, Liberals may feel confident about holding onto their urban seats in Atlantic Canada while realizing they are in tough against the Conservatives in many of the rural seats that account for a disproportionate share of their Atlantic caucus.

As the CBC’s political number cruncher, Eric Grenier, pointed out in an analysis this week, 24 of the seats in Atlantic Canada are rural, i.e. with population density less than 150 per square kilometre. And those 24 rural seats in Atlantic Canada account for almost half of the rural seats the Liberals hold across the entire country. [i] Hence, the political rationale for a rural development minister from Atlantic Canada, with proximity to the program money needed to grease the gears of the pre-election announcement machine.

According to the official word, Bernadette Jordan’s job will be to develop a new rural economic development strategy “to spur economic growth and create good middle-class jobs in rural Canada.” This seems to be rather a tall order, which may explain why the Minister tends in media interviews to talk about the Liberals’ favourite economic development panacea, rural high speed internet.

While its a nice change to hear a federal minister address internet and telecomm service, a neglected federal responsibility, progress on that file may be challenging as well. Most of the $500 million that’s supposed to fund rural internet for the next two years has already been committed, with less than $20 million earmarked for Nova Scotia. Without a new infusion of cash in the upcoming pre-election budget, promises to rural voters of improved internet service will be empty.

Nova Scotia focus

With Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay taking care of matters rural on Prince Edward Island and two higher profile cabinet ministers – Health’s Ginette Petitpas Taylor and Dominic LeBlanc of Intergovernmental Affairs – to lead the Liberal defence  in New Brunswick it seems likely  that Bernadette Jordan’s main task will be to guard Liberal turf in rural Nova Scotia. But if voting history means anything, it will not be easy. Until the entire province fell hard for Justin Trudeau in 2015, the rural Nova Scotia mainland was, with the exception of Scott Brison’s Kings-Hants riding, strongly Conservative, with the NDP showing some strength.

As the table below shows, in three of the five ridings the Liberals were barely competitive in 2011 before an unprecedented surge of support for the Trudeau Liberals in 2015. But it’s noteworthy that in South Shore-St. Margaret’s, the least rural of the five, the combined Liberal and NDP vote in 2011 was  ten points ahead of the winning Conservative.

Although most recent polls show Liberal support in Nova Scotia hovering around 50 per cent,  holding seats in rural Nova Scotia will be made more difficult by retirements. Besides Scott Brison, Bill Casey, another Conservative-turned-Liberal, will not be re-offering, nor will West Nova’s Colin Fraser. That has the Conservatives smelling blood. Long-time MLA Chris d’Entremont  is looking for the Conservative nomination in West Nova. In Cumberland-Colchester, the riding’s former Conservative MP, Scott Armstrong, is chomping at the bit to replace Bill Casey.

Following Brison’s resignation from cabinet, speculation on a replacement from Nova Scotia focussed on Jordan and Sean Fraser, who represents the erstwhile Conservative bastion of Central Nova. Fraser has done a creditable job as parliamentary secretary to the environment minister fending off Conservative attacks on carbon pricing. The fact that Jordan was chosen over him may have to do with several factors, including gender balance in cabinet. Or it may be that Liberal strategists looked at demographics and voting history and decided that elevating the MP from South Shore-St. Margaret’s improved their chances of keeping at least a  foothold on the rural mainland of Nova Scotia.

New Democrat24.8%10.2%
New Democrat23.2% 5.7%
New Democrat20.0% 6.4%
New Democrat36.1%16.8%
New Democrat13.1% 3.1%

[i] By Grenier’s estimate, the Liberals hold 13 rural seats in Ontario, 10 in Quebec, four in B.C., three in the North and –significantly – none on the Prairies.