Why Maple Ridge might be the key to the B.C. election
The Fraser VaIley city has just two seats, but the NDP is playing defense on hot-button issues
There are few people, fewer moments of applause and zero campaign handshakes or hugs, but the in-person events B.C.'s political leaders are holding are still vitally important for getting a read on the priorities of each party in this election.
Which is why it was no coincidence both NDP Leader John Horgan and Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson were in Maple Ridge on Thursday.
The suburban municipality at the eastern edge of Metro Vancouver in the Fraser Valley is home to just two electoral districts, both won by the NDP in the last election.
But they were the second and third smallest margins of victory for the NDP in 2017, meaning they're close to the top of the Liberals' list of targeted ridings. The city has been the focus of passionate and high-profile debates around social housing and tent cities. And it was one of the municipalities that tacked to the right politically in the 2018 municipal election.
Add it up, and it's the type of riding the Liberals desperately need to regain power, and two of the most vulnerable seats for the NDP to lose with incumbents Bob D'Eith in Maple Ridge-Mission and Lisa Beare in Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows.
And it's part of the reason why the Liberal campaign has focused so far on a few very specific issues, key to ridings in places like Maple Ridge.
Crime and homelessness
David Uria, president of a local maintenance company, believes it will be the same issues that have animated Maple Ridge's political discussions for several years.
"It is the homelessness issue," he says.
After a multi-year tent city and dispute with the municipality over a solution, the province built a modular housing complex near the downtown core. Uria said concerns from nearby businesses about crime and homelessness have only grown.
"A lot of [unhoused] people are coming to Maple Ridge because it's well known and it's been publicized," he said.
It's why Wilkinson spent much of his event Thursday talking about the need for a new approach to the issue in B.C. — a point he made in a speech Wednesday, and the focus of another event planned for Friday — linking it to crime in several communities, including Maple Ridge.
"We need pathways to get people off drugs. We cannot confine people to a lifetime of drug addiction," he said.
Pocketbook versus social issues
"Your two MLAs are missing in action, and we want these community leaders to be [your] MLAs next election," said Wilkinson.
The two Liberal candidates in Maple Ridge looking to unseat the NDP incumbents have both been active in local politics: Cheryl Ashlie served on both city council and school board for more than a decade, while Chelsa Meadus was elected to city council in 2018.
Former mayor Nicole Read says that while homelessness was the top issue two years ago, the focus in the community has broadened to pocketbook issues and families staying ahead amid the pandemic.
But she says the city's skepticism toward the NDP's policies shouldn't be underestimated.
"You can put all the housing in the ground you want, but at the end of the day we don't have a mental-health centred treatment plan," she said.
"You see this sort of fear arrive, and the angst and anger, but really underpinning it is a lot of people do not trust the way the file is being handled."
In his own event in Maple Ridge Thursday, Horgan championed his government's efforts to end the tent city, but spent most of his time talking about childcare and the expanded access to $10 per day spaces for kids he would create if given a majority.
For most of it, he had to fight to be heard over a car alarm, set off in a nearby vehicle marked with a sign from a group called Wake Up Maple Ridge known for cleaning up needles and being critical of the government's modular housing plan.
The NDP have a message they want to get out in Maple Ridge on a broad range of topics this election.
Whether they will be heard is another question.
With files from Tanya Fletcher