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Conservatives throw campaign efforts into northern BC

Northern British Columbia fuels the province's economy, but it has been ignored by recent governments, say the BC Conservatives. They won't let it happen any longer.

With an entire section of its platform dedicated to northern B.C., the Conservatives are making a concerted effort to appease voters in the province's upper ridings.

Elements of the northern strategy announced so far include: supporting the Northern Gateway Pipeline project; calling for a review of ambulance services; spending $4 million for a northern and Interior Gang Crimes Prosecutors Unit; a $200 million infrastructure grants program; a $50 million grant program supporting recreation, arts and culture; and $20 million towards tourism, regional image branding and economic development.

The BC Liberals' northern policies focus largely on liquefied natural gas and other resource industries. The NDP's platform, meanwhile, mentions the north in terms of trades training, and the party's opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline and the offshore oil industry.

Conservative Dan Brooks, who is vying for a Conservative seat in Nechako Lakes, recalls listening in on the CKNW party leaders debate on Friday and hearing Christy Clark struggle to remember his riding's Liberal incumbent, John Rustad.

"They don't see northern B.C. in the light northern residents do," says Brooks of other parties, referring to his region as a "cash cow" in the eyes of recent governments.

Brooks and his fellow Conservative candidates are adamant that the province needs the north.

"We know that the north generates the lion's share of the wealth for the province, and for far too long the north has been ignored," says Peace River South candidate Kurt Peats.

Seventy-eight per cent of the province's GDP is generated in the north, according to Prince-George-Mackenzie's Terry Rysz, thanks to the triumvirate of agriculture, forestry and mining.

"That revenue base is what supports the province," says Rysz. "As Conservatives, we feel here in northern British Columbia there's been a profit directed from northern British Columbia to the rest of the province, but we don't seem to be getting any results."

He says the allocation of government funds tends to be concentrated in areas that hold the most political clout -- and the north isn't one of them.

A municipal councillor, Rysz emphasizes how the Conservative platform gives more power to local government, especially in improving the region's infrastructure. For northerners, he says, it's important to not only think of the "big picture" issues like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, but the smaller concerns of people travelling on rundown roads.

Rsyz puts a lot of weight on the rebranding of the north as a good place to live.

"We have to start making this part of the province more attractive."

For 23-year-old Prince-George Valemount candidate Nathan Giede, it's one of his top priorities. He tells The Tyee he was once in a band and understands how tough it can be to get support from the arts and culture sector. Still, it forms an important part of the north.

"We want to invest in that colloquial, local colour," he says of the Conservatives' arts funding.

Brooks notes that part of the north's rebranding must include dissolving its crime-ridden image, and investing in community spirit to change the way people perceive living in northern B.C. That also means including residents more thoroughly in practical matters, like land use planning. And, as Peats points out, specifically remodelling basic provisions for the north, like the ambulance service.

Perhaps most of all, the candidates see a need to invest in skills training and job creation that encourages people to stay in the north.

"We need to make sure the quality of life is better here through job training and job placement," says Stikine candidate Jonathan Dieleman. "We need to make sure the industry is growing and these jobs are made, and we need to make sure we have people in the North to fill these high-paying jobs."

The Conservatives say they can deliver in northern B.C., if the constituents will give them that opportunity. Rysz is annoyed that the media has portrayed this election as one about two parties, when he sees four viable options for voters.

"Don't vote because you're voting against somebody," he says, "because there are good options here now."

Ten ridings are considered to be in northern B.C. The Conservatives have candidates in seven of them, while the Liberals and New Democrats have a full roster. The Tyee is predicting six NDP and one Liberal. Three were deemed too close to call.

Natascia Lypny is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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