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Battleground BC

The Okanagan, a Liberal Stronghold

Region anchored by Kelowna is fast growing and right-leaning.

By Will McMartin, 4 Apr 2005,

The fast-growing Okanagan is one of Battleground BC’s five ‘right-of-centre’ sub-regions. Surrounding beautiful Lake Okanagan, it extends northward to Vernon and stretches south through Penticton to Oliver, Osoyoos and the U.S. border. Kelowna, the region’s largest city, was represented in the legislature by the Bennetts, father and son, for nearly a half-century — 1941 to 1986, with one brief interregnum. W.A.C. Bennett served as a Conservative MLA for a decade before joining the upstart Social Credit party and leading them to government in 1952. He governed British Columbia for 20 years before his administration was defeated by the New Democratic Party, and soon thereafter resigned both his seat and the party leadership. He was succeeded in both by Bill, his younger son, who restored the Socreds to government in 1975 and served as premier until his retirement in 1986.

The Okanagan region had three seats during the Bennett family’s reign, and not surprisingly all were dominated by the Socreds. (Kelowna was located in the riding of South Okanagan from 1916 to 1979, renamed Okanagan South from 1979 to 1991.)

Okanagan North was held by several Socreds during the period: Lorne Shantz (1952-1963), G.W. McLeod (1963-1965), Patsy Jordan (1966-1983), and Dan Campbell (1983-84). But Campbell’s unexpected death resulted in an earth-shattering by-election upset to Lyle MacWilliam, a New Democrat.

In the south, Similkameen (known after 1966 as Boundary-Similkameen) also had a succession of Socred MLAs during the Bennett era: Harry Francis (1952; he resigned to make way for W.A.C. Bennett’s finance minister, Einar Gunderson, who won the subsequent by-election), Frank Richter (1953-1975), and Jim Hewitt (1975-1988).

Social Credit swept the region again in 1986, after Bill Vander Zalm succeeded the younger Bennett as Socred leader and premier. There were now five seats as Okanagan South and Boundary-Similkameen became two-member ridings. The former riding was won by Socred newcomers Cliff Serwa and Larry Chambers, while the latter returned veteran Hewitt and rookie Ivan Messmer. In Okanagan North, MacWilliam was turfed by Socred Lyall Hanson.

But change was in the air. In 1988, following disagreements with Vander Zalm, Hewitt resigned as MLA, and the subsequent by-election victory by Bill Barlee gave the New Democratic Party a half-share of Boundary-Similkameen. Dual-member seats were eliminated from the electoral map by redistribution prior to the 1991 general election, and five new single-member seats appeared in the Okanagan. The Socreds won just two: Hanson in Okanagan-Vernon, and Serwa in Okanagan West.

The NDP, also with two seats, made its biggest-ever gains in the region: Barlee held Okanagan-Boundary, while newcomer Jim Beattie captured Okanagan-Penticton. Perhaps the biggest shock took place in Okanagan East, a new riding which included much of Kelowna, where Judi Tyabji won for the upstart Liberals. It was their first victory in the region since before the Second World War.

The 1996 general election marked the Okanagan’s complete transformation from Socred fortress to Liberal stronghold. Hanson, who earlier had joined Reform, retired and was replaced in Okanagan North by April Sanders, and Serwa, the last Socred in a caucus of one, also quit, and was succeeded by Sindi Hawkins. New Democrats Barlee and Beattie lost, respectively, to Bill Barisoff and Rick Thorpe. Tyabji, who left the Liberals after Gordon Wilson lost the party leadership to Gordon Campbell, fell short in her bid for re-election under the banner of Wilson’s Progressive Democratic Alliance. She was defeated by John Weisbeck, a Liberal.

In 2001, following another redistribution, the Liberals again won all five seats. Barisoff retained Penticton-Okanagan Valley; Thorpe prevailed in Okanagan-Westside, Weisbeck was returned in Kelowna-Lake Country, and Hawkins held Kelowna-Mission. Sanders, who retired after a single term, was succeeded in Okanagan-Vernon by Tom Christensen.

Barisoff, Thorpe, Hawkins and Christensen are seeking re-election in 2005. A former Progressive Conservative MP, Al Horning, is trying to succeed Weisbeck, who has opted for retirement. All five Liberals should be expected to win.

TABLE -- Okanagan ridings, listed in order of Liberals’ 2001 vote-share

  • Okanagan-Westside — 68.1%
  • Kelowna-Mission — 64.6
  • Kelowna-Lake Country — 63.2
  • Penticton-Okanagan Valley — 62.7
  • Okanagan-Vernon — 56.5

Check in daily for Battleground BC, Will McMartin’s voting predictions and analysis, exclusive to The Tyee. Contact McMartin at  [Tyee]