British Columbia

B.C. Votes 2017: Nechako Lakes riding profile

A look at Nechako Lakes, one of the 87 electoral districts in British Columbia.

What does provincial politics look like in a riding where no community has more than 5,000 people?

No community in the Nechako Lakes electoral district, shown here, has more than 5,000 people. (Elections BC)

In advance of the 2017 B.C. election, we'll be profiling all 87 electoral districts in the province. Here is Nechako Lakes, one of the most unique ridings in the province, where John Rustad is going for a fourth term.

1. If there's one riding in the province that represents small-town B.C., it's Nechako Lakes.

"I think it's the only riding in the province that doesn't have a Starbucks," said three-term Liberal MLA John Rustad. He's almost right — Boundary-Similkameen doesn't have one either — but he's correct in that there's not a Venti to be found between Prince George and Smithers.

In between those two cities is Rustad's riding: a large, sprawling district, more than twice the size of Vancouver Island, where the largest municipality doesn't have even 5,000 people.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, things move at a slower pace in this riding than elsewhere in the province. In the 2006 census, the riding had the smallest percentage of new immigrants, and the largest percentage of people who hadn't moved in five years. The role of government is also a little bit different.

"Not all the types of government services that larger communities have are available, but ... the approach that people take is different," said Rustad, who is also Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.  

"They work together, they're very solution-oriented, trying to find ways to solve issues and improve their quality of life and what they can do. They don't necessarily look to government to look to do things." 

2. Rustad is running again. 

"The people and the communities like being proactive to solve issues, but they also need government to be there, and to work with them, which is what I try to do," he said. 

"It's important to make sure that the uniqueness of the area I represent is present and active and engaged when we develop policy, so that it doesn't inadvertently cause issues for rural areas."

Rustad will be the odds-on favourite to win again in May, having won his previous three elections by at least a 20 per cent margin over the NDP, which has only won a riding centred around Vanderhoof once in its history.

3. The B.C. Liberals haven't taken their edge here for granted, though.

Jason Morris, a political science professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, says the party has worked hard in the Prince George region to ensure its dominance. 

"The Liberals have always tried to treat the north [not as] the hinterland, but the heartland of the province, the economic engine," he said, crediting their dominance to both symbolic gestures — all four Northern B.C. MLAs in the Liberal caucus are cabinet members — and hard organizational work.

"The organization and the campaign teams and the resulting fundraisers make the Prince George area ridings really an indomitable force politically," he said. 

The NDP candidate is Annie Marie Sam, a councillor for the Nak'azdli Whut'en and former Nechako Lakes school trustee. 

She wasn't nominated until March 28, and Morris believes the NDP needs to do more building up the party outside of election campaigns in order to improve its long-term chances. 

"They have to look to build and build and build a little more each time, and that's in the trenches. More memberships, more volunteers for election campaigns, more people to donate money, all those little things that can gradually add to things as important as getting the vote out on election day."

4. Keep an eye on the B.C. Conservatives.

The demographics of this riding favour a stridently right-wing candidate, and in the 2013 election, Conservative Party candidate Dan Brooks got 12.7 per cent of the vote, the party's fourth best result.

But shortly after being elected head of the party for the second time in two years, Brooks was removed by the party's board recently, leaving its relevancy in Nechako Lakes for 2017 up in the air. 

6. Where does the NDP do the best?

It didn't win many polling stations in Nechako Lakes, but the NDP did quite well in the southern edge of Fort Saint James and the northern part of Burns Lake.

7. What about the B.C. Liberals?

Pretty much everywhere — but specifically the party won every single polling station in Vanderhoof and Houston.  

8. Is there anything that could stop Rustad from winning a fourth term?

Morris says it would take a large downturn in the forestry sector — the dominant industry in the riding — and a strong NDP candidate to put the riding in play. 

But even then, he believes the personal popularity of Rustad will put him in good stead come election day.

"He's a well-liked and respected person in this region," he said.

"That also goes a long way to getting support, even from individuals who may not be dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying Liberal members, but think of the man as a nice fellow." 

Who's running in the 2017 British Columbia election?