British Columbia·Analysis

Why British Columbia may actually matter this federal election

With the most electoral districts west of Ontario (42), and provincial polls showing no one party dominating, the potential exists for an election night where the five million people west of the Rockies determine which party ends up forming government. 

Pipeline politics and SNC-Lavalin will be a factor — but so will changing fortunes of NDP and Greens

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan making an announcement at the BC Hydro Trades Training Centre in August, during one of Trudeau's many trips to B.C. in the summer (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In one sense for British Columbia, this is a federal election like any other. 

With the most electoral districts west of Ontario (42), and provincial polls showing no one party dominating, the potential exists for an election night where the five million people west of the Rockies determine which party ends up forming government. 

Of course, says UBC political scientist Gerald Baier, that's said before most elections.

"And most of the time the government is usually decided before we really start counting here."

Liberal sources have told CBC News that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will officially kick off the federal election campaign Wednesday morning.

B.C. has a chance of occupying a greater share of national attention this year for a variety of reasons. 

To start with, two of the biggest policy issues have roots in Canada's westernmost province: the Trans Mountain pipeline purchase will put a focus on battleground ridings through which the new pipeline would run, creating a new spin on the age-old "economy vs. environment" debate. 

Meanwhile, the SNC-Lavalin affair will put a spotlight on the Vancouver-Granville riding, where Jody Wilson-Raybould is seeking re-election as an independent after being expelled from the Liberal party

However, there are other factors creating a large number of competitive ridings for all the major parties. 

"I actually think pound for pound B.C. has the most interesting races of them all," said David Moscrop, a political scientist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa.

Liberals historically don't do well in B.C.

Traditionally, B.C.'s political map at the federal level was straightforward: the Liberals would win seats in Vancouver —and occasionally other big population centres — while the NDP and the dominant right-wing party of the day would battle throughout the rest of the province.

This time, two factors are different. First, the Liberals won 17 seats in B.C. last election — more than triple their average in B.C. since 1972 — many in areas of the province where they hadn't been competitive in the past (including the Fraser Valley and Kelowna). This has created a number of Liberal ridings that are hard to forecast, and part of the reason Prime Minister Trudeau has spent so much time in the province in recent months. 

 

"There still are some safe [seats] for each particular party ... but it's a bit of a battleground," said Moscrop.

The other factor is less of a sudden change, and more of a continuing trend: the increasing popularity of the Green Party on Vancouver Island, where there are seven ridings in total. 

Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau chalked up part of the party's success on the Island to strong candidates like federal leader Elizabeth May and provincial leader Andrew Weaver, but also to people's connection with the land.    

"People spend a lot of time ... being in nature, going for hikes in the forests, and spending time in the ocean, and I think that connection aligns them with thinking more about sustainability and ecology," she said.  

But while the Green Party has elected five MLAs and MPs on Vancouver Island, they have none in the rest of province. Will that change this election?

No one dominant region, no one dominant issue

Add in B.C.'s geographic complexity, which creates several distinct regions — and different voting patterns — within the province, and it's hard to say that any one policy will dominate discussion. 

"Climate change, the environment and broadly pipeline politics ... plays a lot here in British Columbia," said Baier. 

"[But] general economic performance and affordability would be another. And then immigration I think is probably something that people will want to talk about too." 

We won't know for some time how the chips are likely to fall on election night. But if Prime Minister Trudeau's scheduled visit on Wednesday to Vancouver-Kingsway is any indication, B.C. will be visited early and often during the campaign.

Even if election night ends up being similar to those of past years. 

"In 2015 ... the election was called before they hit Manitoba and that was it. There was no chance that B.C. was going to play a significant role," said Moscrop. 

"This time around it might be different. If it's meant to be a close election, it might in fact come down to British Columbia."

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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