British Columbia

B.C. Votes 2017: Stikine riding profile

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

How do you represent the riding that has the biggest area and the smallest population in the province?

The riding of Stikine encompasses the entire northwest quarter of British Columbia. (Elections BC)

In advance of the 2017 B.C. election, we'll be profiling all 87 electoral districts in the province. Here is Stikine, one of eight ridings in Northern B.C., and easily the most difficult — from a logistics standpoint — to represent.

1. Travelling across Stikine, which encompasses virtually all of northwestern B.C., is not exactly easy. 

It takes Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert 20 minutes to walk from one end of his riding to the other. It takes Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson 21 hours.

By car. 

"If I had to walk it, you might not see me for a year," says the two-term NDP MLA, who tries to visit as many of the far-flung communities that make up his giant riding as possible.

While the bulk of the riding is centred along Highway 37 from Telkwa to the B.C.-Yukon border, it can be hours-long flights or drives to get to Stewart, Atlin and some the Indigenous communities in the north.

"Those are really interesting drives. You definitely want to pack food and even a sleeping bag, because you don't know how long it might take to get somewhere. It's just an amazing part of the world."

2. Having a "fair" riding for the region has always been difficult. 

Even with a riding that's geographically eight times the size of Vancouver Island, Stikine had an estimated population in 2014 of just 20,616 people, that's 61.2 per cent under the provincial average.

It means the principle of "representation by population" is unbalanced here, but changing that would require eliminating one of Northern B.C.'s eight ridings.

That would make Stikine even bigger and more difficult to represent — which is why provincial governments have not allowed significant changes to ridings in Northern B.C., even as their populations have shrunk relative to the rest of the province.

But it could be worse, and in fact was once: until 1991, northwest B.C. was represented by the riding of Atlin, which didn't include Smithers or the Hazeltons. For decades, fewer than 2,000 people would vote in that riding, compared to 20,000+ in some Lower Mainland districts. 

3. The region is the bulwark of the NDP's northern support. 

As a general rule of thumb, northwest B.C. tends to favour the NDP, while northeast B.C. favours the B.C. Liberals. But the Stikine region, in particular, leans orange: the NDP and its predecessor, the CCF, have only lost the most northwest riding in the province four times in the last 19 elections. 

4. Wanda Good is the Liberal candidate. 

Wanda Good, the deputy chief councillor for Gitanyow who has been a leading advocate for better bus service in the region, was named the party's candidate in November. 

Donaldson says he plans to critique the Liberals on their party's record and rhetoric.

"[Good] is going to have to answer for the record of the Christy Clark government, and part of that record is the premier calling hereditary chiefs from this area who disagreed with her position on the development of Lelu Island as a ragtag group of people," said Donaldson.   

"That divisiveness is not how we live our lives up here."

5. Where does the NDP do well? 

All of the Indigenous communities in the Hazelton region go heavily for the NDP, with numbers not seen in nearly any other riding in the entire province. In Kitwanga, for example, Donaldson got 146 votes last election, while his Liberal challenger got just 5. And in the area from the northern edge of Kispiox to the north edge of Hazelton, Donaldson received 464 votes, compared to just 17 for the Liberal challenger. 

6. What about the Liberals?

The Liberals tend to win every area of Smithers — the largest population centre in the riding — outside of the city centre. And not many people typically vote in the small town of Stewart, but 68 per cent of those that did on election day last time cast a ballot for the B.C. Liberals.

7. Donaldson knows every vote counts ...

In a riding so large, getting to every door is a challenge in a five-week campaign, but he says that's always his goal.

"It might take eight hours to get to a door, if I have to drive up to Dease Lake ... but door knocking is an essential part of campaigning here. People want to know their candidate personally and have a relationship with their candidate," he said. 

8. ... And so does the entire riding.

After all, prior to the 1979 election, Frank Arthur Calder was considered a favourite for re-election in this neck of the woods.

The Nisga'a poltician, the first elected Aboriginal MLA in Canada, had served in office for 26 of the last 30 years, switching parties from the NDP to Social Credit without losing support.

Calder didn't vote in 1979. One published version of the story said he and his wife hadn't gotten around to voting. Another version said he cast an absentee ballot in Terrace, but it wasn't counted because he failed to sign the ballot envelope

It's unknown exactly what happened. What isn't unknown is the final result: Calder lost the seat of the Atlin to NDP candidate Al Passarell, 750 votes to 749. 

With files from Richard Zussman