British Columbia

B.C. Votes 2017: Kootenay East riding profile

A look at Kootenay East, one of the 87 electoral districts in British Columbia.

With Bill Bennett stepping down, the NDP hopes to take the only seat in the Kootenays it didn't win in 2013

The main communities in the riding are Cranbrook, Fernie, Elkford and Sparwood (Elections B.C. )

In advance of the 2017 B.C. election, we'll be profiling all 87 electoral districts in the province. Here is Kootenay East, one of four ridings in the Kootenays — and the only one that has stayed loyal to the B.C. Liberals in the last decade.

1. Fourteen of British Columbia's 85 MLAs aren't running for re-election, but none leaves as great of a rhetorical void as the man known as "Kootenay Bill."

"People understand Bill. He's a straight shooter," said Cranbrook city councillor and B.C. Liberal candidate Tom Shypitka, who is looking to replace outgoing Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett as the riding's MLA.  

"One way or the other, you knew what Bill was going to say. There was never any question marks," said Shypitka, perhaps understating the point

2. But Bennett won four straight elections in Kootenay East, the last three as the only Liberal elected from the four Kootenay ridings.

Bennett spent much of the time as a cabinet minister, which tends to help one's re-election prospects. And the riding is economically supported by the mining sector and Alberta tourism — two things it has in abundance compared to other Kootenay ridings. 

"This riding does relatively well. It does better than a lot of rural areas of the province," said Bennett of his riding in southeast B.C., which is centred around Cranbrook and the Elk Valley communities of Elkford, Fernie and Sparwood. 

"You don't see the same boom and bust you do see in lots of communities that are one-horse towns."

3. With the Liberals hoping to keep a seat with a retiring MLA, and the NDP sensing an opportunity to sweep the Kootenays, both sides have chosen strong candidates.

The B.C. Liberal chose Shypitka, who defeated former Kootenay-Columbia Conservative MP David Wilks for his party's nomination. He's also represented B.C. three times at the Briar, Canada's national curling championship.

The NDP candidate is Randal Macnair, a former two-term mayor in Fernie, where he also served as a city councillor. 

The Green candidate is Yvonne Prest, a secondary school teacher.

4. From 2011 to 2016, Fernie grew by 16.7 per cent — something Macnair is hoping to use to his advantage. 

"What's good for Fernie is good for Cranbrook is good for Elkford. We're all in this together. I see what happened in Fernie as something that needs to happen for the entire region," said the former mayor, who doesn't believe he'll be at a disadvantage because his Liberal rival represents Cranbrook, the riding's largest city. 

"I'm a small business person, and that's playing pretty well. My first job here was in Cranbrook, immersing myself in the culture and community, working for the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel.

5. Like many ridings in rural B.C., it's one with clashes between urban and rural concerns and environmental and economic ones. 

"We're very concerned about our ungulate population," said Shypitka.

"That's probably the most contentious and most emotionally charged issue we have. There's a lot of people who live here to hunt, but there's a lot of people who have moved here that don't hunt, and they don't really see eye to eye. There's a bit of a wedge between those two groups," he said. 

"It puts a wedge between rural and urban B.C., and I think the people in the rural ridings really respect the fact there are people in the B.C. Liberal party that want to tear those wedges down and represent their riding as best they can."

6. Where do the Liberals do well? 

Bennett got over 70 per cent of the vote in the traditional coal town of Sparwood last election and also dominated in Cranbrook's southern suburbs.

7. What about the NDP? 

It often wins a plurality of votes in the centres of Fernie and Cranbrook, the riding's two biggest cities.

8. Put it together, and both parties are aware of the importance Kootenay East has in this election.

"The NDP always feels like it smells blood in this riding," said Bennett. 

"In 2005, 2009 and 2013, it always seemed like the NDP felt this was the year. It never was."

But he concedes that if there's a change here this time, it likely means a change in premiers.

"This is one of the original swing ridings in B.C. If something happened so that we lost, I think it would be a sign of a fairly significant change in government."