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Okanagan a 'cakewalk' for Conseratives Day and Cannan

While polls suggest the NDP has the potential to make gains in British Columbia, it's pretty much certain they won't come in the Central Okanagan. This is part of the Conservative heartland, a stronghold for the party and its predecessors, the Alliance, Reform and Progressive Conservative parties, as if it were a little slice of Alberta nestled within the borders of B.C.

In the last election, Stockwell Day captured his riding of Okanagan-Coquihalla with just over 50 per cent of the vote against three opponents.

Next door in the riding of Kelowna-Lake Country, first time federal candidate, Ron Cannan, took 49 per cent of the vote for the Conservatives. And the leaderships of the opposition parties have pretty much conceded the same result this time around, leaving their candidates to fend for themselves.

Of the four major parties running candidates outside Quebec, only the Green Party has had its leader visit Kelowna, which is the heart of B.C.'s third largest metro area. (With a population of only 106,000, Kelowna is B.C.'s 8th largest city.) And even then, Elizabeth May just stopped briefly at the airport after arriving from Vancouver, for a quick rally with a handful of supporters before heading out of town to Vernon, where the Greens figure they have a fighting chance.

Meanwhile, only a handful of election signs dot the streets of Westside District Municipality, the major population centre (30,000 people) in Day's riding, located across the William R. Bennett Bridge from Kelowna. And neither Day, nor any of his opponents; Liberal Valerie Halford, Ralph Poynting of the NDP or the Green Party's Dan Bouchard, are sending regular press releases to the local media or doing much in the way of campaigning. They seem to all accept the inevitable outcome, even if they won't admit it when asked by reporters.

According to UBC Okanagan political scientist, Barrie McCullough, support for conservative political parties in this area is linked to the fact it's also very religiously conservative.

"That has to play into kind of a conservative mentality, especially when you have social conservatism," McCullough said.

In 1997, the mayor of Kelowna at the time, Walter Gray, made news for refusing to sign a proclamation declaring Gay and Lesbian Pride Day. And while current mayor, Sharon Shepherd, has signed the proclamation three years in a row, she has also proclaimed a Protect Human Life Week, at the behest of a local anti-abortion group.

Day, who is a Pentecostal, gets a lot of support from the area's numerous evangelical Christians, as does Cannan.

McCullough also links the area's conservative streak to its agricultural past and the fact that these days it is a magnet for retirees, especially from Alberta.

But the region is also growing rapidly. "So that traditional kind of voting behaviour in time will be challenged, but not this time," said McCullogh who thinks the presence of UBC Okanagan, which opened in September 2005 and is the middle of a massive expansion that includes recruiting faculty from around the world, will eventually contribute to the circulation of more secular, less conservative beliefs.

The region is also becoming more dependent on tourism and is opening itself up to the world. The airport recently lengthened a runway so it could handle bigger passenger jets flying in directly from Europe and Europeans attracted by the area's natural beauty are buying property here.

As well, a labour shortage has employers looking to countries like Jamaica for new employees to work in the service and construction industries. The Okanagan is getting just a bit more ethnically diverse.

So there may come a time when the Conservatives have to fend off credible challengers here, but not yet.

"This time around, it's going to be Day and Cannan, and it's going to be a cakewalk for them," McCullough said.

Adrian Nieoczym reports for the Capital News in Kelowna.

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