British Columbia

B.C. Votes 2017: New Westminster riding profile

A look at New Westminster, one of the 87 electoral districts in British Columbia.

It's the oldest riding in the province — and for decades, one of the most likely to elect the NDP

The riding used to include the city's more suburban neighbourhood of Queensborough, but that was given to the new riding of Richmond-Queensborough. (Elections B.C.)

In advance of the 2017 B.C. election, we'll be profiling all 87 electoral districts in the province. Here is New Westminster, the only riding fully in the municipality.

1. The only riding in British Columbia that has existed in every election since Confederation, with approximately the same boundaries and name every time, is New Westminster. So let's talk about that first election. 

A merchant by trade, Henry Holbrook had been the de facto mayor of New Westminster for much of the 1860s as it grew to become the largest city in the Colony of British Columbia. 

He fought with James Douglas and other politicians from the Colony of Vancouver Island as the two regions merged, fought against the move to make Victoria the permanent capital, but supported Confederation and in the 1871 election, ran without opposition to become New Westminster City's first MLA.

He was named to Premier John McCreight's cabinet, but after opposition MLA Amor De Cosmos became premier following a non-confidence motion, Holbrook became the Opposition leader.

But he failed in his efforts to convince governments that the proposed transcontinental railway should prioritize New Westminster, and ultimately failed in his bid for re-election, losing to Robert Dickinson in 1875, 59 votes to 38.

(No, 19th century elections were not exactly democratic)

2. Today, New Westminster residents continue to have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the provincial government. 

Small and urban, sandwiched between much more prominent municipalities, New Westminster residents have long desired more services for their city, but haven't always been a priority for larger governments.

"Governments have been pretty good for helping, but there's always need for more, because it's such an old city," said Wayne Wright, who was mayor from 2002 to 2014. 

"They want to be part of new evolutions. They want to be protected. They want to be getting some respect" he said, mentioning the ongoing debate over the future of the Pattullo Bridge, and concerns over increased train traffic, as current hot-button issues.

"But they don't have people that are in the ruling parties usually. It's been an NDP town, the NDP has never been in the big position, so it's hard to get their ear." 

3. The city has indeed "been an NDP town" for over 60 years.

The city generally did elect government MLAs from the first half of the 20th century, including two-term premier Boss Johnson, but has solely elected NDP/CCF members since 1952 with the exception of the 2001 election, when the NDP was reduced to just two seats.

"This was a mill town, and a physical working town," said Wright.

"Now, we're getting people in a little bit of a higher level of occupation, which means things might change in the politics ... but they're still looking at progressive things that need to be done." 

4. NDP MLA Judy Darcy is running for re-election.

That normally wouldn't be significant, but the party has had different winning candidates in 2005 (Chuck Puchmayr), 2009 (Dawn Black) and 2013, so Darcy's incumbency figures to be an extra advantage.

"I can't go to the bank, the credit union, a coffee shop, the grocery store, without people coming up and talking to me about an issue," said Darcy, the NDP's health critic. 

"There is high name recognition ... people have seen me fighting for health care and seniors care and for the high school."

5. The Green Party have a high-profile candidate.

Jonina Campbell was New Westminster's school board chair for three years, but stepped down in October to become the party's candidate.

Green Party candidates in New Westminster have been within one percentage of the party's overall vote total in each of the last four elections — making it an open question how well someone with Campbell's name recognition can do.

The B.C. Liberal candidate is Lorraine Brett, the marketing manager at Inspired Senior Living Media. 

6. Where does the NDP do well? 

The party does broadly well throughout the riding, gaining between 45 and 60 per cent of the vote in the majority of ridings, as opposed to dominating in one area. They also tended to lose some polling stations in Queensborough, but that neighbourhood has been moved into the Richmond-Queensborough riding. 

7. What about the Liberals? 

It tends to do best in the neighbourhoods to the immediate east and west of Queen's Park, along with the new apartments built along Quayside Drive.

8. Nearly 150 years since it was first contested, the unique identity of the riding still matters

Darcy was passionate when talking about the city's new immigrants, condos, the issues of traffic congestion, and much more. 

But she may have been most animated when we described New Westminster in the context of "suburbia around Vancouver" — a characterization she took issue with. 

"New Westminster has never and will never consider itself a suburb," she said. 

"It was the first capital of British Columbia, it has a very distinct identity as a city. It doesn't consider itself a suburb at all."