THE PROSPECTS of a victory for newly-anointed B.C. Liberal candidate Ellis Ross in the Skeena riding during next May’s provincial election could rest with the changing nature of Kitimat’s population.
But he’ll also have to crack what are NDP strongholds in the native communities within the riding.
It’s a combination that became apparent in the 2013 provincial election when B.C. Liberal candidate Carol Leclerc, now Terrace’s mayor, came within 522 votes of unseating NDP incumbent Robin Austin, says Malcolm Baxter, retired Kitimat Northern Sentinel editor, now a columnist for them and for The Terrace Standard.
Although Austin held Kitimat, it was just by 23 votes with the NDP incumbent receiving 1,136 votes to Leclerc’s 1,113, Baxter notes.
That stands in contrast to the 2009 provincial election in which Austin’s margin of victory in Kitimat was far more comfortable with 886 votes – 1,622 for NDP Austin compared to 736 for Liberal Donny van Dyk.
The difference might have had something to do with Leclerc, then an ex-Terrace city councillor, having a higher profile than the relatively-unknown van Dyk, but Baxter points to a Kitimat-specific reason.
“In the interval between the 2009 election and the one in 2013, Eurocan closed its pulp and paper mill in Kitimat at the beginning of 2010,” he says.
“Eurocan employed about 550 people of which one can reasonably conclude about 400 were left-leaning voters.”
With that workforce missing by the time the 2013 election arrived, Austin’s Kitimat vote total would have dropped, Baxter concluded.
Rio Tinto’s workforce has also declined by attrition since its rebuilt aluminum smelter requires fewer employees and that might now play a factor which could further erode the NDP vote next spring, Baxter suggests.
One unknown is how voters in Kitimat and elsewhere will respond to what will likely be the main theme of the Ross campaign – wealth and job creation through industrial development.
The two-term Haisla chief councillor, hand-picked by Premier Christy Clark to be the B.C. Liberal candidate in Skeena, is prominent among B.C. First Nations leaders in promoting a liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry.
“For him as a leader in his community, he’s always said he doesn’t want to administer poverty; he wants to administer wealth,” said Clark Sept. 12 at an event held at the Northwest Community College longhouse as she introduced Ross.
While strongly opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway oil pipeline and export terminal project, Ross has guided the Haisla to a series of economic deals which will provide both jobs and a Haisla taxation base should a LNG industry ever establish itself in the Kitimat.
“The promise of LNG, the heart of the B.C. Liberal campaign in 2013, hasn’t materialized but it still might have some appeal,” said Baxter.
Even if Ross ends up winning in Kitimat, he will still have to crack the solid NDP vote within the Skeena riding’s native communities.
That includes Ross’s home village of Kitamaat, easily won by Austin in 2013 by 126 votes to Leclerc’s 29.
It followed a pattern repeated from Austin’s 129 votes to B.C. Liberal van Dyk’s 59 in 2009. In the 2005 provincial election, Austin’s first Skeena victory, he gathered 194 votes in Kitamaat compared to the 24 collected by losing incumbent B.C. Liberal Roger Harris.
The NDP vote has been just as solid within the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum villages on either side of Terrace with the latter, for example, choosing Austin over Leclerc in 2013 by 107 votes to 11.
While there was no official from Kitsumkalum present Sept. 12 when Clark introduced Ross as her candidate, save for Kitsumkalum elder Sharon Bryant who gave a Tsimshian blessing, Kitselas First Nation chief councillor Joe Bevan was in attendance – and wearing an Ellis Ross campaign button.
Just as pronounced is the NDP vote in the Nisga’a Nation homeland of the Nass Valley, added to the Skeena riding beginning with the 2009 provincial election.
Nass voters in 2009 chose Austin by 487 votes over 46 for B.C. Liberal van Dyk, a margin repeated in 2013 when Austin gathered 434 votes to Leclerc’s 42.
Baxter has his doubts that having a Liberal First Nations candidate supported by other local First Nations leaders will automatically translate into a wholesale switch to that party by First Nations voters.
“There is a long history of those voters identifying with the NDP rather than the Liberals and there are a number of recent issues such as the Liberals’ support of Northern Gateway and perceived foot dragging on the Highway of Tears that will only have intensified that.”
They would also have to be convinced that switching horses is going to bring benefits that would not be available if they continued the traditional voting pattern, Baxter said.
For example, he points out that the Nisga’a have been just as astute as Ross in striking their own economic benefit agreements with senior governments and individual companies.
Using the provisions of the Nisga’a Final Agreement of 2000 and the overall thrust to include First Nations in economic development prospects, the Nisga’a have negotiated deals with mining companies and those who would build natural gas pipelines through their traditional and treaty lands to planned LNG plants near Prince Rupert.
They’re even promoting the use of Nisga’a and provincial lands for liquefied natural gas plants.
“Even before the  agreement, the Nisga’a were always independently-minded,” said Baxter. “And they have been able to achieve that with an opposition MLA.”
Ross is however on solid B.C. Liberal ground in Terrace and in Thornhill where that party’s candidate has consistently out-polled the NDP choice.
Even in 2009, when Austin took the riding with 50.77 per cent of the vote, he fell short by 180 votes in winning the two communities combined.
“Barring any sort of stumble by Clark, I really don’t see that changing,” said Baxter of the B.C. Liberal vote in the two communities.
“There’s been no dramatic change in the voter make up.”
Baxter does caution that a lot can change before next spring’s vote, including the prospect of several potential wild cards.
“If the Green Party runs a candidate that would take some votes from the NDP while a BC Conservative candidate would do the same to the Liberals,” he pointed out. “Plus there is the great unknown at this stage: how strong a candidate will the NDP field?”
Baxter is confident about one thing. “It is going to be a tight race.”
Quoted voting results do not include advance polls as the results cannot be directly broken down by community.