Election 2015: resource ridings seek economic answers

Places like Prince George, B.C., have been Tory blue for decades. But with traditional economies dealing with low commodity prices, other parties' messages might have some appeal, a political science professor says.

Low commodity prices have Conservatives defending economic strategy in some resource heavy ridings

Stephanie Mrdeza with her daughter. After a coal mine closed, she went from making $40 per hour as a chemical engineer to minimum wage as a grocery store clerk. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Party leaders continue to promise more jobs for Canadians if they're elected.

For voters like Stephanie Mrdeza, it's a promise that has very personal implications.

"I think everyone's struggling because the economy has gone down, the oil's gone down, the mining … I'm very scared about my future," she said.

Mrdeza lives in Prince George, B.C.,  now, but until a coal mine closed up the road in Chetwynd, she and her partner were employed there.

Now she works at a grocery store, and he works in a warehouse and drives a truck.

"I went from being paid close to $40 an hour and now I'm making minimum wage," she said.

Ridings with resource economies such as Prince George-Peace River-North Rockies, where Mrdeza will cast her ballot, are largely held by the Conservatives.

But with many people and local economies hurting from low commodity prices, could other parties make inroads with a message of change?

One question, many answers

The economy was the focus at a debate last month in Prince George, and the parties offered different messages.

NDP candidate Kathi Dickie, who travelled 800 kilometres to be at that debate from one end of the riding to the other, says a reliance on raw material exports is part of the problem.

"Living in the north as long as I have, I've seen the boom and bust," she said. "It's always boom and bust. We need to find a way to stabilize the economy, to develop our resources in a sustainable, responsible way."

Conservative incumbent Bob Zimmer said free trade is the answer.

"The commodity prices are low so that's why things are slow. Our job is to keep those gates open as much as possible. So that when those commodities come back, those lanes are open to trade, and jobs as a result," he said.

Liberal candidate Tracy Calogheros, from the nearby riding of Cariboo-Prince George, says the best way to create jobs is to invest in infrastructure.

Depends on the resource

According to UBC political science professor Gerald Baier, some resource ridings held by the Conservatives could be vulnerable — but it depends largely on what the resource is.

"Ridings with mining usually tend to have more of a union presence, and unions have become better at understanding that secondary processing is important and they have an ability to communicate that to their members," Baier said. "And of course, the NDP is more likely benefit from the support of the unions."

But in ridings where unions are weaker, the Conservatives are probably safer.

"Oil and gas [ridings] would be an example of this, I think there's more of a willingness to say, 'Well, we just gotta keep pumping the stuff or dig, dig, dig in order to keep the jobs going," he said. "They want to see policies that prioritize resource extraction instead of climate change."

For example, despite low oil prices hurting Northern Alberta, he expects those ridings to stick with the Conservatives. Northern B.C. might be the NDP's best bet of stealing seats from the Tories.

Not much hope

For Prince George's Stephanie Mrdeza, the economy is her biggest problem, but she's not counting on the election to fix it.

"I should pay more attention to it, to our economy, to how people are running it," she said. "It's hard going from a very high paying job to something where you're just surviving. But I'm doing the best that I can."

She says she hasn't heard anything from any of the parties that gives her much hope for the future.

To hear the full story, click on the audio labelled: Are the Conservatives weak in some resource communities?

With files from Liam Britten


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