The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) has parachuted an Ontario candidate into Port Moody-Coquitlam, dividing local supporters and adding intrigue to a riding primed for a hotly contested race in October's federal election.
In the fight to replace longtime NDP MP Fin Donnelly, who in December announced he would not seek re-election, local Tories will be voting for one of at least two candidates: Nelly Shin, 46, who was once in line for a Conservative nomination in the Toronto riding of Richmond Hill; and Matthew Sebastiani, 26, a recent MBA grad, former advisor to Conservative Sen. Yonah Martin and first-time candidate who was born and raised in the Port Moody-Coquitlam riding.
In what has been described as a domino effect, the trigger for Shin’s move to Coquitlam came Sept. 17, 2018, when then-Liberal MP Leona Alleslev dramatically crossed the floor of the House of Commons, defecting to the Conservatives.
At the time, Alleslev represented Aurora-Oakridge, the Toronto riding adjacent to Richmond Hill. As Canada lurched closer to the 2019 electoral season, a kind of political musical chairs began, with Alleslev staying put in her riding as a Tory and her one-time competitor — senior CPC candidate Costas Menegakis — bumping Shin from the adjacent riding of Richmond Hill.
“When I saw that, I had to think of next steps immediately,” Shin told The Tri-City News. “One of the things that ran through my mind was, this would be a great way to go back to British Columbia.”
Shin said she first visited British Columbia in 2003 on her summer vacation from her job as an English teacher at a Toronto public school.
“I walked into a recording studio in North Vancouver and recorded a demo with Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts,” she said.
In 2008, five years later, Shin quit teaching, sold her condo in Toronto and began a stint of missionary work in places like Los Angeles and New England. It wasn’t until 2012 that she first moved to B.C., spending three years as a singer in Victoria before moving back to Toronto in time for the 2015 federal election.
“Somehow, I got involved helping with the Conservatives,” she said. “Sometimes, [there are] things in life where you can't control the timing but sometimes the timing happens for you.”
By September 2018, Shin had gone from accessory to an election campaign to a candidate for nomination. That’s when she got bumped from Richmond Hill, she said, likening her second move west with a quote from the famous Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.”
When asked what she would do if she lost the nomination or, if she wins that, the election, she said politics only opened the door for her to come back to B.C.
“Looking at the big picture, I'm going to stay,” said Shin, who has been renting part of a house in Coquitlam since November.
Some local Conservatives have welcomed Shin into the riding — she has been officially endorsed by former Coquitlam city councillor Terry O’Neill; Tim Laidler, the CPC's Port Moody-Coquitlam candidate in 2015; and David Bassett, president of the Conservative funding apparatus BCBlue.
But for some local Tories, Shin’s unexpected arrival has raised red flags, suggesting the political domino effect is not over.
In January, two months after Shin arrived in Coquitlam, a CPC representative approached Sebastiani and asked him to bow out of the Port Moody-Coquitlam nomination process, several sources told The Tri-City News.
Phil Chau, president of the Conservative Port Moody-Coquitlam Electoral District Association, said the encounter was brought to his attention by one of the association’s board members.
“People were like, 'Ottawa people are coming in asking Matthew to step aside.' I was like, 'OK, that's a concern. Let's bring it up. Let's talk about it at the board meeting.' Then we discussed it at the board meeting. And that's all I'm going to say,” he told The Tri-City News, adding that he is only concerned with ensuring a free and fair nomination process.
Chau said a date has not been set for the nomination meeting in which party members will choose either Shin or Sebastiani.
In an email to The Tri-City News, Cory Hann, director of communications for the CPC, did not comment on whether the party pressured Sebastiani to step aside, stating that "our nominations are fair and open, and we run them according to our nomination rules and procedures..."
Local interference from Tory operatives in Ottawa worries Conservatives like Maria Javier, who unsuccessfully ran for the PoMo-Coquitlam Tory nomination in 2015.
During the last election cycle, Javier said, the Conservative Party held several events that exposed the candidates to their voter base. “There’s nothing now. Everything is so quiet,” she said.
And while Chau said the relative silence can be attributed to the fact the Tories are no longer in government, Javier openly worries that the nomination process is being manipulated.
“It's given me the fear. They are powerful people [in Ottawa]. And because the nomination has not been called... it's still an open field,” said Javier, who recently penned an open letter to fellow Tories expressing her concerns.
Javier said she's also concerned about the impression parachuting a candidate in from the other side of the country will give local voters.
“Maybe from the standpoint of the party, it's a common thing. But from the standpoint of a voter, that's the very first basic question that you ask: How will you fight for us? You don't even know who we are. You've never lived here. You don't know what's happening here,” she said.
“It's something that the man on the street does not understand.”
For his part, Sebastiani said he has no plans to bow out of the Conservative race for nomination, saying, “I still think I can win.”