B.C. Votes 2017: Peace River South riding profile
It's an area of the province that has suffered economically but has never gone to the NDP
In advance of the 2017 B.C. election, we'll be profiling all 87 electoral districts in the province. Here is Peace River South, one of eight ridings in northern B.C. — and one where natural resources and the economy come into sharp focus.
1. Economically, it has not been the greatest two years for northeastern B.C.
After years of oil and gas fuelling growth in the Peace Region, the worldwide downturn in prices has meant the majority of rigs now sit unused. Unemployment, once so low that it was impossible to effectively measure, is now over 10 per cent. LNG, once believed to be the economic development that would sustain growth in the region for decades, has not come to fruition.
And in Tumbler Ridge, 700 people in the town of 3,000 lost their jobs after the three coal mines owned by Walter Energy shut down in 2014 and 2015.
- Chetwynd residents help out neighbours in struggling Tumbler Ridge
- Gas industry downturn devastating Fort Nelson B.C.
- Risk of abandoned oil and gas wells on the rise in B.C.
But their mayor expects he'll vote for the B.C. Liberals.
"People like the Liberal policies. They promote responsible resource development," said Mayor Don McPherson.
"I think our Liberal government is doing the right thing. They're heading in the right direction. We're not there yet, but we're getting there."
2. His attitude reflects the political culture of the Peace Region.
They're east of the Rocky Mountains geographically, and culturally it's much like rural Alberta: where towns are centred around a natural resource industry, virtually everyone owns a truck, and there's a pride in delivering things — be it oil, gas, coal or, around Dawson Creek, even farming — that the rest of the world uses.
"This fall, I saw that the mayor of Vancouver and Victoria are coming down against pipelines. Those are the things that make us survive," said McPherson.
"When they turn on their light switch down there, that stuff comes from here. It really bothers me that they don't consider that when they're making their statements."
3. Little wonder, then, that the region has supported the B.C. Liberals.
The Peace Region got divided into two ridings prior to the 1956 election (generally divided by the Peace River itself), and neither riding has ever voted for the NDP.
Peace River South, which includes the municipalities of Dawson Creek, Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge and Pouce Coupe, voted for the Social Credit Party for decades and the B.C. Liberals have won it comfortably since 2001.
4. MLA Mike Bernier was the mayor of Dawson Creek before he was elected to his first term in 2013.
Bernier was appointed education minister in 2015, and while there are many ridings where education funding could be a significant local issue, Peace River South doesn't look to be one of them — several schools were given funding for renovations in the last year, and only one school, in the small community of Rolla, is under threat of closure.
5. When it comes to the Peace Region, the Liberals typically have to worry about opposition from the right, but that might not be the case this year.
In 1996, the Reform Party managed to take the riding under leader Jack Weisgerber. In 2001, the Social Credit party managed to finish second here — the last time they were remotely competitive in B.C. In 2013, the Conservative Party thought they had a real chance here, and former RCMP detachment commander Kurt Peats finished with 27 per cent of the vote, the party's best result.
But the Conservative Party has been in disarray for years, and while two well-known independent candidates are running in Peace River North, nobody has stepped forward in Peace River South.
The NDP candidate is Stephanie Goudie, the CUPE rep for for a number of Dawson Creek public services.
As for Peats? Last week he announced he was supporting the Liberals.
6. Where does the NDP do well?
It has won the sole polling station in the large northwest corner of the district, containing the West and East Moberly Lake reserves, but that's been their only consistent place of strength. The southern edge of Dawson Creek is the only other area of the riding where they tend to get close to the B.C. Liberals
7. What about the Liberals?
The party is strong across the board here, but particularly so in eastern Chetwynd, gaining upwards of 65 per cent of the vote last election. They also have succeeded in rural regions near the Alberta border, though Peats cut into that support greatly last election.
8. The riding isn't monolithically in favour of all resource extraction — but it's still the lens through which most political discussions are had.
There is regular talk of what the Site C dam will mean, though much of the construction will be in Peace River North. Wind farms have become prominent throughout the region.
And Tumbler Ridge itself has been actively promoting its geopark and the dinosaur bones and waterfalls inside it as a tourist attraction.
But for McPherson and so many others, that doesn't change the fundamental dynamic of living and working in northeast B.C.
After all, things are looking up: two of the coal mines have just reopened.
"Our geopark is just awesome, but I don't think the town can survive on a geopark," he said.
"You've got to depend on the resources, and that's what makes us."