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Aboriginal voter key to 2013 NDP win in Skeena
Being an unrepentant political junkie, I dove into the official May 2013 provincial election numbers released last month by Elections BC with enthusiasm.
What makes these fascinating is they give you not just the total tally for Skeena for the candidates but also break down the votes into very specific areas.
So it is possible to see which way people voted in a group of a dozen or so streets on the Bench, in the Horseshoe and on the Southside.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to get that crazy.
But what I do want to do is look at trends over a longer timeline than the usual comparison between the past election and the one immediately before.
So I am going back into the last millennium – specifically the 1996 election – to see if voting patterns have changed in the intervening 17 years.
I have chosen that year because the face of Skeena was quite different back then, as in there was still something of a logging industry in Terrace while Kitimat boasted three major industries.
By last year’s election, Terrace had seen its forest industry all but vanish while Kitimat had suffered the closure of the Eurocan pulp and paper mill and Methanex methanol plant plus numerous jobs bleeding away from its only remaining industry, the aluminum smelter.
The idea was that comparing 1996 and 2013 should tell us what impact, if any, there had been from the de-industrialization of the Northwest as far as the fortunes of the two major parties – the provincial Liberals and the New Democratic Party – were concerned given unionized industries usually translate into extra NDP votes.
A couple of explanatory notes.
First, I have concentrated on the two major population centres of the riding – Terrace/Thornhill and Kitimat – since they theoretically would decide who won.
Second, I will deal only with margins of victory in those centres because looking at total votes will give a false picture given voter turnout plunged from about 70 per cent in 1996 to 55 per cent last year.
Third, I have not included the advanced poll results in those margins of victory because you cannot pin them down to a specific community.
Enough of the explanations, let’s get to the meat.
In 1996, the contest was between NDP incumbent Helmut Giesbrecht of Terrace and Liberal Rick Wozney, then mayor of Kitimat.
In Terrace/Thornhill, Wozney won by 197.
In Kitimat, it was Giesbrecht by 212.
So the battle of the centres went to the NDP by a mere 15.
In 2013, it was another NDP incumbent, Robin Austin, up against Liberal Carol Leclerc.
In Terrace-Thornhill, Leclerc won by 289.
In Kitimat, it was Austin but by only 33.
Liberals prevail by 256, a stunning reversal but clearly the result of that de-industrialization I mentioned earlier.
Now compare that with the overall Skeena vote where in 1996, Giesbrecht won by 635 and in 2013, it was Austin by 522.
How is it that the Liberals can actually win (or come oh so close) in the major centres but get thumped overall?
Two words: First Nations.
In 1996, Gitanyow pumped up the NDP margin by 100.
In Gitwangak, it was 130, in Kitsumkalum 103 and Kitamaat Village 244.
And the pattern was repeated in 2013.
The obvious conclusion is that even though the de-industrialization of the Northwest has favoured the Liberals in the major centres, they are never going to win Skeena unless there is a seismic shift in the First Nations vote.
Which would in turn require an equally dramatic shift in the BC Liberal Party’s approach on aboriginal issues.
And that would, in turn, require an equally dramatic shift in First Nations’ perception of the BC Liberals as being less sympathetic to their political and economic interests than the New Democrats.
Frankly, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Retired Kitimat Northern Sentinel editor Malcolm Baxter now lives in Terrace, B.C.