British Columbia

B.C. Votes 2017: Nanaimo-North Cowichan riding profile

A look at Nanaimo-North Cowichan, one of the 87 electoral districts in British Columbia.

NDP MLA Doug Routley seeking a 4th term, but will have to defeat a former 4-term MLA from Alberta to do it

The riding spans the northern exurbs of Duncan, the southern part of Nanaimo and includes the upper half of the Southern Gulf Islands. (Elections B.C.)

In advance of the 2017 B.C. election, we'll be profiling all 87 electoral districts in the province. Here is Nanaimo-North Cowichan, one of 15 ridings on Vancouver Island — and one that features two long-time MLAs going head to head.

1. So, you're Alana Delong. It's 2015 and after 14 years as an MLA in Alberta, you and your husband decide to retire to idyllic Thetis Island, a small community of 350 people off the coast of Chemainus on Vancouver Island. How do you spend the spare time?

In Delong's case, by getting restless.

"I just, I guess, failed at being retired and started looking around. It wasn't that I was looking for things to do, but I was looking to accomplish things," the four-term Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary-Bow said. 

It wasn't long after trying to accomplish things as a citizen, rather than a politician, that conversations with the B.C. Liberals began.

"I had not been thinking about going back. I really hadn't, and then somebody suggested it to me, and my immediate reaction was yes," she said. 

Just 16 months after ending her Alberta provincial career, she was acclaimed as the party's candidate. So much for retirement. 

"I really did miss working, I really did. I loved being an MLA, the actual work of it, going to meetings, meeting with people, getting things done," said Delong, who took advantage of the early nomination by actively campaigning.

"It's been fantastic door knocking. Tremendous support, and it has given me a way of really getting to know the centre of the community and really getting to understand what the people really want here."

2. MLAs serving in multiple provinces are rare but not without precedent. 

Gulzar Cheema was previously a Manitoba MLA before moving to B.C. and becoming an MLA in Surrey for the B.C. Liberals. And people as wide ranging as John A. Macdonald, Tommy Douglas, and Stockwell Day have all been elected as MPs in this province after achieving political fame somewhere else first. 

And for her part, Delong notes she's no interloper — she was born in Nelson, raised in Victoria and graduated from UBC before moving to Calgary.     

3. Despite her undefeated streak in Alberta, Delong will be considered by most to be the underdog in North Cowichan-Nanaimo.

The riding spans from the north end of Duncan to the south end of Nanaimo — an area that has always supported the NDP provincially, outside the 2001 election where the NDP was reduced to two seats and part of the Cowichan-Malahat riding that went to the Social Credit Party in 1986.   

The NDP MLA, Doug Routley, has won all three of his elections by 2,500 to 4,500 votes: a comfortable, if not overwhelming margin. 

But Delong sees reasons for optimism. 

"An awful lot of people who have moved here, they moved there because of the climate, the lifestyle, and they worked hard to create a life for themselves, a lot of people have created their own small business. It's a real can-do attitude. It's a really positive attitude," said Delong. 

"So this myth about it being an NDP area, it's just not."

4. As with every riding on Vancouver Island, the Green Party is an X factor.

This was one of the worst ridings on the island for them last election, but they still received 13.7 per cent of the vote, finishing in second place on Gabriola and Thetis islands.

Their candidate this time is Lia Versaevel, a small business owner in Chemainus who has worked in family mediation. 

The party does well in the exurban areas between Nanaimo and Ladysmith, and Ladysmith from Duncan but not in the municipalities themselves. 

5. Where does the NDP do well? 

This is one of those areas of Vancouver Island where the NDP gets between 40 to 60 per cent in many places, rather than having huge blowout wins — but Gabriola Island, Kuper Island and the parts of Nanaimo south of Fourth Street (which were transferred to this riding in the last redistribution) are particularly favourable to them. 

6. What about the Liberals? 

It does best outside the major population centres and islands, in the exurban areas between Nanaimo and Ladysmith, and Ladysmith from Duncan. 

7. Add it up, and while it's an area that historically favours the NDP, it can't be taken for granted.

Routley is an incumbent. The NDP only loses here in elections that go very badly for them, and none of south Nanaimo, north Duncan or Ladysmith are particularly friendly to centre-right parties.

And yet, this has never been a blowout riding for the party, and the demographics — a little bit older, a little bit less ethnically diverse, plenty of middle-class incomes and a mix of small and mid-sized communities — are ones that today tend to favour right-wing parties in most of Canada. 

That hasn't applied to Vancouver Island recently — but that doesn't mean it never will. 

"Although mid-island there's this progressive reputation, associated with that is a strong populist culture," said long-time political scientist Norman Ruff, pointing out that federally, the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance dominated the region for over a decade. 

"Vancouver Island looks like an NDP stronghold, but it's not something that you can take for granted."