B.C.'s northerners resent Liberal snow job

The northern character...has been fashioned in a spirit of cautious defensiveness as a means of preserving what might at any moment be snatched away.

-- University of Toronto professor Claude Bissell, 1963

PRINCE GEORGE--Although there are many great divides in this politically polarized province, one that receives little attention in the media is the gap between British Columbia's north and south.

Yet the north is critically important to B.C.'s economy, providing much of the lumber, minerals, oil and gas, and other export commodities that make the province prosperous.

People up here and those even farther north are rightly suspicious that their views are often ignored and their concerns neglected by politicians of all stripes who focus on the vote-rich southern ridings.

But political parties that ignore the north do so at great risk, as Gordon Campbell discovered in the 1996 election. The B.C. Liberals' platform called for the privatization of BC Rail, and that single controversial policy was widely held responsible for the party winning only two of the region's 10 seats, leaving them in opposition to a reelected NDP government.

Campbell reversed that losing policy for the 2001 election but then broke his campaign promise last year by selling the profitable BC Rail to CN Rail for $1 billion (a figure that may shrink to $750 million if tax credits that formed part of the deal are rejected by the federal government).

Veteran Prince George broadcaster and columnist Ben Meisner says there is still anger in the region about the Campbell flip-flop, anger that won't be forgotten in the 2005 election. And Meisner warns that all parties should pay more attention to the north if they want to win seats here.

"The feeling here is that people from Williams Lake north are the forgotten flock," Meisner said in an interview, adding that the north's contribution to the economy is being ignored by both government and southerners.

"There is a growing split between 604 and 250 [area codes] that is driven by the 604, while the 250 are the fuel that fires the furnace," he said.

Meisner said he believes that there are two main political issues for northern voters in the 2005 election: BC Rail privatization and the economy.

Paul Ramsey, the former NDP cabinet minister who now teaches political science at Prince George's University of Northern B.C., sees it slightly differently.

Ramsey listed three top issues for northerners: health, economic diversification, and Gordon Campbell's broken promises, with the BC Rail deal a top example.

"The BC Rail deal is a huge issue, but not so much of what was done as what it shows about Campbell. How can you believe him?" Ramsey asked in an interview in Prince George. "People remember broken promises a long time up here.

"Not only are waiting lists longer but you have to travel further to get services," says Ramsey, a former health minister. And he doesn't see the Liberals doing anything to promote economic diversification in a region dependent on the boom and bust forest industry.

Meisner also sees trouble ahead for the forest industry in the north, with more lumber being currently produced than the market can bear and Canfor rationalizing its mill operations and cutting jobs.

Polling by Ipsos Canada shows that Ramsey and Meisner may be right that the Campbell government is in jeopardy. NDP support among northern residents is 44 percent compared to the Liberals' 32 percent, according to a September poll, while across B.C. the numbers were NDP 38 percent, Liberals 40 percent.

Premier Gordon Campbell's disapproval rating in the north was a whopping 72 percent, compared to 64 percent across the province, and 71 percent of northerners said the Liberals do not deserve to be reelected, versus 63 percent of all respondents. It should, however, be noted that the northern sample size was small, at only 84 people.

Meisner believes that the BC Rail deal could result in the defeat of Prince George North MLA Pat Bell--the minister of state for mining who was point man for the privatization--and the reelection of independent MLA Paul Nettleton of Prince Georgeí‚ ­Omineca, who opposed the sale. Nettleton quit the Liberal caucus when one-third of B.C. Hydro's operations were privatized, and he has been a constant critic of the Campbell Liberals ever since.

"The Liberals can't get rid of BC Rail as an issue," Meisner said. "There's a lot of bullshit in terms of what we were going to benefit from the sale of BC rail. We got a candy bar [in exchange] for an automobile."

Constant B.C. government advertising claims that the province is economically booming, but Meisner said northerners are neither forgetful of past problems nor getting too excited over modest growth.

"The economy picked up last year, but it has been in the toilet the last eight or nine years. We're not shooting out the lights," he said.

Ramsey, who also chairs an NDP platform-development committee, says right-wing alternative parties like Unity and Reform will not be as big a factor in 2005 as they were in 2001, and he believes the NDP can win in two-way fights in the north.

Meisner, who recently quit his radio show at CKPG in a dispute with management over content control, isn't convinced of an NDP resurgence. "People are looking for an opposition to the Liberals but not necessarily the NDP," he said.

Judging from a constant parade of Liberals through Prince George in recent weeks making announcements, from Forest Minister Mike de Jong to Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, the Campbell government has realized this city may be critical to its political survival.

"The government has to be cognizant of what happens in Prince George," Meisner said. And so, it appears, does the rest of the province.

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net.