How dairy farmer Bloyce Thompson became the real star of P.E.I.’s election - Macleans.ca

How dairy farmer Bloyce Thompson became the real star of P.E.I.’s election

The farmer with a sense of humour, a knack for publicity and a love for cows (and cow photography) toppled the province’s former premier, Wade MacLauchlan.

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Olivia, one of newly elected P.E.I. MLA Bloyce Thompson’s Holsteins, hock-deep in water on a beach, in the shot that went viral last year (Vicki Fletcher)

Election day in P.E.I. began like any other for dairy farmer Bloyce Thompson. He got up at 5 a.m. to milk his beloved Holsteins, as he’s done for 25 years, since graduating from university. He went out to his red barn and flicked the lights on two rows of gleaming black-and-white cattle. All 100 clambered to their feet expectantly for breakfast, including the one at the end of the barn known as Olivia—whose bottomless brown eyes were seen in a glamour pic taken last year by a photographer Thompson had hired. The shot of Olivia, hock-deep in water on a P.E.I. beach, went viral.

Thompson, a candidate for the Progressive Conservatives, felt more nervous energy that morning than he ever had. More than the time he led a raucous rally opposing Canada’s concessions on dairy imports in the North American Free Trade Agreement. More than in 2011, when his cow Missy won top Holstein in the world.

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Later that day, he unpacked a new 55-inch Toshiba television in the living room of his yellow Cape Cod-style farmhouse, and with a daughter on each knee, watched as the returns rolled in and he—a humble farmer from Frenchfort, P.E.I.—stole the show.

April 23 was a night of upsets in Canada’s smallest province, and of history-making. Some pollsters had predicted the Tories would finish last, but in an outcome that surprised the nation, they and the Green Party whupped the incumbent Liberals. The PCs won a minority of 12 seats, while the Greens took eight, more than they had before in any province, forming the nation’s first official Green opposition. The Liberals took just six.

But it was Thompson who defied the greatest odds by toppling former Liberal premier Wade MacLauchlan. “I was the giant-killer,” he crowed the day after to Maclean’s. “It was quite a feeling.”

Thompson had previously gained renown by arranging glam-style photo shoots of his cows in exotic settings—a whimsical approach to marketing his purebred herd that he has used for more than two decades. The cows of Eastside Holsteins have been photographed in P.E.I.’s most breathtaking places: Greenwich Beach, Province House and, of course, the home of Anne of Green Gables in Cavendish. Thompson himself was a self-styled artistic director, planning the locations and setting off in his truck up his long, straight driveway towing a brushed-down beauty in the trailer.

The photo of Olivia that became a viral sensation last year happened almost as an afterthought. After a sweltering photo shoot on the beach, Thompson led Olivia to the ocean to cool her down. He was about to throw water on her when the photographer yelled “Stop!” and came running in to take the photo. “It was just perfect timing,” Thompson said, admiring the shot in a book of photos he’s seeing for the first time.

The picture gained national attention after a local freelance writer spotted it and wrote a story. It was clear that Thompson’s marketing acumen and nose for the spotlight was suited to politics, and he’d soon be seen as the guy who stands up for farmers. He got fired up about public issues last fall when he led a protest of more than 100 farmers at a local infrastructure announcement to protest the NAFTA trade deal. The group shouted down the former federal agriculture minister, Lawrence MacAulay, a long-time P.E.I. MP, criticizing the Trudeau government’s concession in negotiations to open a portion of the Canadian dairy market to U.S. competition. “The Liberals threw us under the bus, it felt, as an industry,” he says.

Two of Thompson’s cows visited Province House 21 years before he showed up for work there (Vicki Fletcher/CLPI)

When the PC caucus approached him to run, he agreed. Many thought it was a steep hill to climb, but about a third of families in his riding of Stanhope-Marshfield, a 15-minute drive outside Charlottetown, have connections to agriculture. He figured he had a chance.

His anomalous first name proved an asset: in P.E.I. ridings, it’s not uncommon for candidates from opposing parties to share the same first or last names. Bloyce is an island first name, he says, one that turns up on the east side of P.E.I. where his mother is from. (The name also appears with an apparently French spelling, Blois, on the west end of the island.) He hated his name as a child, he adds, “but now I’m the only Bloyce Thompson, so it’s kind of unique.”

The night of the election, as Thompson opened up his 100-vote lead over the premier, his daughters jumped up and started dancing in front of his new TV. His campaign team was close by, in an office on the second floor of one of the red barns on his sprawling property. In Charlottetown, where the PC Party was headquartered, the revelry was just starting as Thompson walked up the front steps of the Victorian hotel for the victory celebration. Throngs were waiting to thump him on the back and pump his hand. “Did you milk the cows this morning?” one supporter joked.

Four blocks away stood Province House, the birthplace of Confederation, where 21 years earlier, Thompson led two of his prettiest Holsteins up the concrete walkway to be photographed side by side, munching feed before the sandstone columns. While showing the photo, he chuckles in disbelief at the thought that he’s now going to work there—this time without his cows.


This article appears in print in the June 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Really milking it.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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