British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. Liberals court Indigenous vote with promise of economic opportunity

Three Indigenous leaders running for the B.C. Liberals are in ridings that all have a large base of Indigenous voters who tend to support the NDP, but not by large vote totals. When asked why they're running for a party many in their community have consistently rejected, all three are citing the economy.

NDP historically dominates in northern Aboriginal communities, but a swing could change the election map

Ellis Ross, left, Dallas Smith, centre, and Wanda Good, right, are three Indigenous leaders running for the B.C. Liberals in the provincial election, set for Tuesday. (Chris Corday/CBC)

In British Columbia politics, Indigenous voters are to the NDP as Texan voters are to the Republican Party: an unflinching bedrock of support, campaign after campaign. 

It's not surprising for polling stations in First Nations reserves to give the NDP upward of 80 per cent support in provincial elections. 

"I have family members that always voted NDP. When asked, they said that's because grandpa did it, and my dad did, and because of that, so will I," said Wanda Good.  

Wanda Good, deputy chief councillor for Gitanyow, is running for the B.C. Liberals in Stikine, the largest and least populated of the province's 87 electoral districts. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Good is the deputy chief councillor for Gitanyow, a community of around 800 just north of Kitwanga. More importantly, she's running for the B.C. Liberals in Stikine, a large riding in northwest B.C. that tends to elect NDP MLAs, but where the party won by just 907 votes over the Liberals in 2013.

She's hoping the NDP's dominance in First Nations communities comes to an end. 

"There is definitely a paradigm shift," Good said. "We're recognizing that in order to provide the services that we need in the north, we have to have a revenue base, a resource base. It's important to engage industry, it's important to protect the environment as well." 

Economy the dominant factor?

Ross is one of three Indigenous leaders running for the B.C. Liberals, and the ridings they hope to win have a number of things in common: they all have a large base of Indigenous voters who tend to consistently support the NDP — but not by wide margins.

And, when asked why they're running for a party that many in their community have consistently rejected, they're citing the economy.

"Every First Nation community that I've dealt with, they all want the same thing: they want to deal with their own issues on their own terms," said Ellis Ross, who was the chief councillor of the Haisla First Nation when he was appointed as the Liberal candidate in Skeena, a riding the party lost by just 522 votes in 2013.

Ellis Ross, the B.C. Liberal candidate in Skeena, stands outside the indefinitely delayed LNG Canada terminal site in Kitimat. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"They don't [want] to be under the Indian Act, under control of the federal government, they want … their own businesses, their own opportunities," said Ross, who has championed the liquefied natural gas industry, which has not taken hold in the region yet.

"That's what the B.C. Liberals have wanted all along. It's that common principle that we agree on."

Dallas Smith is the Liberal candidate on North Island  — which encompassed the top third of Vancouver Island — and the former president of the Nanwakolas Council.

"How reconciliation fits with job creation is important," he said.

"It's really important to build some economies in these First Nations communities … so we can withstand the downturns in commodities. They've been able to dictate too much on how much people work in this riding. The more diverse we can make the economy, the stronger we'll be to withstand those downturns." 

Level of provincial support unknown

It's clear the B.C. Liberals are trying to repair relationships with Indigenous communities after years of mistrust, partly stemming from their opposition 20 years ago to B.C.'s historic Nisga'a Treaty.

What is less clear is whether Indigenous people will respond favourably, even with candidates from their own communities. 

"For years, they've been ignored, their needs have been ignored, and suddenly come election time they're the flavour of the month," said Claire Trevena, the three-term NDP MLA in North Island who is seeking re-election. 

"Having First Nations candidates doesn't resolve the huge problems that this government has caused." 

And earlier this week, several First Nations leaders, including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, began a public campaign against the B.C. Liberals, arguing they've failed to prioritize Indigenous issues in favour of "corporate cronies."   

But if historic trends hold, the Liberals have a good shot at winning at least two of the three ridings if they can capture just half of the Indigenous vote, because of strong support expected from non-Indigenous constituents.

Will they? It's a question that everyone is wondering but won't be answered until election day. 

"I'm tired of waiting," said Smith. "I'm tired of First Nations used as political pawns. We want to help ourselves. My people want a job. They want to be able to provide for their families. 

"When First Nations succeed, B.C. succeeds. When B.C. succeeds, First Nations succeed."