'An unknown political quantity': Vickers' challenge, and opportunity, in N.B.
Kevin Vickers, Canadian Ambassador to Ireland and former Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons, speaks during the annual Press Gallery Dinner at the Museum of Nature on Saturday, June 4, 2016 in Gatineau. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Michael MacDonald, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published Friday, January 4, 2019 7:45AM AST
Last Updated Friday, January 4, 2019 10:19AM AST
Kevin Vickers has been described as a national hero for his role in stopping a gunman's attack on Parliament Hill in 2014, but New Brunswick pundits say he's largely seen as an outsider as he considers a political bid in his home province.
Vickers, who has served as Canada's ambassador to Ireland for the past four years, announced this week he may be interested in seeking the leadership of New Brunswick's Liberal party.
The out-of-the-blue statement came days after former premier Brian Gallant confirmed he would be stepping down as Liberal leader sooner than expected.
"It was a surprise," said J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, adding there were no previous indications Vickers had partisan leanings.
Though Vickers could be considered "almost a historic figure," he doesn't have a much of a presence in the province, Lewis said in an interview.
"For most people, he's a public figure from one moment in time. That's it."
On Oct. 22, 2014, Vickers was serving as sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons when he shot and helped take down a man armed with a .30-30 rifle. Michael Zihaf Bibeau had barged into Centre Block on Parliament Hill after killing honour guard reservist Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial.
Vickers was appointed ambassador to Ireland by then-prime minister Stephen Harper in January 2015.
On Monday, Vickers told The Canadian Press he's a "long ways from making a decision" about contesting the Liberal leadership, noting that he's been in public service for nearly 43 years.
Born and raised in Newcastle, N.B., which is now part of the City of Miramichi, Vickers worked as an RCMP officer for 29 years before joining security staff at the House of Commons in 2005.
"It's a long haul," he said in an interview Monday from Trout Brook, N.B.
Vickers has deep roots in New Brunswick. His father, Bill, helped establish the Northumberland co-op dairy in the province decades ago.
However, Vickers has spent many years working outside New Brunswick.
"He has largely been away for so long he is an outsider," Mario Levesque, a politics professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., said in an email.
"At best, he has drawn some media attention to the Liberal party ... They now have a 'star' candidate media-wise, but thin on the politics side."
Still, Levesque said Vickers' outsider status may not diminish his political capital.
"It is acceptable to move away and come back if you are a Maritimer," said Levesque. "After all, people are our No. 1 export."
Other political observers say Vickers' absence from New Brunswick's political scene could be his greatest strength.
"On the plus side, he is an unknown political quantity and perhaps the Liberal party wants a shakeup with some new people and fresh ideas," Jamie Gillies, a political science professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said in an email.
Roger Ouellette, a public studies professor at the Universite de Moncton, suggested the Liberals would be wise to seek a leader from outside the political establishment and, preferably, a bilingual anglophone.
"He will fit the bill," Ouellette said, noting the party is keenly aware that it has lost much of its support in largely English-speaking areas of the province.
"Maybe it's a good thing to have a fresh face, and a fresh way to look at the issues."
Lewis agreed, saying Vickers' experience stands in contrast to that of Gallant, who was widely considered a career politician by the time many voters turned their backs on the province's entrenched two-party system in last September's provincial election.
Last week, Gallant said the party needed to move on after winning just 21 seats -- one fewer than the Tories. The Liberals relinquished their hold on power in November after losing a confidence vote in the legislature.
Like Vickers, Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs is considered a political outsider, having worked at Irving Oil for 33 years before turning to politics four months after he retired in 2010.
"Maybe someone like Vickers, an outsider, is a good match to Higgs," said Lewis. "That's what the Liberals need to challenge Higgs in the next election."
No candidates have entered the Liberal leadership race, though several names are circulating.
Vickers has already met with at least two members of the Liberal caucus -- former seniors minister Lisa Harris and former health minister Benoit Bourque.
Bourque said Vickers would bring a "wealth of experience" to the party.
He said Vickers was not actively recruited as a candidate.
"I wouldn't say anybody went after anybody. It kind of just organically happened."
Higgs' minority government is relying on support from a third party -- the right-leaning People's Alliance, led by Kris Austin. But that arrangement is set to expire in less than 18 months.
That means an election could be less than two years away.
"We are very mindful that we are in a peculiar minority government situation," Bourque said. "Our leadership situation tends to be a bit more pressing ... The ball is in Mr. Vickers' court."
According to federal rules, Vickers must get permission from the Public Service Commission if he plans to be a candidate in an election. However, the commission says seeking the leadership of a party is considered a "non-candidacy political activity," which does not require permission.
However, the commission says all diplomats must carry out their public duties in a politically impartial manner and "should not carry out political activities if they would cast doubt on the integrity or impartiality of their office."