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Liberals seeking to hold Fredericton riding after high-profile Green defection

FREDERICTON — Jenica Atwin says she takes a deep breath before knocking on doors in Fredericton. Atwin won the riding for the Greens in 2019, becoming one of three MPs for the party — and the only representative east of British Columbia.
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FREDERICTON — Jenica Atwin says she takes a deep breath before knocking on doors in Fredericton.

Atwin won the riding for the Greens in 2019, becoming one of three MPs for the party — and the only representative east of British Columbia. But she defected to the Liberals in June, leaving both parties anxious to claim the seat this time.

"I feel I will have the voice for Fredericton," Atwin said in a recent interview, adding that she's faced a few tough questions from voters about her decision to leave the Greens. 

"For me it's a vote of confidence that my constituents are happy with the work I've been doing and that even with the switch my heart is still for the constituents themselves and bringing Fredericton's voice to Ottawa."

Donald Wright, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick, said Atwin made "a lot of people angry in Fredericton when she jumped ship."

"A lot of the Greens were furious, saying 'I didn't put up signs, I didn't knock on doors, I didn't make telephone calls for the Liberal Party of Canada," he said.

Atwin, who is still relatively new to politics, said she has been receiving positive responses from voters during the campaign.

She crossed the floor after criticizing Green Leader Annamie Paul's moderate stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Atwin had described Israel's actions toward Palestinians as "apartheid" on social media, though she walked back those remarks after joining the Liberals. 

Wright said Atwin is a progressive candidate who supports the left-leaning policies of the Liberals on issues such as abortion rights and climate change. But he said it could be a close race because the Greens have been able to attract UNB law professor Nicole O'Byrne as their candidate to run against her.

"She is tough, she is smart, and she knows the issues," Wright said about O'Byrne.

O'Byrne said she's receiving a warm response from voters when she campaigns and is getting support from across the country, as the party is eager to hang onto the seat.

"I'm receiving donations from all across the country," she said. "I'm receiving support, advice and well wishes from British Columbia to Newfoundland."

"Greens all across the country want us to win this seat in Fredericton to show that the Green party matters and that we have a different perspective to bring to politics."

She said members of her campaign team know how to win after running the 2019 campaign and three provincial wins for New Brunswick Green Leader David Coon. 

O'Byrne said that unlike Atwin, if she wins as a Green she'll stay a green.

"A lot of people have expressed disappointment that when they voted Green in 2019 they feel that their vote got changed to a Liberal vote without their consent," she said.

Conservative candidate Andrea Johnson said she's hearing from a lot of people who don't know where to park their vote. Johnson finished second in 2019, 1,600 votes behind Atwin — but 1,500 votes ahead of Matt DeCourcey, who was the Liberal incumbent.

Johnson said she's not hearing about the other parties as she goes door to door, just the issues.

"People are concerned about spending," she said in a recent interview. "They are concerned about the debt. They are concerned about affordable housing and mental health. It's been about spending and the affordability of being a New Brunswicker right now."

Wright said Johnson did well last election and has name recognition, but he said her campaign will depend on the success of her national party. "Does Erin O'Toole take off or does he sink?" Wright asked.

All three candidates list health care, the economy, the environment and Indigenous reconciliation as the main issues for the campaign.

The New Democrats, Communist and Libertarian parties and one independent are also in the running for the Fredericton seat. 

In 2019 the NDP. and four other parties combined managed to get over 4,200 votes.

Wright said those votes could decide the outcome in the Fredericton riding.

"The real question is the NDP," Wright said. "Those votes will be up for grabs. They are the progressive left-of-centre voter looking for a place to put their votes."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2021.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press