On the first day of the 2015 election campaign Justin Trudeau hopped on a plane to Vancouver to give a press conference and take part in the city’s massive Pride parade. He wanted to get out of the Ottawa bubble, Trudeau said.
Eleven weeks later, he was prime minister. The Liberals, who had just two MPs in British Columbia, captured 17 seats in the province as they jumped from third-party status to power.
Since then, relations between Trudeau and B.C. voters have often seemed rocky as a series of government decisions have been criticized in the province.
The federal government approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion without a promised new environmental assessment. Critics have claimed the government has failed to take the needed action to protect wild salmon.
The federal government also decided not to match donations to the Red Cross after B.C. had its worst fire season, despite providing that financial support in other disasters.
The government has also been criticized for a lack of action in addressing soaring housing prices in the Lower Mainland, as noted by the Georgia Straight’s Charlie Smith.
And while Trudeau crossed Canada holding open houses to chat with the public earlier this year, no such event was held in B.C. The closest the he came was a television event studio in front of a live audience before the official tour kicked off.
Kai Nagata of the advocacy organization Dogwood Initiative said it appears the Liberals aren’t concerned about losing B.C. votes over environmental issues.
From the federal government’s role in approving the Site C dam to a lack of a protection strategy for orcas, Ottawa doesn’t seem to be listening to B.C.’s large contingent of environmental voters, he said.
The Liberals did bring in a ban on tanker traffic on the North Coast, Nagata said.
“That is the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal record that shows a complete disregard for salmon issues and the goals and aspirations of the country’s westernmost province,” he said.
Dogwood Initiative has been especially vocal in protesting the approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline project, bringing oil from Alberta to be loaded on tankers in Burnaby. The provincial government has been granted intervenor status in a lawsuit against the pipeline launched by Indigenous peoples and environmental groups.
Nagata said the government’s indifference to B.C.’s concerns goes beyond environmental issues.
Nagata said the Liberals overestimate the appetite for deeper relations with China in British Columbia, where many natives of Taiwan and Hong Kong live alongside people who left Mainland China “for a reason.”
British Columbians have seen the downside of tighter relations with Beijing, he said, citing the the purchase of a retirement home company by a controversial Chinese insurance company.
Yet Ottawa doesn't seem to pick up on the concern British Columbians have as it pursues a free trade agreement with China, he said.
“As much as Justin Trudeau likes to breathlessly invoke his British Columbia heritage as a grandson of the Pacific province, I don’t think they know the difference between wild sockeye and farmed Atlantic salmon,” Nagata said. “They certainly don’t seem to understand the cultural or economic importance of the coastal industries.”
Nagata said some Liberal insiders have suggested the party thinks there are more potential gains outside of B.C. in the next election and is willing to risk losing gains they made in 2015.
Political consultant and former Liberal candidate Warren Kinsella rejects that idea.
Kinsella told The Tyee the Liberal strategy has always been to win as many seats across the board as possible. Although some “central Canadian” strategists may suggest trying to trade off seats in B.C. for gains elsewhere, Kinsella said he doubts Trudeau would go for it.
“That kind of calculus is pretty risky,” he said. “I just do not believe that of him, that he would discount the ever growing number of seats found in B.C. because somebody suggested to him he could make it up somewhere else.”
Kinsella said the Liberals do seem out of touch on some environmental issues in B.C.
But some of the groups Trudeau has upset in B.C., such as the anti-pipeline contingent, would have likely voted for the New Democrats anyway, he added.
The government has been “losing its sea legs” in other provinces lately and it’s not an issue specific to B.C., Kinsella said. “Sometimes you get into those phases where everything seems to be going wrong and you can’t catch a break.”
With an “untested” Jagmeet Singh leading the federal NDP and new Conservative leader Andrew Scheer a “dud,” Kinsella said Trudeau is still the contender to beat in 2019.
The claimed indifference to B.C. issues could be simple as British Columbians not being pandered to rather than a “war on the province’s interests,” said David Moscrop, a political scientist as Simon Fraser University.
The Liberals have never needed to win the province to form government, he said.
“B.C. is programmed to feel alienated to some extent,” Moscrop said. “There’s this thing that ‘we’re far away, we think of ourselves as different.’ The Liberals were probably never going to really satisfy B.C.’s expectations.”
For the most part Ottawa is pursuing policies in the national interest, which may leave B.C. feeling ignored, he said.
But Moscrop said on some issues it’s clear the Liberals have not paid attention, pointing to the fentanyl crisis as an issue that did not receive much federal attention until it reached Ontario.
Herb Dhaliwal, former Liberal MP for South Vancouver, said there are issues between the province and federal government that should be resolved.
Dhaliwal said the Liberal government would be able to handle B.C. issues more effectively if it appointed a regional minister, as has been done in past governments.
“To this date since we formed government we haven’t had one,” Dhaliwal said. “I think that’s important. Someone should be designated to deal with political issues.”
When Trudeau was elected he ended the practice of appointing regional ministers.