NEW GLASGOW – Pictou County resident Brenda Wilson got goosebumps as she saw Pictou East MLA Tim Houston’s opponents in the leadership race cross the floor after the first round of voting to throw their support behind him.
At the convention where the PC Party chose its next leader, she estimates there were about 1,000 people from Pictou County, leaving some there to question whether there was anyone left in Pictou County that day.
“It was a great day to be from Pictou County,” she said.
But when it comes to Pictou County and the PC Party, there have been a lot of great days. Pictou County’s impact on the history of Nova Scotia Conservatism is a significant one: when Houston was voted in as leader Oct. 27, he became the ninth person in history (out of 31) with strong ties to Pictou County who has been elected the party leader in this province - more than any other individual county. If former leader Jamie Baillie - who, although he was not from Pictou County, has familial ties to the area - is included, that number climbs to 10.
“I didn’t know the number was nine, but I knew (the number) was significant,” said former Central Nova MP Peter MacKay in a telephone interview from his law office in Toronto. He had endorsed Houston during the campaign.
“Traditionally, our county has had a strong education system, has been home to many industries, and that seems to bring out people who are community-minded, which can lend itself to politics, I suppose.”
He theorized that leadership, in this context, goes back to the “origins of this province,” when people had to survive “by their wits and tenacity.”
"That has a way of producing a sense of leadership and perseverance,” he said.
“It’s bred into the bone of Pictou County. Leadership isn’t for the faint of heart, and I think that speaks well for Pictou County.”
For his part, Houston said it’s an honour to be following in the footsteps of past party leaders from Pictou County.
“It’ a pretty illustrious group for sure,” he said. “It’s a privilege.”
In a way, he said, it was humbling to take the stage as party leader for the first time.
“There’s a lot of weight on the shoulders, but the goal is always to do good for the community and good for the people of Nova Scotia.”
While he believes there is a certain degree of a legacy in how people vote, particularly passed down through families, he’s seen a shift where people are no longer as tied to a party as they were in the past. He believes it’s the values of the provincial Tories - such as hard work and accountability - that have kept people in Pictou County engaged.
“It just kind of represents the people of Pictou County in many ways,” he says.
Wilson, who works at Pictou Centre MLA Pat Dunn’s constituency office, has great faith that Houston will carry on the tradition of past party leaders well.
“He’s a fellow who handles himself incredibly well,” she said.
On the federal stage
While Pictou County has been seen some change in guard in recent years, it has long been considered a safe place for conservatives to run not only provincially, but also federally.
Cathy Boswell can remember talking with her husband about Brian Mulroney’s conundrum.
It was 1983. Boswell was then living in Ottawa and Mulroney, newly-elected as federal Progressive Conservative leader, was without a seat.
“Alan said to me, ‘The safest Conservative seat in Canada is Central Nova and I bet Elmer (MacKay) will offer his seat to Brian Mulroney.’”
Sure enough, that night, it became official: MacKay gave up his seat, Mulroney won a byelection easily and, in 1984, would win the federal election in a landslide.
“I’ll never forget that,” said Boswell, who now lives in Pictou Landing and has helped run political campaigns for the Progressive Conservatives over the years, the latest being Fred Delorey’s unsuccessful attempt in 2015 to win the seat against current Central Nova Liberal MP Sean Fraser.
A look back at Pictou County’s history of Tory leaders
Since the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party was founded, there have been 31 leaders and of those, nine have Pictou County ties. Here’s a look at the past leaders of the party.
Premier: July 4, 1867-Sept. 30, 1867
Party Leader: July 4, 1867-Nov. 30, 1874
Born: January 17, 1820 at West River, Pictou County
Died: Dec. 17, 1874 at Halifax, NS
Notes: A graduate of Pictou Academy, he went on to become a lawyer. He served as attorney general from July 4 to Nov. 7, 1867, and at that time, the attorney general was usually considered to be leader of the government. In 1868, he was the leader of the opposition. During his absence from the Assembly in 1869, 1870 and 1871, Amos Purdy acted as chief spokesperson for the few oppositionists. From 1872 to 1874, Blanchard again led the opposition, but he did not receive unquestioned recognition.
Simon Hugh Holmes
Premier: Oct. 22, 1878-May 23, 1882
Party Leader: May 25, 1875-1882
Born: July 30, 1831 at Springville, Pictou County
Died: Oct. 14, 1919 at Halifax, NS
Notes: In 1858, Holmes founded and edited the Pictou Colonial Standard, a position he held until he became Nova Scotia’s fourth premier. He assumed the leadership of the opposition in the House in 1875 with the passive acceptance of his fellow Assemblymen. After the Conservative victory of 1878, he was called upon to form the government and became premier.
Adam Carr Bell
Party Leader: Jan. 22, 1882-1887
Born: Nov. 11, 1847 at Pictou
Died: Oct. 30, 1912 at Montreal, Quebec
Notes: In addition to serving as New Glasgow’s first mayor, Bell was elected to the House of Assembly in 1878 and assumed the PC leadership in 1882 as the leading ex-cabinet minister. Although he resigned the “leadership of the party” in 1887, he never received official recognition as attested to by the fact that he was nowhere described during the campaign of 1886.
Charles Elliott Tanner
Party Leader: 1912-1916
House Leader: 1902-1908; 1912-1916
Born: Oct. 7, 1857 at Pictou, NS
Died: Jan. 13, 1946 at Liverpool, NS
Notes: A graduate of Pictou Academy, he represented the District of Pictou in the House of Assembly. As the leading Conservative Assemblyman, he assumed the position of leader in 1902 because of ability. Selected again in 1912 by the Caucus to be both the House Leader and the Party leader.
John McKay Baillie
Party Leader: n/a
House Leader: 1909-1911
Born: Dec. 10, 1847 at Earltown, NS
Died: May 4, 1913 at New Glasgow, NS
Notes: A graduate of Pictou Academy, Baillie served as superintendent for the Pictou County Municipal Home from around 1882 to 1907. He represented Pictou County in the legislature from 1906-1911. Selected by the caucus as leader, he was opposition leader from 1910-1911.
Donald William Cameron
Premier: Feb. 26, 1991-June 11, 1993
Party Leader: Feb. 26, 1991-June 11, 1993
Born: May 20, 1946 in New Glasgow, NS. Raised in Egerton, Pictou County, NS
Notes: First elected to represent Pictou East in 1974, he was selected by a party convention as leader in February 1991, becoming Nova Scotia’s 22nd premier later that same month.
John Frederick Hamm
Premier: July 27, 1999-Feb. 24, 2006
Party Leader: Oct. 28, 1995-Feb. 11, 2006
Born: April 8, 1938 in New Glasgow, NS. Grew up in Stellarton, NS
Notes: First elected in Pictou Centre in 1993, he was selected by a party convention as leader in 1995.
Karla Michelle MacFarlane
Party Leader (interim): January 23, 2018 – Oct. 27, 2018
MLA: Pictou West, Oct. 8, 2013 – Present
Born: April 29, 1969 at Pictou, NS
Notes: Selected by the Caucus.
Party Leader: Oct. 27, 2018-present
Born: Halifax, NS
Notes: Elected following the first ballot during the most recent leadership convention. He was first elected to legislature in 2013 to represent Pictou East and declared his intent to run for leader of the party in November 2017.