Monday, November 22, 2010

Tweed Curtain sets apart a riding with an independent streak

An old car and a cup of tea capture life on Oak Bay Avenue.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 20, 2010


The Tweed Curtain runs along Foul Bay Road, a dividing line of myth and imagination separating ordinary Victoria from the enclave of Oak Bay.

Behind the Tweed Curtain can be found a last bastion of the British empire, where high tea is enjoyed on a High Street. In the three-block long stretch of shops known as the Oak Bay Village, a Union Jack flutters above the Blethering Place Tea Room. The restaurant is a few steps from the Penny Farthing pub and the Tudor Sweet Shoppe, the spelling a bit twee even for a purveyor of fine comestibles of the chocolate variety.

The shopping district offers antiques and art galleries, bakeries and bookstores, a toy store and a crafts shop.

Every summer, along this stretch, a parade of antique vehicles and marching bands trundles past in the annual Oak Bay Tea Party Parade. The parade is led by a man dressed as the Mad Hatter. This Tea Party celebrates a favoured beverage, not a political tendency.

The local MLA, Ida Chong, has paraded in an open convertible, helpers distributing candies to the delighted children who line the route.

For 14 years, she has represented a waterfront constituency at the extreme southeastern tip of Vancouver Island. The double-barreled name of Oak Bay-Gordon Head evokes comfort and perhaps even privilege. The 38,415 voters share the riding with two private golf clubs, the city’s most prestigious private schools, and the Royal Victoria Yacht Club. It is also home to two hospitals and the leafy campuses of Camosun College and the University of Victoria.

It has been called “veddy, veddy British,” “a suburban oasis” and a “conservative, upper-crust area.”

What does geography professor Larry McCann, born 65 years ago in Oak Bay and now a resident of the riding’s Cordova Bay neighborhood, think of the Tweed Curtain designation?

“Inappropriate,” he said. “Long gone. Just doesn’t apply because of relatively strong immigration. The ethnic mix has changed.”

At first glance, the riding does not seem promising ground in which to plant a political insurgency.

As is familiar to letter carriers and newspaper deliverers, simply canvassing some of the wealthy neighbourhoods — such as Ten Mile Point, or the the Uplands, designed by the son of the man responsible for plotting New York’s Central Park — can be daunting, as mansions sit on lots as large as 0.8 hectares.

Yet, the corporation of the district of Oak Bay also offers modest bungalows in a section just across the Tweed Curtain known as The Poets, where the streets are named Byron, Milton and Chaucer.

The riding’s Gordon Head section, which is part of the district of Saanich, is the more populous part of the riding. It is more suburban in design and also more ethnic, including a notable population of Chinese-Canadians and Indo-Canadians.

A snapshot of the riding provided by BC Stats shows an older, better educated, and wealthier population than the provincial average. One voter in five is a senior, while the average household income in 2005 of $90,526 was substantially more than the provincial average of $67,675.

Many of the residents have a professional background, as the riding is home to civil servants from all three levels of government, as well as clerks and educators.

Mr. McCann notes an influx of young families has made the riding more diverse, while a transient student population offers a group of voters perhaps more concerned with issues of social justice.

Elizabeth Cull, a small-business owner who represented the riding for the NDP for seven years before losing to Ms. Chong in 1996, describes the voters as active and informed, especially about public policy issues.

“I found you could spend an awful lot of time on the doorsteps talking to people about what was happening in the province,” Ms. Cull said.

“This is a well-educated electorate and they like to talk about the issues.”

The riding has a history of independence, often bucking the governing party. Dr. Scott Wallace won the seat for the Conservatives in 1969, held it against an NDP landslide and retained the seat after a revamped Social Credit party swept to power in 1975.

“They are independent minded,” Ms. Cull said. “They voted for Scott Wallace for years, because Scott was a person of integrity who represented them well.”

Ms. Cull lives in South Oak Bay, where “people know their neighbours. It’s friendly. It’s livable. There’s a sense of safety and security.”

The former B.C. finance minister is now proprietor of the local Dig This chain of gardening stores. One outlet can be found at the intersection of Oak Bay Avenue and Foul Bay Road, the very entrance to the Tweed Curtain.

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