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Showdown in Prince George

Tight races reflect issues of the north: resources and who they benefit.

By Andrew MacLeod 30 Apr 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

PRINCE GEORGE -- The election results in Prince George's two constituencies will have an impact that reaches far beyond the question of who will win on May 14 and form the government.

That's why today, New Democratic Party leader Adrian Dix will make his second stop of the campaign in the northern city of 71,000. He was here the day before the writs were issued to announce the NDP's forestry platform and this week he's coming to talk about mining, address the third ever meeting of Dianne Watts' mayors' caucus and rally supporters. He'll likely return in the last week of the campaign.

BC Liberal leader Christy Clark came through Prince George once already, and will no doubt be back if it's felt her presence in the riding is helpful to the Liberal candidates' chances -- while there are several large pictures in the downtown campaign office of candidates Shirley Bond and Mike Morris, there's none of their leader.

At stake for the NDP is representation in a key part of the province. Winning at least one of the two ridings will be essential for building a cabinet with regional credibility and positioning the party for re-election in 2017.

For the Liberals, if the polls hold and the party loses the election, retaining seats in Prince George would be a significant boost to their post election rebuilding, making a big difference to the character of the opposition, especially if they can keep Bond's.

Both parties say the races are tight and they're working hard.

Tough to win, says Bond

"We knew this would be a close election," said Bobby Deepak, a labour lawyer running for the NDP in Prince-George Mackenzie. "The general feeling I'm getting is [most people] want change. They're very frustrated with the current government... Even the undecideds, they're saying, 'We're undecided, but we're not voting Liberal.'"

There are some safe seats elsewhere in the province for the Liberals, but not in Prince George, said Bond. "Here we have a big fight on our hands." Of the two local ridings, Prince George-Valemount is the tougher for the party to win, she said. "My riding is always a tough riding to win."

During the 1990s, previous configurations of the two Prince George constituencies were held by the NDP, represented by cabinet ministers Lois Boone and Paul Ramsey. The last time one was held by an opposition MLA was when Boone won in 1986.

This time around, Bond said, the NDP's message of "change" won't resonate in the north. "A change from what? In northern B.C. we're at an unemployment rate of five percent," she said.

That's a dramatic improvement from the situation the BC Liberals inherited from the NDP in 2001, she said. "Those of us who lived here watched businesses close and families leave," she said. Even as other parts of North America thrived, she said, in northern B.C. "it was a pretty devastating period of time."

In 1998 the unemployment rate was as high as 15 per cent, she said. "We're seeing a far more prosperous present than we had in a long time."

The city is affordable for families, where "You can get a pretty skookum house for $250,000," and the roads throughout the riding are much improved, she said. She never used to drink coffee during the three hour drive to Valemount because lack of maintenance made the road rough, but now she can, she said.

Morris, by the way, retired eight years ago as an RCMP Superintendent, a senior position with the force in the north. The job gave him a good understanding of the socioeconomic issues in the constituency, he said.

Economic challenges

The NDP candidates question Bond's take on both the present and the past.

"I don't think things are as bright and rosy as maybe the Liberals have painted," said Sherry Ogasawara, a dietitian with the Northern Health Authority who is running against Bond. "I think there are a lot of people working at minimum wage and struggling to make ends meet."

Prince George is doing alright, but in Valemount in the eastern part of the riding there are shops papered over and one of the two grocery stores is closing, she said. "Those small businesses that were viable at one time have become extinct."

The new high school with capacity for 235 students has an enrollment of just 75, she said. "Women are living there by themselves with their children because the men have had to go to the oil fields to get work."

The unemployment rate has come down, but the figures can be very misleading, said Deepak. "Many of those jobs that are created aren't in Prince George. They're fly-in, fly-out jobs."

He listed half a dozen mills that have closed in the area since 2001, plus a couple more that fires put out of business. "When you look at those good, high paying, family friendly jobs we've lost, they weren't replaced with good family friendly community jobs."

You see it at the soup kitchen the Saint Vincent de Paul Society runs in Prince George, he said. "The numbers don't go down. They're quite high and they're staying there. We're seeing people needing help in Prince George."

We support mining, says NDP's Deepak

Deepak also noted that some of the factors that hit the resource sector in the 1990s, such as the Asian economic crisis and the Bre-X scandal, were far beyond the control of the provincial government.

The BC Liberals have often characterized the NDP as being against resource development, but they're incorrect, he said. "There's no factual basis for that assertion," he said. "We support mining. Mining is good for our economy in the north. It is good for our economy in B.C. These are good jobs."

Asked if Dix's surprise announcement that the NDP opposes the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion might reinforce the idea the NDP is anti-development, Deepak said, "I think that was an honest response in an election."

Compared to the Liberals surprising British Columbians after elections with things like selling BC Rail or introducing the HST, Dix is stating his position at the right time, said Deepak. "He told British Columbians his opinion on a project. I think that was a responsible thing to do."

Governments, including the BC Liberals and the federal Conservatives, have turned down projects on their merits, but that doesn't make them anti-development, he said. Nor is the NDP when it opposes a particular project, he said.

"When you look at the BC Liberals' record, they've managed almost every aspect of our economy, of our resources, of our social services," he said. "I believe they've lost the trust of much of the public."

There are lingering issues specific to Prince George as well, including controversies over the sale of BC Rail and the announcements of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre. Ahead of the writ period, a group identifying itself as businesses for change in Prince George ran negative advertisements targetting the Liberals, though nobody interviewed for this story said they knew who was behind them. Bond said, "No friends of ours, obviously."

Liberals 'within firing distance': Bell

There is a Christian Heritage Party candidate, Don Roberts, in Prince George-Valemount and a Green Party candidate, Karen McDowell, in Prince George-Mackenzie. There are also Conservatives running, Terry Rysz in Prince George-Mackenzie and Nathan Giede in Prince George-Valemount. Rysz is a Sicamous councillor and Giede is a 23-year-old who was raised in Prince George and who on the weekend graduated from Laurentian Leadership Centre at Trinity Western University.

"I'm people's other option," said Giede. "I'm very proud of that. A lot of people are very tired with the past two choices. A lot of people have made those two choices before [and] seen it as the lesser of two evils, either way they voted."

The Conservatives offer change that's fiscally responsible, said Giede, "I've already seen a lot of support and I think I'm going to be a big factor," he said, pointing out the distinct positions on taxation between his party, the NDP and the Liberals. "I'm not splitting the vote with anybody. I don't know why they're voting for more taxes, but hey, it's a democracy."

None of the candidates spoken to, their teams, or observers are prepared to predict the outcome in Prince George with any confidence, though most seem to agree the races are between the NDP and the Liberals.

Pat Bell, the seasoned Liberal cabinet minister who announced his retirement a few months before the campaign, said he expects there'll be as many as six close races in the north with the Liberals "within firing distance" of winning the seats they hold now.

Just the names change

"It's a dead heat now," said Anthony Everett, the chief executive officer of the Northern BC Tourism Association and chair of the society organizing the 2015 Canada Winter Games in Prince George. "I think it's almost too close to call."

Having benefitted from having two prominent cabinet ministers represent the city for the past 12 years, people are waiting to see what happens in the election and what change a new government might bring, he said. "I think it definitely helps the community to have that level of presence at any cabinet table."

"It's a close race, but I think the nature of the area, the Liberals will probably get back in," said Terry Teegee, tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which has offices in Prince George. "That's the sense I get."

It looks like the NDP will win a majority government, but in Prince George Bond in particular has the advantage of incumbency, he said. "She doesn't have to sell herself that much to get in."

For the CSTC the top issue is Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, but the opposition to it is so strong that whoever forms government won't be able to approve it anytime soon, Teegee said. It's part of a wider pattern of development happening on Carrier Sekani territory, that includes forestry, mining and hydro projects.

"You get all these developments located within our territory, that definitely has a toll on the wildlife and the people," he said. "And who really benefits?"

The issues of the north, with both resources and the profits from their exploitation leaving the region, are amplified from Teegee's perspective. Voting in a new government is unlikely to reverse that colonial pattern, he said. "History demonstrates it's in many respects all the same. Just the names change, that's it."  [Tyee]

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