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How two Abbotsford political staffers ended up running against each other’s bosses

Liberal Seamus Heffernan and Conservative Brad Vis have taken different routes to a unique campaign
Seamus Heffernan (left) and Brad Vis (right) both work as staffers for local MPs and are running for office against each other’s bosses. File photo; John Morrow/Abbotsford News

The coming federal election campaign in the central Fraser Valley is set to be unlike any other in Canada – possibly ever.

But whether its uniqueness means anything more than that will depend on voters, and the candidates themselves.

The basics are clear: Conservative MP Ed Fast will try to defend his seat in the Abbotsford riding, while Liberal MP Jati Sidhu has the same task ahead of him in the Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon electoral district. (Fast’s riding includes almost all of Abbotsford up to, and south of, Maclure and Bateman roads. North of that to Mission, and beyond that to Agassiz and Cache Creek, Sidhu is MP.)

But things become a little strange when you look at two of the challengers. Fast’s Liberal opponent is Seamus Heffernan, an aide to Sidhu. And Sidhu’s Conservative opponent is Brad Vis, a longtime staffer to Fast.

“It’s very unique,” Vis acknowledged. “I don’t know if I’ve heard of another town where the Liberal and Conservative MP both had their staffers running.”

Both men took a different route to electoral politics.

Vis’s interest in politics dates back a decade, when he took part in a non-partisan Parliamentary internship program that links young professionals with MPs.

Heffernan, meanwhile, took a more oblique route to politics, having been recruited to Sidhu’s office after taking part in his successful 2015 campaign.

“I never, ever thought about working in politics or government,” Heffernan noted. “It turns out that I quite enjoy this.”

Vis ran against Sidhu in 2015 and narrowly lost, but always eyed a rematch in 2019. Heffernan, meanwhile, was asked by party brass if he would be interested in running in Abbotsford.

It’s not unheard of for political staff to try to take a stab at winning election themselves. Just to the east, Conservative MP Mark Strahl – in addition to being the son of the riding’s former MP – worked for several Tory politicians. And in Maple Ridge, another former Tory staffer ran and lost for office last year. But having two in the same town takes the dynamic to another level.

Both men say their political jobs and interaction with the public increase their knowledge and thus qualifications for office. But neither Vis nor Heffernan say suggest their parties tend to favour insiders when it comes to deciding who wins nominations.

“I have to prove, just like any other candidate, that I’m capable,” Vis said. “In my party, you see a cross-section of people who bring different experiences to federal politics … It’s really a diverse group of people, that are running, it’s just in Abbotsford – it’s very unique.”

Of course, Heffernan and Vis aren’t the only one’s running. Among their competitors, Madeleine Sauve, the NDP candidate for Abbotsford, comes from a union and volunteering background.

Sauve said that experience can be just as important as a past in party politics.

“When they see a guy in a suit who talks about policy, is that something that people can really wrap their heads around when it comes to their everyday struggle? I’m hoping people will see me as a candidate who is a grassroots activist despite the fact that I haven’t worked for an MP.”

Sauve said she had been thinking about a run for office while working for her union. And, despite being warned away from politics, she began to engage in education and training opportunities aimed at getting people involved in politics at the candidate level. That included taking a UBC course for aspiring legislators.

Sauve said that institutional support has been helpful in attracting a broader representation of Canadians to run for office.

“I think that now there are other avenues for people to get involved in politics and that’s really exciting because that means more diversity,” she said. “We’re seeing more young candidates, we’re seeing more woman candidates and I think that’s where people are getting re-engaged.”

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